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Close to the entrance of the Pomona College Museum of Art’s survey of the late Marcia Hafif is a small artist’s book, Pomona Houses (1972). Published the same year Hafif first embarked on the monochrome paintings for which she is best (if too little) known, the book contains systematic black-and-white documentation of middle-class houses in Pomona, the artist’s hometown: the result of a search for structures reminiscent of her grandmother’s home. The work’s deadpan photographic style and rigorous form recall books by another L.A.-area painter of the time, Ed Ruscha; but where Ruscha inventoried iconic aspects of the region (palm trees, gas stations) Hafif selects unassuming and deeply personal subjects. As with the rest of the artist’s multimedia works in this deceptively spare show, Pomona Houses and its distinctive details manage to embed lived experience within taut conceptual frameworks. They make a case for art that not only relishes in its systems and structures, but also makes space for everyday life.
Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart does include a few examples of her monochromes, which though constrained in their minimalist palette, likewise assert the artist’s subjectivity through the variegated, almost iridescent marks of her brush strokes from one corner of the canvas to another. Yet the exhibition’s focus is a more hidden side of Hafif’s output: groups of intimate sketches, gossamer drawings, journals, architectural plans, and even clothing—most of which are interspersed with notes and narratives. In one drawing, Hafif lists plans for her garden on a hand-drawn calendar, turning the minimalist grid into a harbinger of earthy potential and personal territory. A Place Part (1997), which gives the exhibition its name, is a proposal for five pavilions designed for viewing art, each one a discrete geometric shape that is monumental in its tomblike simplicity, but decidedly human in scale. Elsewhere, the artist’s journals, labeled with various dates and locales (Italy, Iran, Mexico, Germany, France), make clear her extensive periods living and traveling abroad that in turn affected the colors and arrangements of her paintings.
Overall Hafif’s poetic, individualized approach—in her recountings of both poignant and banal life events, or her drawings of countries (many she’d visited) outlining only their political borders and riverways—manage to ground her conceptually oriented works in something idiosyncratic, ephemeral, and mutable. It serves as a reminder that going one’s own way, as Hafif did, regardless of shifting contemporary tastes for and against painting, can add up to something hopeful: in the small, personal detail, others can still find points of connection and reflection.
Marcia Hafif: A Place Apart runs from September 4–December 22, 2018 at Pomona College Museum of Art (330 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711).