Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


Not in Kansas Anymore: Polly Apfelbaum

Commissioned by Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, UK, in 2018.

When first embarking on this essay, I had imagined the Wizard of Oz would play an important role. Ruby slippers, the yellow brick road, somewhere over the rainbow, way up high – it seemed like a perfect way to talk about Polly Apfelbaum’s newest exhibition, an extravaganza of color and hallucinatory pattern with an insistent rainbow theme. But then she corrected me: “You must look at the bad biblical musical The Apple. That is more me than Oz.”[1]

I had to look it up – and am so glad I did. Made by the Israeli writer-director Menahem Golem in 1980 in the wake of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, which had been great successes on both stage and screen, The Apple is an insane romp, a retelling of the Adam and Eve story in a disco-dystopian sci fi setting. Cringe-inducing lyrics (“take a little bite / spend a splendid night / in our Garden of Delights”) are bravely belted out by the barely clad cast, who seem to have come directly from unsuccessful auditions for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film is, in a word, kitsch; and a perfect illustration of Susan Sontag’s provocative definition of camp as “seriousness that fails.”[2]

“Waiting for the UFOs (a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers),” 2018. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

“Waiting for the UFOs (a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers),” 2018. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

The Apple was a notorious flop, though as a legitimate contender for worst movie ever made, it attracts a certain ongoing esteem. Apfelbaum’s gleeful identification with it is consistent with her fascination with the lovable losers of art history. Over the course of her forty-year career, she has routinely ventured where most fear to tread. When Op Art and the Pattern & Decoration Movement were still stuck in the back of slide room drawers, she was applying those idioms to entirely novel effect. Ditto for psychedelic graphics, how-to-do-it craft literature, Wonderbread packaging, and the Powerpuffs, memorably described by curator Ingrid Schaffner (in an essential 2003 essay on Apfelbaum’s work) as a “children’s cartoon trio of toy-cute superheroines who kick evil’s ass.”[3]

Yet to see Apfelbaum simply as a connoisseur of camp, or a purveyor of guilty pleasures, would be dead wrong. Her work is never so-bad-it’s-good; it’s way better than that. Partly this is due to her finely honed compositional intelligence. Apfelbaum is fundamentally an abstractionist, and her forays into popular culture, or authorized art history for that matter, are always processed through an exacting formal sensibility. Then there is the sheer inventiveness that that she brings to all her source material, pop or not. Show her an ancient mosaic from Ravenna, and she will zero in on the fact that some of the figures wear fashionable red shoes (see what I mean about the Wizard of Oz?), and scatter scarlet footprints like dance steps across a royal purple carpet. Offer her the chance to work with a Morris Louis painting, as the Everson Museum in Syracuse did in 2015, and she will stretch it out into an entire interior, copying its rivulets on to rugs, pulling matching stripes around the walls, and setting out a tableful of color-coded ceramics. From the oeuvre of Dubuffet, she picked out a sketchbook page of doodled footprints, and used it as the basis for a set of carpets up to 35 feet long, then surrounded those carpets with ceramic cutouts of her own hands. As Menahem Golem might say, it all makes a crazy kind of sense.

That’s true, too, of Apfelbaum’s project for Ikon Gallery. The exhibition’s teasingly obscure double title is only a little more informative than it seems. She does have a genuine affection for the song “Waiting for the UFOs” by the English singer Graham Parker, a pop masterpiece of freeform paranoia and open-ended deferral, Becket’s Godot for the FM dial. She also loves Magritte – who doesn’t? – and his 1940 painting The Plagiarism, a nested image in every sense. It’s his counterintuitive definition of a garden, “a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers,” that acts as the exhibition subtitle. But Parker and Magritte are not reliable guides to this project. They are only two of many references that Apfelbaum had in mind, and in any case, what she admires in them is rather conceptual – the way they compress a thick stratigraphy of meaning into high-impact, digestible form. You can imagine a college student listening to “Waiting for the UFOs,” or putting a Magritte poster on the wall, and enjoying them without even trying to work out what they might mean.

Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad way to see Apfelbaum’s show. The exhibition presents itself initially as a ride round the color wheel, a series of rainbow-hued spaces and objects. So far, so self-evident; color is the very stuff of art, the soul of abstraction, and the visitor is plunged right into it, intense polychrome at every turn. Yet throughout, there are invitations to deeper reading. For starters, the rainbow motif inevitably recalls the gay pride flag, which has its fortieth anniversary this year; it was designed by Gilbert Baker in 1978 (he died in 2017). Through all the ups and downs of the queer liberation movement – the unthinkable tragedy of the AIDS crisis, the galvanizing activism of ACT UP, the ultimately successful push for marriage equality, the ongoing acts of state repression and hate crime – the rainbow flag has been there, a symbol of tolerance, equality, and joy.

“Waiting for the UFOs (a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers),” 2018. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

“Waiting for the UFOs (a space set between a landscape and a bunch of flowers),” 2018. Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Certainly, Apfelbaum has no hesitation in pinning her colors to that mast. But notice: her rainbows have eight stripes, not the six of today’s gay pride flag, nor the seven that children commit to memory (“Roy G. Biv”). A rainbow is, after all, a spectrum, and dividing it up is an arbitrary business. Even more arbitrary, if poignantly so, is the assigning of particular meanings to its various colors, which is exactly what Baker did when he first designed the flag. Online, Apfelbaum discovered his original key, and she accords it prime real estate in the exhibition, like a billboard of spiritual affirmation. Back in 1978, the flag did indeed have eight stripes. Of the equivalences Baker invented, some of which seem sensible (yellow is sunlight, green is nature), others puzzling (orange is healing?), one in particular jumps out: art, apparently, is turquoise. This raises the intriguing possibility that Apfelbaum’s exhibition is contained within Gilbert’s New Age schema, rather than the other way round.

Taken at face value, assigning fixed values to rainbow colors is, in Apfelbaum’s considered opinion, “cheesy,” and the grandiose incorporation of Baker’s encoded flag could be taken as gentle satire, maybe directed at him, maybe at herself, maybe both. But that seems complicated by the company that it keeps. A series of ceramic pieces rings the gallery, hung in a single row against stripes in yellow and orange. Visually, the gesture whips the gallery together (the double stripe is an excised sample of the rainbow); thematically, it tips the scales toward a tone of outright celebration. The brightly glazed ceramics, which she calls Suns, are handmade in an exuberantly approximate manner. Each is roughly plate-like in format, and is organized around a series of concentric circles which shift and blur, like a Ken Noland target painting that’s been flipped a few times on a frying pan. Apfelbaum discovered ceramics a few years ago, learning the basics at Greenwich House Pottery, a century-old organization in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Now she makes her ceramics upstate at her own kiln, but she has managed to avoid becoming overly studied in the medium; for her, as for many other artists who have turned to clay recently, freshness is all.

Andromeda , glazed clay.

Andromeda, glazed clay.

I’ve written elsewhere about the recent explosion of interest in clay among contemporary artists. [4] In Apfelbaum’s case, suffice to say that the medium supports painterly experimentation in three dimensions. It also introduces a note of homely charm to the proceedings, a quality that she has often pursued, in full knowledge of the complex ideological swirl that envelops all forms of craft. Like the Feminist artists of the 1970s – the era of Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party and Miriam Schapiro’s “femmage” – Apfelbaum accepts the idea that marginal practices such as weaving, fabric dyeing, and ceramics can be the carrier of a revolutionary gender politics. She is also aware that these disciplines are often pursued in amateur contexts, in blithe disregard for any progressive agenda. This contradiction lay at the heart of Apfelbaum’s recent show called “The Potential of Women” at Alexander Gray Gallery, in which she appropriated the cover design for a 1963 book of a similar title, and rendered it in a series of drawings and large-scale carpets.[5] Recirculating the graphic in this way, obsessively, was a mordant reminder of the damaging condescension that often arises in gender-based narratives. At Gray Gallery, the carpets were surrounded by a run of ceramic forms, similar to the Suns shown at Ikon; they hung atop a backdrop of pink, white and orange stripes, as if affixed to an ice cream truck. She referred to the pottery in that case as “a Greek Chorus that gives voice to the performance,” though quite what the pottery might have been singing was left to the imagination.[6]

Another thing that Apfelbaum likes about pottery: it takes time. A kiln firing is an imposed hiatus between the making and the result. This eliminates instant gratification, but affords space for thinking, and the possibility of happy accidents along the way. Many potters have the feeling that when opening a kiln, they are receiving gifts from a past self; for Apfelbaum, the unpredictability of glaze effects is particularly interesting – juxtapositions that simply don’t occur in paint, interactive effects unimagined even by Josef Albers.[7]

The profusion of ceramic objects that ring the first-floor galleries at Ikon, seemingly endless variations on a single theme, extend this sense of temporality, an ellipsis that keeps on going. It is worth mentioning, too, that she retains all the pieces from her firings rather than editing them down, as if she were building a continuous archive.

