Around Painting: Marcia Hafif in conversation with Michael Ned HolteSeptember 2015
Marcia Hafif. The Inventory: Painting
Laguna Art Museum
MICHAEL NED HOLTE: I want to begin with a statement I’ve heard you make, which is, “I don’t think of myself as a painter.”
MARCIA HAFIF: I do use paint. I paint my canvases, but I’m not a painter in another sense, in the sense of I just think my interest is not the same as what comes to mind when you think of the name “painter.” A painter is doing what? Copying nature, perhaps, creating abstractions, and everything in between, and I’m doing none of those. I’m using paint in a kind of experiment to find out what happens with the paint, and I have done many different series, some of them more directly experimental regarding the paint.
That primarily, or most strongly, was what I was doing with the Mass Tone paintings in the early 1970s when I bought examples of every color of pigment I could find, and taught myself how to make paint. I found the tools one needs to make paint—a flat glass plate, roughened up, and a glass muller to grind the pigment into oil, making paint.
When I was satisfied with the paint that I made, I painted it onto a prepared canvas, so the experiment was there in observing what happened after I did that. I found out all sorts of things about pigments that are used for making paint. Some absorb oil very readily, some don’t. Some throw it off after time. Some dry with a nice, even surface some don’t. Alizarin Crimson was always grainy and very transparent, and very dark where it’s a little thicker. Viridian was another color that I liked very much, but I might arrive at a good coating of the Viridian paint that I made, and the next day find that there were runs in it that I didn’t expect, that weren’t there when I was painting. It wasn’t a question of what color. It was a question of, “What does this paint—this pigment—do when I do that with it?” I wanted to use all of the colors—each of the colors that I had or could find—and explore each one of them.
HOLTE: So seriality becomes in some way part of that experiment, because there is a control group and a variable, and the variable is color.
HAFIF: Yes, it’s a whole series of works with that same technique. So with that first group, there were around 56 colors, and I learned a lot. And the most important thing I learned from them, aside from how to turn them into paint, was that these colors were so beautiful unmixed with other colors. Viridian, or Alizarin, each one of them, would already be at its height in its beauty. If I mix anything with it, I reduce it; make it less, less, less. That’s probably what led me to stay with monochrome—monochrome at least in the sense that I’m usually not mixing the paint. With some series I have mixed paint. But I still have always found—still and always—that the color unmixed is more beautiful than the mixed ones.
HOLTE: The monochrome is the mode—if that’s the right word—that you’re most associated with. I want to attend to the wide variety of things that you do and have done as an artist, but I think we should talk about the monochrome and why we might put the word “monochrome” in quotes when we talk about it, as I have seen you do.
HAFIF: Have I? Perhaps. Probably. It’s just that I don’t feel about monochrome that I’m making any sort of manifesto. I am using a monochrome form because in doing that I can essentially avoid creating an abstraction. Also, if you were testing Viridian and that’s what you want to know, you would cover the whole area that you’re painting, rather than leaving something undone. But not necessarily.
HOLTE: You used to be part of a group of painters, including Olivier Mosset and others, united around the question of the monochrome, but at some point you all decided you were interested in different things?
HAFIF: Well, we met to talk about our painting. The way a person, a painter would fit in this group would be that this person is painting a whole surface one color—essentially one color. Then it became quite clear, when we talked enough, that we each had very different reasons for choosing to do that, so each one had a different rationale for what can loosely be called monochrome, which is why it’s not a term that interests me very much.
I think I was just using a monochrome form, rather than making monochrome works. I have continued to do that in many different series, although in those eventual series I mixed colors and I made different choices of what was happening in the series. But each series would be consistent within itself. If in the Roman Painting series, for instance, I’m using white, red, yellow, and blue mixed, that was the case for all of the paintings in the group. It was not just one that turned out that way.
HOLTE: Right. Seriality offers you a way to reveal difference from one painting to the next, and most often your paintings are seen in groups—which would also shape the understanding of what “monochrome” means.
HAFIF: Yes. One could say, perhaps, that one painting is enough, but one isn’t enough for the artist because the next one will be somewhat different, and there is the thought that the next one may be better and the next one too may be better, because there are so many parameters to a painting. What is the size of the painting? This makes a tremendous difference. Even how thick the stretcher is; then the painting is perceived differently. And what is its relation to another if they should be seen together? Or—there are a lot of reasons. Sometimes, as in the Mass Tone Paintings, it was just to have a chance to see each one of the colors. So I needed to paint each one of them. But in the Roman Paintings, they’re all quite different too.
HOLTE: How did the Roman Paintings come about?
