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Pat Passlof: Fifty Years on Paper

Curated by Geoffrey Dorfman

Presented by the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation

Pat Passlof, Pat Vision II, 1993, Oil on linen, 30 x 24 in.

The art of Pat Passlof (1928 —2011) is being featured this year in three separate exhibitions, of which this one at the New York Studio School — the last — focuses on her work on paper and vellum. Firstly there are the early drawings she made as a twenty-year-old prodigy, and protégé of Willem de Kooning. They can be roughly dated to 1949 or 1950 and have never been shown before. These are coupled with the main body of the show, gouaches (sometimes enhanced with more intensely pigmented acrylic,) painted in the 1980’s. All the work in the show is figurative.

Pat’s sensibility was inimitable, impossible to mistake for another’s. As is so evident in her early drawings, she already could boast natural facility, an exacting eye, and an educated, deft line which, as evident in her pencil study of her hands, is frankly worthy of Ingres. But as a mature painter in her fifties, and especially on paper, she tended to court the fey, fanciful, and whimsical aspects of her art, in which the brush appeared to create diaphanous effects seemingly by chance.

I’ve chosen to concentrate on dream landscapes, often peopled and sporting not a few wild horses. Pat had strong feelings for animals, and a fascination with the American Indian, on which she had amassed a small library, boasting of books going back to the 1840’s. Her little summer house and studio in the Shawangunk mountains where many of these gouaches were made or begun, was surrounded by white birch, and one found oneself whimsically conjuring the Lenape spirits amongst them in the early morning mist. (The ‘Schawan’ in Shawangunk is Lenape for ‘There is smoky air.’)

Pat Passlof was an absorbing personality; a well read, thoughtful, industrious, and critically exacting woman. But she also seemed to me a bit ‘witchy.’ Back in the 1950’s she befriended a family of Gypsies that had moved overnight into the storefront of her building on 10th street. She regarded fortune-telling as no more than a parlor game, yet paradoxically later became a serious adherent of astrology. Almost anyone coming into her orbit was likely to have his or her chart done, an irresistible all-purpose icebreaker. (She could also read palms.) Once I asked Milton Resnick — her more famous painter-husband — whether he, himself, believed in these occult practices. He thought about it for a few seconds before replying, “Well, I believe in Pat.” Occultism is only now gradually becoming an acknowledged influence in early modernism in art, music and other arts, and the sybil — the female seer — is an ‘office’ extending back to antiquity, present on all continents.  At the very core of art practice is the transformation of base materials into spiritualized incarnate entities, in part by means of thought. That has always been true. And that of course shares generalized roots with magical practice.

Yet, one must understand that fortune-telling is not transformative. It seeks to read signs of a future that in some limited sense has already occurred. Nevertheless, it always begins with a ‘throw,’ something entirely random. It might be a literal throw of stones, sticks or intestines, the spooking of a flock of birds, the pick of a card, the albumen in a cracked egg, the crack in the scapula of an ox, the line in a palm, or the date, time and place of one’s birth, that catalyzes the reading. And when conceiving a painting, Pat, Milton and others of their counterparts (including myself) prefer a flying start, employing similarly sudden and haphazard means. Opening up a canvas is not unlike a break shot in pool, spreading the table so as to open up myriad possibilities.

What seemed entirely separate, merely a social lubricant, now can be reevaluated on a more elevated aesthetic plane, as Pat — and the memory of Pat — recedes into the sands of time.

— Geoffrey Dorfman

In tandem with Pat Passlof: The Brush is the Finger of the Brain, curated by Karen Wilkin, at The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, on view October 11, 2019 – April 12, 2020.

GALLERY TALK with Curator Geoffrey Dorfman
Wednesday, January 15, 6:30pm

Pat Passlof: …unexpected conversation… Documentary by Bill Page, available to view in the NYSS Library by appointment.

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