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‘Where Can You Go With Abstract Painting at This Point?’: Marcia Hafif on Her Monochromes at Frieze

Marcia Hafif's monochromes, installed at Fergus McCaffrey's booth at Frieze New York. KATHERINE MCMAHON/ARTNEWS

Marcia Hafif’s monochromes, installed at Fergus McCaffrey’s booth at Frieze New York.


Yesterday, at the opening for Frieze New York, New York–based painter Marcia Hafif could be seen chatting with a steady stream of friends and admirers near her monochromes, currently on view at Fergus McCaffrey’s booth. At 86, Hafif is more excited to talk about her work than many emerging artists, and she couldn’t help but walk me over to her small and squarish earth-toned monochromes from the 1970s.

“I had been working in other places, and I had been going to school in California,” Hafif, who was wearing a pink cotton shirt and blue jeans, told me. “I came to New York to think about painting, because that’s what I had been doing every day, and then I sort of hit another brick wall. Where can you go with abstract painting at this point? So I started to look into the materials and techniques of painting.”

From there, Hafif began making what she calls “experiments in the form of painting.” The small monochromes, with their smoothly worked surfaces, gave way to much larger ones. These were much more time-consuming than the smaller ones. It could take several hours make the paint, and then another seven or eight hours to make the work. “I had to delineate that time and then just do it,” Hafif said. “I got to know the pigments by doing that and how it becomes paint.” When I asked why she decided to do bigger canvases, Hafif chuckled and said, “Well, why not?”

Marcia Hafif, Splash Painting: Indigo, 2009, oil on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FERGUS MCCAFFREY

Marcia Hafif, Splash Painting: Indigo, 2009, oil on canvas.


Not content to stay in one place for too long, Hafif walked over to her “Splash Paintings,” named for the way these pale monochromes had a splash of paint on them. These paintings, made in 2009 and 2010, reminded me of ocean spray when a wave hits a rock, but Hafif told me these actually had an art historical reference. “I had been reading about Fra Angelico’s paintings and Piero della Francesca and looking at good color plates,” Hafif said. “I thought, ‘I love those colors. I wonder if I can do that.'”

“I had seen, in Florence, at San Marco, Fra Angelico had some area of false marble where there were splashes painted,” she continued. “I never thought the Renaissance painters would splat. I decided I wanted to do that, so I threw paint at the canvas.”

Her newest works, her “Shade Paintings,” are made using a technique called scumbling, in which light tones are placed over darker ones. Hafif told me that the colors chosen for these paintings would be based on a listing of colors used to paint walls in Rome. (She lived in Rome during the ’60s.)

Hafif has made more than 25 series of paintings, and she’s going to continue with her “Shade Paintings” for now. What will come after that? “I’m still painting,” Hafif said. “I’m just not painting a subject, other than the painting itself.”

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