HAFIF: The Roman Paintings have a double reference for me. My first notion about them was that I was recording, remembering the colors of the walls in Rome, where I lived for nearly eight years, and the second was that I was using a technique, a mixture of colors I would use if I were painting flesh colors— red, yellow, blue and white— because with those colors you can create quite a range of flesh colors from light to dark to pink to red, and so on. At that point too, I thought: “I’ve worked with all the colors that could be used in a traditional painting to represent clothing, nature, sky, but not flesh—the flesh of the painting. So now I need to make that flesh.”
HOLTE: And the Roman Paintings were one of the first series that you made after moving to New York?
HAFIF: No, no. The Roman Paintings were later, beginning in 1985. The first so-called monochromes came in New York in 1972. I had been in California as an MFA student at the University of California, Irvine, experimenting with different kinds of work, essentially photography and film, but was also in contact with artists who were using performance and other ways of working.
I then decided, “Well, I’m a painter and I’m going to New York because there I will find a confraternity of painters.” I went to New York and didn’t see a way to fit into any current painting there. I spent a few months experimenting and finding that whatever came to mind, whatever experiment I might make, only showed me something I had already seen or already done, and that was not what I wanted to do. “So if I can’t put two colors together, I won’t.” I began exploring with the vertical stroke pencil drawings and would cover the entire sheet of paper with those pencil marks.
HOLTE: And those drawings are always made from top left to bottom right?
HAFIF: Usually. Not always. [Laughs.] At first, they were top left to bottom right, but quite soon they were bottom to top and then top to bottom. Then, soon after that, I discontinued most of those other ways, and further systems turned up. In some cases, I would make a column of vertical marks and then another column, or I would make a little jog somewhere that would cause a wave to occur in the strokes. But I preferred eventually the top left to bottom right, and that’s the pattern I used in the paintings for the most part. The paintings, too, almost always—not always, but almost—begin with paint at the upper left, moving across and down the surface to finish at the bottom right.
HOLTE: There is a relationship to reading and writing in that progression from top left to bottom right. And both have been persistent activities for you.
HOLTE: In 1978, you wrote an essay called “Beginning Again.” It was published in Artforum, and it was a consideration of painting at that moment.
HAFIF: Well, I’d like to correct that date a little bit, because I had begun writing probably in 1974 or earlier. My habit was to make my paintings working on a large table. Then, having a thought about painting, I would make a note on a piece of paper and just leave it on the table. Gradually I had quite a stack of notes, thoughts about painting, and would reread the notes, thinking, “Maybe I can make an essay out of this.” I was writing ”Beginning Again” from at least 1973 or 1974, until being contacted by Artforum to publish something. So it grew over time and was published in September 1978.
HOLTE: “Beginning Again” is a consideration of artists working in paint at that time, including people like Robert Ryman and Ralph Humphrey.
HAFIF: Well, of course, I had looked around at other artists, and I had noted them or even published their paintings in the context of the essay. I referenced a lot of different painters and groups in the essay. Dale Henry, for example, whom not so many people know about, and also work from Europe that had not been recognized clearly in New York, such as the Supports/Surfaces group in France. 
I published the essay in Artforum in September and, very quickly, Olivier Mosset, whom I had recently met, was in touch with me and saying, “That was interesting.” He also was making monochrome paintings and suggested we get together and talk about that and perhaps gather other people to talk with us.
Then somehow certain works came to my attention that I had not talked about in the essay, partly due to an exhibition that was organized by Michael Walls at Susan Caldwell Gallery, In the Realm of the Monochrome. Artists in this show ranged from Robert Mangold to, I think, Robert Ryman. There were a couple of people I knew but hadn’t seen their paintings close up, like Jerry Zeniuk, and I thought, “Well, that’s monochrome. I wonder why he’s doing that. [Laughs.] And Frederic Thursz, I wonder why he’s doing that.” So Olivier and I discussed them, and we thought of Stephen Rosenthal, what he was doing. I mean, he wasn’t exactly painting at the time. He was dealing with canvas, scoring the canvas and dyeing it with ink, but in a one-color kind of way. In Europe there were many exhibitions about painting, or painting about painting. In fact, I made a trip to Rome where I found the new work of Carmen Gloria Morales, whom I had known earlier though not as a monochromist. And she was using graphite in a similar way to what I was doing, in the sense that she was not creating an image but using the materials to cover the surface. So it was useful for me that I was going to Europe from time to time, and I would get to know about artists who might not have been noticed in New York and certainly not in Los Angeles. I wanted to point out that there were a number of artists who, for different reasons, were making something close to monochrome paintings.
HOLTE: You also referenced Jacques Derrida in that essay, and you quoted his phrase, “under erasure” as a way of thinking about painting.