Polly Apfelbaum, “The Potential of Women,” 2018. Alexander Gray Gallery, New York City.

Polly Apfelbaum, “The Potential of Women,” 2018. Alexander Gray Gallery, New York City.

Alongside her prolific work in ceramic, Apfelbaum has also been making carpets recently – a lot of carpets. Concurrent with Waiting for the UFOs, she is staging a retrospective of her woven works at 21er Haus, a set of modern galleries attached to the Belvedere in Vienna. Like ceramics, weaving slows her down – she generates ideas and imagery quickly, but must wait months for each carpet to be executed by a team of skilled artisans in Mexico. Again, serendipity is inherent in the process; though the workshop hand-dyes yarns to match her specified colors, the translation to textile introduces other variables that can be hard to predict, particularly with respect to texture. Apfelbaum has always worked with the same workshop, dating back to 1997, when she was invited to design a carpet for the show “Woven in Oaxaca” at A/D gallery in Manhattan.[8]

That was just a one-off collaboration, but in 2013, a commission from the fashion house Dior prompted her to return to weaving, and to the same fabricators in Oaxaca. She had just completed a year as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome, a time mainly spent in reflection and absorption. When she went back to work, she did so with renewed energy, and she embraced weaving as a way to invite the viewer into the work. The rug format suggests a domestic setting, a hospitable welcome to her world.

For the exhibition at Ikon, on the second floor, Apfelbaum presents a range of carpets in the overall rainbow theme. Three are square in format, and like the ceramic Suns, they feature concentric circles – a motif that is echoed yet again in a long series of drawings nearby. Repeated so insistently as to suggest psychological fixation, the targets are also freighted with art historical associations – Noland of course, and Jasper Johns, but for Apfelbaum (ever on the lookout for the overlooked), the work of the Danish visionary artist Poul Gernes is particularly apposite.[9]

Concerned primarily with social and public artworks, Gernes used polychrome patterns to sensational effect. Apfelbaum channels his spirit here, alongside that of another great Dane, the quintessential Pop designer Verner Panton, whose serpentine fabric prints inspired a further pair of carpets for the show. Strangely enough, laid out in a symmetrical pair, these also bring to mind the late work of Sol Lewitt – graphic design and Conceptual Art are more alike than we think.

A final set of carpets, with rainbow stripes running straight down their lengths, feature an unexpected pair of interlopers, who seem to have alighted on the composition unbidden: a bird and a serpent. They could be read as completely innocuous, like the marginalia encountered in a medieval manuscript or a German fraktur painting, or alternatively, as symbolic harbingers of good and evil. It is typical of Apfelbaum to leave such matters open to interpretation; her tendency is to hand over a big bag full of ideas, inviting us to rummage inside and take the ones we like. At Ikon, she chooses to include one early work based on the same principle. Entitled Wallflower, it consists of several hundred crepe paper flowers inserted into the wall, a mandala-like burst of blooms. Schaffner pointed out the multivalence of this image, which seems simultaneously upbeat and funereal, the melancholy undertow reinforced by the title: “wallflowers are those girls picked over at the party, left to melt into the backdrop of the room, of life.” [10]

Wallflowers (Mixed Emotions) , 1990/2018. Mixed media, wire, paper, tacks, pencil, glitter.

Wallflowers (Mixed Emotions), 1990/2018. Mixed media, wire, paper, tacks, pencil, glitter.

