Throughout her life, it seems that painter Marcia Hafif has had an almost-prescient knack for appearing in the most interesting places at the most interesting times.
In the late 1950s, she lived around the corner from the famed Ferus Gallery, where she pitched in to help and once requested a work of art by Ken Price in lieu of payment. In the early 1960s, she went to Rome, where she plunged into a scene of artistic experimentation. By the late '60s, she was back in Southern California, where she became part of the historic first MFA class at UC Irvine.
Over the course of her career, Hafif has steadily produced a body of work that touches on a wide range of ideas and media, from text-based wall installations that wrestle with sexuality and womanhood, to her paintings, for which she is best known: meditative abstractions that ruminate on the nature of color.
The artist's pieces were part of the first exhibition at the experimental PS1 space in Queens (now operated by the Museum of Modern Art). Since then, the works have been shown in solo exhibitions at museums and galleries in New York, Cologne, Germany, Geneva, Rome and Paris.
Yet Hafif has remained largely overlooked in the place where she was born and raised: Southern California. The last time she had a solo museum show in the area was in 1975, when she exhibited her early paintings at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego).
Her new, one-woman show at the Laguna Art Museum, however, has changed all that. "Marcia Hafif: From the Inventory," as the exhibition is called, brings together several series of painted works from the 1990s to last year — some inspired by Laguna, where she maintains a home and studio. (Since 1999, she has divided her time between Southern California and New York.)
"Marcia is so well known on the East Coast and in Europe and yet she has remained relatively unfamiliar in her own backyard," says Malcolm Warner, executive director at the Laguna Art Museum. "So, for the museum, it was a plum project to bring her to the attention of Laguna Beach and Southern California generally."
The exhibition features a small selection of black-and-white photographs that Hafif took of Laguna in the early 1970s. But the stars of the show are her paintings: brilliantly illuminated installations of individually colored canvases that come together to tell stories about hue and tone.
One series, the Pacific Ocean Paintings, from 2000, was inspired by her walks on the beach, from the colors she saw reflected on the sand when a wave retreats. These challenge a viewer's pre-conceived notions of what the colors of the coast might be since the canvases feature unlikely shades of garnet, gray-green and pink.
"Each of these, they all happen differently," says Hafif of her series. "The Double Glaze Paintings, [also on view at the museum], those are about layering one color over another. It might be yellow over green, and observing how that changes the color."
Look at one of her installations from afar and you might see simple cubes of black, gray and blue. Come closer and the surface of the canvas reveals another reality: thousands of deliberately applied, overlapping brush strokes that reflect light in unexpected ways. (The photographs don't capture the half of it.)
The artist, now 86, still paints on a regular basis. On a cloudy morning earlier this week, she leads me around her minimally decorated two-story home in Laguna, where she keeps an equally minimal ground-floor studio. She is currently at work on a series based on the colors employed in Roman architecture.
"Half the project is in conceiving it," she says. "I will spend a lot of time examining paints and colors before I apply anything to the canvas."
Lithe, with short gray hair and dressed in a subdued ensemble of blue pants and a stone green top, Hafif cuts an elegant figure. She speaks softly and moves gracefully. But the unassuming manner belies a bold adventurousness. A discussion about painting might segue nonchalantly to talk about "a little affair" in Mexico, her journeys through Iran or her larger-than-life Circassian great-grandfather, who fought against the French in Mexico in the late 19th century.
"He was a template for me," she says. "He traveled. He spoke seven languages. He wrote this very large autobiography."
Hafif was born Marcia Jean Woods in Pomona in 1929 and grew up in several Southern California locales: Pomona, Laguna Beach, Claremont and Idyllwild, the latter a small mountain town east of Hemet. She attended Pomona College with every intention of becoming a writer.
"Being an artist just didn't occur to me," she says. But once in college, the enjoyment she got from her art classes led her to switch her major to studio art.
After graduation she got married (that's where she picked up the name "Hafif") and taught elementary school. But she also pursued graduate studies in art history at Claremont — studying the art of the Renaissance and East Asia. It was a path from which she quickly retreated, she explains: "I realized I wasn't an art historian, but an artist."
She divorced and eventually found her way to Los Angeles.
It was at this point that she began working at the Ferus Gallery as an occasional assistant, staffing the front desk when founders Irving Blum or Walter Hopps weren't around. The job allowed her to marinate in Modern art. An exhibition of paintings by Giorgio Morandi, the early 20th century Italian painter known for creating subdued still lifes of jars and jugs, proved particularly transformative.