HAFIF: I did. At that time I was reading Of Grammatology. And I am not putting myself out as a philosopher, nor did I understand everything that he was trying to say, but some of his wordings were very meaningful to me, such as “under erasure,” as I understood them, which may not be the way he did.
HOLTE: It occurred to me that there probably wasn’t a lot of consideration of those ideas in relationship to painting at that time. It’s also a period in the New York art world during which I’d guess a lot of attention was going to everything but painting. But there was a growing interest in Derrida and French poststructuralist thinking. What else were you reading then?
HAFIF: I was also reading Husserl. Again, I’m not a philosopher, but Husserl had things to say that were meaningful to me. I wrote a second essay called “Getting On With Painting” that was published in Art in America a few years later in which I did actually publish reproductions from the artists who made up the group that we were talking about.
HOLTE: It’s interesting to hear that “Beginning Again” was started much earlier than it was published. The essay is very historical. You talk about a number of your contemporaries, but you also talk about Malevich and you talk about modernism and writing from a historically informed perspective. But, given the title of the essay, I gather there was an interest in having a new point of origin or a new point of entry for thinking about how one might use paint. Were you wrestling with the legacy of Greenberg in that criticism?
HAFIF: Not so much Greenberg, because I felt very little connection with him, certainly not with the kind of Color Field work that grew out of Greenberg’s thinking. I had read some of his writing and was interested in the idea of the material—the work coming from the material. But I wanted to get away from the Color Field concept. In fact, in later years, if my work was called Color Field, I felt that was wrong. When I was working in Italy, Noland was an interest to me, and Frank Stella. But at this point, they weren’t what I was concerned with at all. I must add that I did hear Greenberg talking on a panel at one point—at the Brooklyn Museum, possibly—and he was not at all as dogmatic in his talk as some of the others on the panel, so I was surprised.
I think today I could edit “Beginning Again” and make a better essay. It’s a little too personal sometimes. I think there is a questionable point in it, too, in that on the one hand I’m talking about my way of working, and on the other hand talking about other people’s art. So that can get a little fuzzy.
HOLTE: Speaking of beginning, when did you first make a painting?
HAFIF: A painting? By painting, do you mean a stretched painting?
HOLTE: Well, you tell me how you want to define it.
HAFIF: I’m thinking back to elementary school, and I remember one. I had an image that I liked to draw, which was an image of a lake. I could paint the bushes or the reeds or whatever was on the far side of the lake. I couldn’t figure out how to represent the ones on the nearer side of the lake. That was a dilemma that stayed with me. But I did have special watercolor lessons when I was perhaps eight years old and painted eucalyptus trees under the guidance of a teacher.
Now let’s skip forward. I’m living in the mountains, Idyllwild, going to school in Hemet, and we’re near the desert, in fact the desert is all around. I’m at school painting a painting of the desert, and there is a desert and the mountain in the distance and some cactus or whatever. And this painting actually got framed and shown in an exhibition. This was my first exhibited work in an adult show. I don’t know what happened to it or how it was received in the exhibition or anything about it. I was 14 when that happened.
HOLTE: I don’t recall reading this on your CV.
HAFIF: No. [Laughs.] Well, then I went to high school in Claremont. I carved a totem pole in my art class—a little one. I went to Pomona College. My major was creative writing, but I always took art classes, history and studio classes because that’s what I was very interested in. And then after my sophomore year, I said, “I’m switching to a major in art,” and I did. I needed the trappings of art, real art in a way. The colleges were connected, and Scripps College had a beautiful set of art studios around a patio in a romantic, naïve kind of way. So I switched to taking classes there and studied with the local artists, who were well known and appreciated. Much later I took an extra class, a summer class, because I was teaching at that point. But in the summer I could paint. It was about 1960 that I took a class with Richards Ruben, and Richards Ruben showed me in one summer class an escape from realism.
It was a six-week class, three hours a day, three morning hours, five days a week, and the first day he said, “That’s not enough. Plan to come and stay for the afternoon, too.” So now it’s a six-hour class, and, “Bring your lunch so we can talk.” This was different from any classes I had had before. And he would talk—I had no idea what he was talking about. It was somewhere else. But he would propose things to do in the studio. One that I remember was to paint a face without edges. That makes sense to me now, but it didn’t then. Then he made a setup including a nude woman sitting on a couch. Behind her on the wall were various colors of paper and stuff, a coffee table in front of her with radio and newspapers, and she was to play the radio and to not stay still. He projected colored lights on the whole arrangement and, so, how do you paint that? [Laughs.]
Well, I guess we all tried, and that pulled me away from—you know, that I’ve got to paint what I see. Francis de Erdely was another painter who came from Los Angeles to teach a summer class, and he said to me, “If you can’t paint what you see, I can’t help you.” But here is Richards Ruben saying, “Don’t paint what you see. Paint everything else.” And that just opened everything for me. From then on, I didn’t need teachers.
