Monochrome Austerity, Late Roman Style: Marcia Hafif at Larry Becker
Marcia Hafif: From the Inventory – Late Roman Paintings at Larry Becker Contemporary Art
May 5 to July 7, 2012
43 North Second Street
The premise of Marcia Hafif’s fine recent show in Philadelphia has to do with approximating the colors of late Roman frescos—the artist lived in Italy for eight years early on in her career. Her austere monochromes hold the storefront gallery space very effectively; each smallish painting—all of them are hung from the same top level, to maintain a similar visual experience no matter what the viewer’s height—maintains an austerely beautiful presence. The colors, made by Hafif herself, border on the somber and matte, claiming the space before them in a compelling manner. The paintings themselves, dating back to the mid-1990s, are given the series title “Late Roman Paintings,” followed by the materials used to make the picture: permanent red dark, viridian tint, French yellow ochre tint, etc. In some cases, Hafif explains, the colors are lightened by the addition of white pigment, which lightens the color, now described in the checklist as having a “tint.” Hafif, whose reputation is more developed in Europe than America despite her American origins and education, belongs to a generation of monochromatic painters who established themselves in the 1970s and early ‘80s, negotiating a bit of an alliance with the Minimalists but more or less standing on their own.
The ongoing question with monochromatic painting has to do with the contemplation of a deliberately circumscribed object, whose resonance depends as much if not more on the context of available light and space. It is not so much a matter of dismantling color, even though the single unity of hue lends itself to what might be experienced as a constricted expression. That, however, doesn’t hold true for those who experience these accomplished paintings as real efforts to preserve color from the point of view of a purist expression. By historically linking her work to the past, Hafif shows her audience just how effectively contemporary art can connect with aspects of historical painting production. This connection not only concerns the technical media the artist so clearly explains, it also brings back to past to the present, which strikes the audience as a brave thing to do given the ubiquity of art that is neither well made nor interested in art’s history. In some cases, darker-hued paintings are put together, while in others lighter colors are joined. With daylight filling the room from the gallery’s street window, one has the chance to view the works in both natural and artificial light, which represent two very different experiences. Hafif, who is in her mid-80s and who is currently working on her archives, deserves attention for this elegant, accomplished exhibition.