Wallflower is typical of Apfelbaum’s earlier practice in that it must be fabricated on site, a task that she always undertakes herself. This inscription of her hand – also present in the cut and dyed fabric floor pieces that are among her best-known works – infuses the exhibition space with an atmosphere of generous authenticity. This quality has always been important to Apfelbaum, but its realization has placed significant practical demands on her, requiring a nomadic way of working that involves extensive preparation and intense on-site installation. Lately, she has adopted more a forgiving modus operandi, building up her accumulations in advance and delivering them en masse; but the art still “happens” in the space. This is one reason that textiles have such a key role in her work; foldable and easily transportable, they have always been an itinerant medium, whether in the tents and hangings of a Renaissance court, or Muslim prayer rugs, or the clothes we lug to the airport.

Color, of course, is also a paradigm of mobility. A certain red or blue is in some sense “the same” when it appears in multiple locations. Yet color it is also paradigmatically relational, as Albers demonstrated, specific to a given condition. Indeed, we have no way of knowing whether individual perceptions of a certain color are identical. Philosophers have given much thought to these topics; in his late work Remarks on Color, Wittgenstein offered such brain-twisting conundrums as “why is it that something can be transparent green, but not transparent white?” and “why can’t we imagine transparent white glass, even if there isn’t any in actuality?”[11]

Alongside such difficult questions, we might place another: what does it mean when we say an artist is a “colorist”? That is certainly Apfelbaum’s reputation, but as she says, there is no way to be an expert in palette as such: “the thing about color is that you just have to do it.” Every choice is embedded in a specific material application.

It’s not necessarily a good idea to look for a single overarching idea in Apfelbaum’s exhibition, one that binds the whole project together. Her thinking is too evocative, too anti-didactic, for that. But this matter of color, which is at once totally abstract and totally concrete, does point us in the right direction. In the show’s vivid pick-and-mix, there is a consistent fluctuation between clarity and contingency. Apfelbaum embraces these values with equal enthusiasm, and pursues the contradiction across a range of formal and narrative registers. Is my red the same as yours, or not? If someone believes in UFOs, or attributes spiritual efficacy to Benjamin Moore paints, should we find that pathetic, or poignant, or persuasive? Is a snake an emblem of Satan, or just a cute critter? Is color a universal condition, or the ultimate personal expressive tool? To all these questions, Apfelbaum says yes.

Way back in 1989, when she was just establishing herself as an artist, Apfelbaum was interviewed for BOMB Magazine. At the time, she was working mainly with found objects, juxtaposing them in neo-Surrealistic assemblages. She attributed to these inanimate things a powerfully associative potential: “When objects dream, when we dream, things come together in strange ways, without surface logic.”[12] Still today, Apfelbaum operates according to that principle. Through a diversity of means and her singular force of imagination, she has made a body of work that leads in many directions, and ultimately arcs to the ineffable. Sorry Polly, but I can’t resist: sometimes, the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, quotes from Polly Apfelbaum are taken from a studio visit in New York City on 28 March, 2018, and subsequent email exchange.

[2] Susan Sontag, “Notes on Camp,” 1964.

[3] Ingrid Schaffner, “Having It All: Polly Apfelbaum at the ICA,” in Polly Apfelbaum (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2003), p. 40.

[4] Glenn Adamson, “Sloppy Seconds: The Strange Return of Clay,” in Ingrid Schaffner and Jenelle Porter, eds, Dirt on Delight: Impulses That Form Clay (Philadelphia: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2014).

[5] Seymour M. Farber and Roger H. L. Wilson, The Potential of Woman (New York: McGraw Hill, 1963). The cover graphic was designed by Rudolph DeHarek.

[6] Quoted in “Polly Apfelbaum: The Potential of Women,” press release, Alexander Gray Gallery, 2017.

[7] Josef Albers, Interaction of Color (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963).

[8] 21 artists participated in the exhibition, including Nicole Eisenman, Richard Tuttle, and Pat Steir; carpets were produced in editions of six.

[9] Poul Gernes: I Cannot Do It Alone, Want To Join In? (Copenhagen: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2016)

[10] Schaffner, “Having It All,” p. 23.

[11] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color, translated by Linda McAlister and Margaret Schättle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p. 24, 32.

[12] Polly Apfelbaum interviewed by Bill Barrette, Bomb 27 (Spring, 1989), p. 38. Apfelbaum was here referring to Tristan Tzara’s essay “When Objects Dream,” reproduced in Christopher Phillips, Photography in the Modern Era: European Documents and Critical Writings, 1913-1940 (New York: Aperture, 1989).

WritingMarci LeBrun