HOLTE: So your long, slow, gradual and possible return to figuration results from that experience?
HAFIF: You think I might do that? It might fit in the inventory because the inventory has no end. Right?
HOLTE: You have, I think, over the course of your career and at least in the work that you include in the Inventory, made work that’s very responsive to certain atmospheric conditions, usually having to do with place, or memory of place. But that kind of working from the unconscious or the subconscious is a more kind of internal thing to respond to.
HAFIF: Rather than place. I don’t know. When you talk about place, which ones are you thinking of, which series? The Pacific Ocean Paintings, definitely.
HOLTE: Yes, but also the paintings that you mentioned with memories of Rome.
HAFIF: Yes. More often I’ve thought I’m going through steps related to painting—to paint, to how one paints, and to painting techniques. So I’m either mixing the paint or not mixing the paint. Then I’m using glazes, which I had not done previously, or I’m using some other technique—a double glaze, or going back and exploring the colors again, or—. I mean, if we just think about the series, they all move forward. I think they’re going forward. I don’t know why.
HOLTE: An Extended Gray Scale is a pretty clear example of that interest, too, in a way that almost seems like a pedagogical exercise that’s carried out to a kind of extreme.
HAFIF: That’s true. That’s very true. That’s an early one. In fact, at UCI I was a teaching assistant for Craig Kauffman, and I taught his drawing and color classes. I believe that color class got transformed into my inventory in a large way. I was teaching the grayscale —only ten steps, not 106 [the number of individual canvases that make up An Extended Gray Scale]—but the grayscale, and then the color palette, and then each of the colors, all the colors. Though in my work, I’m not talking about color afterimage or other effects of color.
HOLTE: In some way you’re creating your own assignments.
HAFIF: Right. [Laughs.] Well, I work through one series, and then I feel like, “That’s done. Now let me see, what do I want to work on now,” as in the last few years, when I even stopped painting from 2010 to 2012. I had been thinking about black for quite a while. I was under the, perhaps mistaken, impression that a Japanese color scale would involve black, or maybe I saw something like that. I thought, “I’d like to see how that works.” I had not put any black in the colors until that series, then I became fascinated with the black series in 2013.
HOLTE: When you begin a series of paintings, like the Shade Paintings, you do a fairly elaborate set of studies, color studies and notes on paper.
HAFIF: Right. I need, somehow, to make just small notations or experiments about what will happen, so that when I start painting a series, a large series, perhaps, I don’t make a big mistake, so that I know what I’m doing. I did it extensively when I was painting the Scumble Paintings a few years ago. I would paint each of the colors that I intend to use and then paint over them with white to see what it looks like.
But the Shade Paintings are made in groups of either six or four, and I want to keep track of which colors they are, to test them. Each of these involves a little black. I need to make a little miniature painting on paper of what happens when I put black into red and into each of the other colors. It’s a way to find out what I’m going to be doing—does it look like something I really want to do?—and also to keep track of them when I’m making them, to remember which one gets what color. Then, afterward, I will know which one is which in order to title them.
This last set I have been working with, again, black, but blacker black, started last summer, listening to music in my studio, a droning sort of music that seemed to me to have something to do with that. A composer in Los Angeles, Tashi Wada, gave me a record of his music played by our mutual friend, Charles Curtis, a wonderful cellist, and his fellow cellist Judith Hamann. I started listening to that music, having all of my paint tubes laid out on a table to study each tube. I was interested in the difference between the classical name for the paint color and the list of ingredients on the side of the tube. A tube labeled “Indigo,” for example contains no indigo, but phthalocyanine, carbon black, and three or four other pigments. I sorted them according to what black they had in them, or because I found that I’m not the first one to add black to a color. Paint companies do that too sometimes, and it became a little study of what goes into these tubes.
HOLTE: Have you ever exhibited the studies?
HAFIF: No. It’s been discussed sometimes, but I haven’t actually exhibited them. I would like to. I have quite a lot of color studies that I’d like to look over, review to see what I actually did.
HOLTE: Once you’ve made the decisions about what you’re painting, and the size, and have the stretchers made, the actual act of painting is relatively fast in most of the series that you make. Is that the case?
HAFIF: Well, it depends on what fast is. [Laughs.] Once I have ordered the stretchers, of course I don’t have that decision to make anymore. I have to decide what I want to put on the canvas, and right now I’m in a period of thinking/rethinking.