"When I first saw them, I thought, 'Why do these simple paintings command such a big price?' " she recalls. "But then I saw that there was this rigor to his repetition. There were these surprising differences in shadow, volumes that disappeared. There was a movement to them."
In the early '60s, employing the small monthly allowance she received as part of her divorce settlement, she moved to Rome — a decision that was partially inspired by the time she spent studying Renaissance art at Claremont. "It was like $150 a month," she recalls (almost $1,200 in today's currency). "It wasn't really enough to live on. But I could live on it in Italy."
There, she started painting as soon as she landed — playing with various facets of abstraction — and she soon began to get traction in galleries and museums. She also met the father of her son, with whom she would remain for seven years.
By 1969, however, Hafif was ready to come back to the U.S. "I missed my language," she says. "I wanted to paint in American context." So she returned to Southern California and immediately applied to the new MFA program at UC Irvine, where she would become classmates with now-renowned figures such as Chris Burden.
"I'm returning to the U.S., I have a small son, I don't have a job," she recalls of the decision, "so I figure, I'll get a degree so I can teach."
At this point, she was almost 20 years older than many of her classmates and already knew many of her professors from her previous life at Ferus. "There were [light and space artists] Larry Bell and Robert Irwin," she says. "I was Craig Kauffman's [teaching assistant]. These were all people I'd known from Ferus. It was a little odd for them to be my teachers."
But the program nonetheless provided her with two years in which to try out new things. "I didn't want to paint," she says. "I wanted to experiment with other forms." She took photographs, made films and created a sound installation.
She says that Irwin was the most helpful. "His classes didn't meet," she recalls. "He would make an appointment with you at your studio, and he would always be an hour late. But he was always very generous with his time once he arrived. It was helpful because he was listening."
After receiving her degree, Hafif says that she was ready to go back to painting — but didn't feel that she could do it in California, where the form was out of favor. "This wasn't the place for it," she says. "So I went to New York to search out painters. But they weren't very interesting. There was no direction in painting — only the idea that you couldn't paint. So I decided that what I would do was just think about the material."
On New Year's Day in 1972, she created a drawing that would serve as the basis for a painting practice she continues to this day. On a piece of paper, she made a series of short vertical marks that started in the upper left corner and then filled the page like a rippling graphite wave.
"I then took those same strokes and applied them to brush strokes," she says. These small, repeating strokes are what makes Hafif's paintings feel as if they are vibrating.
"People ask me how long it takes," she says. "I don't care how long it takes. It takes as long as it takes." The process for her is a meditative one — and, ultimately, a foundation upon which she has built a lifetime of work: a grayscale made out of 106 individual panels, a rainbow of colors all tinted with black, experiments with natural pigments as well as with watercolors.
Over the years, her art has drawn international acclaim, particularly in Europe, where she has galleries in Germany (Dusseldorf and Stuttgart) and Zurich, Switzerland, in addition to Fergus McCaffrey in New York. But in the past few years, her pieces seem to be making more regular appearances in Southern California.
In 2010, her work was shown at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art in the exhibition "Collection: MOCA's First Thirty Years," and the following year, she was part of the Pacific Standard Time Exhibition "Best Kept Secret: UCI and the Development of Contemporary Art in Southern California, 1964-1971" at the Laguna Art Museum. (Curator Grace Kook-Anderson, who organized "Best Kept Secret," was the one who approached her about doing a solo at the museum.)
Last year, an installation of Hafif's work was featured in the Hammer Museum's high-profile biennial "Made in L.A.," drawing critical praise from Times critic Christopher Knight. Michael Ned Holte, a co-curator of the biennial, says he'd first seen Hafif's work in the '90s, in a group show at MOCA. "There was something quiet and assured about them," he recalls.
Holte says that he and co-curator Connie Butler included her work in the show for her connection to what other artists were doing. "We had a lot of artists who were thinking about color and working through the spectrum in the show," he says. "Plus, we were also interested in making a case for painting in Los Angeles."
"Though we stretched the map a little bit," he says with a chuckle. "Anyone who lives in Laguna Beach will tell you it's not Los Angeles."
I ask Hafif if she is in the process of being reclaimed as a California artist.
"All those labels are so difficult," she says. "You say, 'I'm a European artist. I'm an American artist.' But I don't want to label it."
She adds: "Really, I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world."