You know, up to this point they’ve always been stretched with canvas, either number 10 or number 12 cotton canvas, except for a series in 1976-77 when I used linen. I used the linen as a reference to traditional painting. In that series, I made everything—I did the whole painting myself. I made the stretcher bars. I bought the linen, stretched the linen. These I applied with rabbit skin glue and then flake white—that’s lead, white lead priming, which I did not make. But I made the paint that I painted the paintings with. I mention this to say time often is more than one would think. With each step I felt, as I did with the early ones, which were store-bought stretchers, that every detail of the painting is a reference to painting in some way. But “reference to painting” means not necessarily painting itself. It’s one step away from painting. Right? So that’s what I get tangled up in sometimes
HOLTE: You’ve done a number of wall paintings as well. Could you talk about those, because the one I encountered seems like an example of something that is painting and not painting at the same time?
HAFIF: Is it? Why is it not painting?
HOLTE: It’s not painting in the sense of what Daniel Buren would call the portable work of art.
HAFIF: No, it’s not a painting in that way.
HOLTE: It is painting in a much older, historical way.
HAFIF: Yes, it is historical wall painting. I had a reason to begin making wall paintings, and that was after an exhibition in 1974 in New York in which I showed the Mass Tone Paintings, which were hung in a historical way. There were larger ones and smaller ones, and they were placed not as a minimal artist might have shown them, with the top edges all aligned, but in a traditional way, with a center height for all the paintings.
I was asked, “Is this a group that’s staying together or are they separate?” To avoid that question in the next exhibition, I painted the whole wall. And I used other means of making a single painting on a single wall, either the whole wall, or longer than the wall, but not as high, or a square that’s floor to ceiling; different ways. That was the first urge to make the wall painting. Of course, sometimes I do make groups. I do often make groups actually.
HOLTE: Right. When was the first wall painting?
HAFIF: That was 1975 at Sonnabend Gallery. And that was a big one. It was 10 feet high by 35 feet long, painted with a small brush. It took a week to paint. But it was the same kind of painting that I was already doing. It was casein, a different paint, but the same brush strokes. Top to bottom.
HOLTE: You have done several wall paintings that are actually text. The first one was at P.S. 1.
HAFIF: Right, the Rooms show in 1976. Should I tell you something about it? Alanna Heiss had just been given control of an old school building in Long Island City, Queens. It was a huge old building not used in many years and was in desperate shape. It had been rained on, rained into, and was dilapidated. But she had it, and she decided to do a show. I believe there were 78 artists invited to come and choose a space in this building and do something with it.
The space I had was an old classroom with blackboards on the wall, and for the rest, the floorboards were curling and the plaster coming off the wall, and so what am I going to do with this space? I can’t hang a painting here. There is no wall for it to relate to. I spent a couple of weeks going there and sitting in the space, making some drawings and looking out the window, and thought, “What has anything got to do with anything here?” Because of the ancient, falling apart aspect, I thought of Pompeii, and I chose colors that might have been used at Pompeii. I used those colors to paint the spaces above the blackboards. Then I looked at the blackboards. Well, I had been a third grade teacher teaching cursive writing, among other subjects.
I had an erotic text that I wrote on the blackboards. I wrote it in chalk onto the blackboards because the erotic seemed to relate to Pompeii as well—what we think of Pompeii. At least when I visited Pompeii there were parts, rooms, that I wasn’t allowed to go into because I was a woman. I don’t know if that happens anymore.
HOLTE: And it was a text that you had written previously and repurposed for that installation?
HAFIF: Right. So then fast-forward to 2013 and I have been asked to do a wall drawing for the Made In Space show [at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise] in New York. I just casually said to the curators, Peter Harkawik and Laura Owens, “I could make a wall drawing.” They said, “Yes, let’s make a wall drawing.” Peter knew the wall drawing from the Rooms show, and he wanted something like that text.
While the Rooms show text related to my life at that time, now, this is many years later. What text relates to my life at this time? I remembered a collection of feminist books I had from the 70s, and I got them from the top shelf where I’d been keeping them and read through them to find views on the sexuality of an aging woman. And they were pretty discouraging, starting maybe with menopause. First of all, you just forget about sex. Well, that’s nonsense. So I read and I took quotations from Simone de Beauvoir, Shere Hite, the Masters & Johnson series. I looked online, looked around to see what people were saying about older women and sex, and I wrote a text and then mentioned that I was going to do this wall writing. I said to a friend, “It’s 12 by 12.” And he responded, “You mean like this?” [Hafif frames a square with her hands.] No, it was 12 feet by 12 feet. And so, finally, I couldn’t write it myself. I had to get someone else to do the writing.
HOLTE: You found somebody who still knows how to write cursive?
HAFIF: Not quite the way I would, but pretty well.
HOLTE: In addition to the wall texts and the essays we’ve discussed, I’ve read a number of different texts you’ve written, things that have appeared in publication or things that have been publications. They vary from essays about art or art making, like “Beginning Again,” to texts that are more diaristic or epistolary, like Letters to J-C, and texts that are, for lack of a better word, more experimental or materialist.
HOLTE: words, for example. How did that come about?
HAFIF: I was starting out with little black notebooks, writing and drawing vertical lines as in the drawings, and then thought, “What if instead of lines, they were words?” I set myself the job, not so successfully at first, but soon got better at separating the words syntactically so they’re not connected by meaning with nearby words.
HOLTE: Right. There is no syntax. It’s all parataxis.
HAFIF: Right. So that was fun to do for a while. I gave it to J-C [Jean-Charles Masséra] to read, and he said, “That’s not writing.” [Laughs.] It was not writing in the usual sense.
HOLTE: Then what is it?
HAFIF: What is it? I don’t know. It’s an exercise. You’ve read it.
HAFIF: Part of it.
HAFIF: Is it hard to read?
HAFIF: It is, isn’t it? Because you expect to have a connection between words and have them multiply a meaning.
HOLTE: Well, some people do. I don’t, necessarily. Of course people want to call it poetry.
HAFIF: words is not poetry.
HOLTE: You just mentioned J-C. Your Letters to J-C reminds me of Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo, or Letters Not about Love, another epistolary book of (mostly) unrequited letters., 
HAFIF: I was writing to a friend, J-C. I wrote on the computer and he would respond occasionally with a fax. And at the end of the summer, I realized I had written all the stories for myself in fact, not for the addressee. He was the inspiration.
HOLTE: So those are very different modes of writing. And the film script Notes on Bob and Nancy , too. Perhaps it makes sense that you studied creative writing at Pomona before you turned to art, but it seems like writing has been an important part of your career and perhaps stretches how one may think about your body of work if they were only to see your paintings, for example.
HAFIF: Right. Well, I think of the paintings also as related to writing in a certain way. It’s a slim connection, but it’s very important to me that the painting has the right title. Often the dimensions, the date, and where the painting is made are all part of the information about the painting and included in the title. And it’s significant. That’s how I keep track of them, because I know that if it’s this size and that title and made in that date at that place, then it’s that painting. It has its identity that way.
But other writing, it’s just something that I do quite a bit, all the time. Like the book that’s sitting there, the black one. The front part is a journal, something like a journal, things that I see or think about, and the back part is notes on things I need to do or people I met or something else.
I kept a diary when I was 12 and have on and off ever since, and when I have really a lot to say to myself, I write more than otherwise. The writings about art came about because I was thinking about art. I was never a professional writer, writing essays for magazines, but I have published three longer ones, including “True Colors,” published in Art in America. I had been part of an exhibition, La Couleur Seule, at Musée St. Pierre in Lyon, France, in 1988. I was really interested in that show and I wanted to write about it. But I don’t write unless I have some reason.
HOLTE: When you were at UC Irvine, were you making paintings at all?
HAFIF: I did make some paintings there, but that’s not really what I worked with at that time. I made paintings that curiously are related to Supports/Surfaces even though I didn’t know about Supports/Surfaces then. I wanted to get the painting off the wall, so I painted on unstretched canvas, and in some instances I fastened the painting to the wall at the top, but pulled it with ropes away from the wall at the bottom, or I built structures that would stretch the canvas horizontally, or found other ways of using a canvas without making a “painting” out of it.
HOLTE: Do you feel like there was a specific reaction to painting at Irvine? Was it an environment that was hostile toward painting?
HAFIF: A few students were painting, but not many, and the more interesting students were doing quite different things. Chris Burden, Barbara T. Smith, and Nancy Buchanan were the interesting artists to me in that group. I haven’t kept up with many of the others. It was a small class, 17 of us.
HOLTE: Who were your teachers there?
HAFIF: Craig Kauffman was one. Tony DeLap. Robert Irwin was the most important for me. Irwin had a way of working with his class in which he would not gather the class together, but we each had studios, all around, from Los Angeles to Costa Mesa to Laguna Beach and in between. Irwin would make appointments with each of us, going to visit the individual studios, often late because he was always traveling from where to where. But he would stay for a couple of hours, really talking about what you were doing, what you’re thinking about. He was a very important person for me to work with.
HOLTE: And he was somebody who had started with painting and moved elsewhere. So, none of the students had studios at Irvine?
HAFIF: No. No, they didn’t. They had studios in Newport Beach. There were some kinds of industrial spaces where they had studios. Maybe some didn’t have a studio. One woman worked a lot with words. I don’t know where she did that.
HOLTE: You went back to graduate school after being out of school for a relatively long time.
HAFIF: Yes, almost twenty years.
HOLTE: So what compelled you to go back to school and why Irvine at that moment, which seems very, very far from Rome?
HAFIF: I needed to leave Rome. I needed to come back to the States. I had a small child. I needed a way to make a living, and I thought that with a graduate degree I could teach. That was the reason to return to school.
The second part of that was that as I had been working in Rome, I was really out of the United States, other than through magazines. I wanted to get back into what people were thinking, what was going on here. I mean, how do I readapt myself from being a Roman painter to being an American painter, if that’s what I want to do?
In Rome, I had met Alan Solomon, who had been director at the Jewish Museum, doing very current exhibitions there. I knew him through Beverly Pepper, who sent him to visit me, and he and I walked around the city a bit. Then he went to California, becoming director of the UC Irvine Gallery. I wrote to him asking for a reference, telling him I wanted to go to Berkeley. He said, “Oh, don’t do that. You should come to UCI because this is the center of everything right now.” John Coplans and Phil Leider had been there, and all these artists from L.A. were teaching there. Larry Bell was there, all these people I knew. So I thought, “Okay, that’s Southern California. That’s where I’m from and it sounds like it’s good, so I’ll go there.” So there I was at Irvine, living in Laguna. Interesting people were teaching and there were good students. It was essentially a good place to be.
HOLTE: It does sound kind of like as much of the center of things as—
HAFIF: As anywhere.
PHOTOGRAPHS, POMONA HOUSES, SONNABEND
HOLTE: I know photography has been important to you for a long time. Is that something that goes back to your time at Irvine as well?
HAFIF: No, before. A friend gave me a camera so I could photograph my paintings. Then I met a very good photographer in Rome, Tony Vaccaro, famous for his Second World War photos, then famous again for his Look and Life photos in the 60s and 70s. He took me to a shop in Rome to help me choose a camera. He showed me how to use the settings, and I took pictures of my little boy, sending them to the lab he suggested, a professional lab. I got the pictures back and they looked very good.
So I took photographs all the time in those later years in Rome. I was photographing not only my son, but also store windows and other things.
HOLTE: This is a 35mm camera?
HAFIF: Right. At Irvine, when I came back and was making films, I also made photographs. I would set up an installation of some kind on the beach and photograph it. I photographed the students in my class at Irvine. What I did for my graduate show was to go to the gallery space, photograph details of the room, the outlets, the floor, the pattern of the floor and then show those in the space.
HOLTE: The photographs were installed in the gallery, in the exact space where they were taken?
HAFIF: Right. I have done quite a bit of that, doing something that refers back to itself. Then what next? Well, in New York I continued photographing. I have a lot. I photographed especially when I was traveling. So many times I have traveled in Europe in different places. I photographed my own shows there, or I shot other things that I saw. One of the largest bodies of photographic work is what I have done with the beach here in Laguna, and then, after the flood in 2010, something with the weeds.
HOLTE: When you’re in Laguna you can pay attention to the beach and different plant species in your immediate vicinity, but when you’re in New York you’re attending to other things, or conscious of other things.
HAFIF: Yes, that’s right, I am more indoors in New York. I have quite a lot of series of photographs that I think are interesting. I want to put examples online. I almost always make things in series, especially photographs. It’s a cinematic way, I think.
HOLTE: We need to talk about the Pomona Houses book. When and how did that come about?
HAFIF: I was still at UCI still. I had the studio in Pomona, a storefront that had been a jewelry store. I was born in Pomona, and my grandmother and grandfather had had a wonderful house in Pomona, a big wooden Victorian house very difficult to maintain; my father had it destroyed when I was in Italy.
I missed that house, and I thought, “I’m going to look around Pomona to find other houses like that.” There weren’t many other houses like that, so I photographed the houses that were in Pomona. I photographed more than what’s in the book. I photographed all over the town, the railroad and some commercial structures and a lot of houses. A lot of houses.
It was just an urge to keep what I felt I had lost with the loss of my grandmother’s house. Then I moved to New York, taking that film with me, and the contact sheets. I showed them to Ivan Karp at his gallery [OK Harris]. He said, “They’re too small. I can’t see them. Get them printed.” So I had some printed and he said, “We’ll make a book,” which he did while I was away in the summer. He made the book. I can’t really take credit for it. People think it was influenced by Ed Ruscha, but I didn’t even make the book myself. I made the photographs.
HOLTE: It was a collaboration of sorts.
HAFIF: With Karp, that’s right. And the funny thing is, Karp had been a director for Leo Castelli, who was the former husband of Ileana Sonnabend. When I went to New York, Sonnabend was having a show of the Bechers, Hilla and Bernd, and I very naïvely wanted to show them my Pomona photos. I took them to the gallery, where they said, “Take these to Ivan Karp.” So I took the photos to Ivan Karp, and he made a book of them.
Karp had a director at his gallery, Patterson Sims, who thought Ivan should come and see my paintings. I was starting to make what I called the first acrylic paintings. Ivan wouldn’t come to my studio. No. So Patterson said, “Then we’ll show them to Sonnabend.” [Laughs.] Back and forth, right? Ileana Sonnabend came with her husband, Michael, and Elan Wingate, their director, to my studio to see the paintings. They huddled, saying, “Look, look, look.” And then, “We would like you to join the gallery.” That was a surprise.
HOLTE: So you got to exhibit as a painter because you had made photographs of houses in Pomona.
HAFIF: Right. That’s how I got to paint.
HOLTE: You wanted to talk about traveling, which is important to your work. We already talked about your decade in Rome, but you’ve traveled a lot since, and you have exhibited at a lot of European venues.
HAFIF: I showed my work in Italy when I lived there in the 60s, then in an exhibition in 1973 in Genoa. But for my next European experiment—should we call it that?—I was invited to show my work with Claes Nordenhake in Sweden in 1983. So again I was getting a taste for travel in Europe. While I was there I went south through Köln, where I met artist friends, and was sent to Munich to meet Rupert Walser, who two years later invited me to do an exhibition in his gallery.
Rupert said, “Come and we’ll be away.” He would be away in the summer and I could live in the gallery and paint and make my work in the gallery, which is what I did. I went there, he helped me gather materials and then left, and I was by myself, not speaking German. And I worked. He left me introductions to a few people, and it was a very experimental and moving time, to be in a strange place and work out what was going on in my mind.
In the gallery I painted, but I also listened to music. I began to get the sense of speaking German though I was not really speaking it. I spent days not only working, but wandering around the city, seeing what’s there, and knowing a few people, which created a pattern for things throughout my next 50 years. When I am in foreign places, I meet artists and see exhibitions. I like that sense of what is happening beyond New York, and beyond the United States.
HOLTE: Your work comes out of becoming grounded in a specific place.
HAFIF: Yes. It also makes those places temporary for me. So I’m moving from this one to that one and doing this or that. I had a grant to live in the south of France for three months in 1990, and I traveled a bit to shows, one in Düsseldorf and one in Badenweiler. After the three months, I went north to Lyon to make prints at URDLA, then to Paris to work on illustrations for a book with Jervais Jassaud.
I love languages. I love being in some place where people speak another language. I went to Iran to visit. Obviously, I didn’t speak Farsi, but I loved hearing this language around me.
HOLTE: When did you go to Iran?
HAFIF: In 1974 and again in 1975, before the Shah was gone, for better or worse.
I went to India just for a few weeks in 1977. I tried to play an instrument, the tambura, and shot footage for India Time, my second long film, 40 minutes. I kept a journal, from which I drew the voice-over.
HOLTE: So traveling for you is, perhaps, a way of always beginning again.
HAFIF: Yes. When I travel, I keep journals and take my camera and take pictures of things. Then things turn into something, either the writing or the book or the film or different things.
HOLTE: Or possibly even painting.
HAFIF: Yes, also painting. Some do become paintings. Painting is what they revolve around.
 The interview was recorded at the Laguna Beach, California, house and studio of Marcia Hafif on December 19, 2014, and has been edited for this publication.
 Marcia Hafif, “Beginning Again,” Artforum (September 1978).
 Supports/Surfaces refers to a group of painters who emerged in southern France in the mid-1960s and who affiliated with a radical, materialist interrogation of various aspects of the painting medium, in which canvas or other painting surfaces were often isolated or separated from the support, or otherwise reconfigured. The seminal exhibition of these artists was “Support/Surfaces,” which took place at ARC in Paris in September 1970.
 Marcia Hafif, “Getting on with Painting,” Art in America (April 1981).
 Marcia Hafif, words. (Published by the author, 1976).
 Marcia Hafif, Letters to J-C (Neuenhaus: Kunstverein Grafschaft Bentheim, 1999).
 Viktor Shklovsky, Zoo, or Letters Not about Love  (Dalkey Archive edition, 2001).
 Marcia Hafif, Notes on Bob and Nancy: a Film (Published by the author, 1975).
 Marcia Hafif, “True Colors,” Art in America (June 1989).
 Marcia Hafif, Pomona Houses (New York: Mother Lode Editions, 1972).
 Mass Tone Paintings in 1974 was the first of Hafif’s solo exhibitions at Sonnabend Gallery, in New York and Paris, a relationship that continued through her exhibition Black Paintings in New York in 1981.