New York Times, May 11, 2003
ART/ARCHITECTURE: Seamstress of 'Splats' And 7,000 Asterisks
By Ann Wilson Lloyd
THE lush fabric-based installations of the New York artist Polly Apfelbaum are frequently discussed in terms of overt qualities like vivid colors, variable forms and hybrid styles.
Underneath, however, a more intricate tale unfolds. In substance Ms. Apfelbaum's work is a little bit pop, a little bit poetic. Sly politics mingle with gorgeousness and fragility. Even her intensive process contains paradox. Typically she arranges on the floor thousands of tiny, loose fabric bits, all of which she has dyed and cut herself. This tedious effort, she claims, is liberating. ''My work is improvisational, intuitive, process oriented,'' Ms Apfelbaum said. ''I want to see every possibility and then I'll make up my mind.''
A survey of her art dating from 1989 is on view through July 27 at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; meanwhile, the largest installation she has ever made in New York can be seen through May 25 at Triple Candie, the alternative space on West 126th Street. Standing there recently, Ms. Apfelbaum plucked up one of nearly 7,000 green asterisk-shaped pieces that make up seven, much larger, asterisk-flower shapes, and said: ''Cutting is one of the main things I do. I'm mainly a cutter.''
Before marathon cutting, however, was marathon drawing. Ms. Apfelbaum draws directly on bolts of synthetic velvet, using squeeze bottles of Sennelier dye, a French brand. ''I love drawing, but then I think, how am I going to cut that? I couldn't let somebody else do it. In cutting, I get to know each detail, and then I can know the next step, because the rules change, during and after.''
At Triple Candie the results are Warholesque motifs that give the still-gritty space a trippy, retro look. The work's title, ''Today I Love Everybody,'' and the fact that it was created while the United States invaded Iraq, impart an edge of willful frivolousness.
''What I like about the idea of the asterisk,'' Ms Apfelbaum said, ''is that it's about directing the eye to look elsewhere. I just found this 1967 quote by Phil Ochs: 'In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.' ''
In Philadelphia, Ms. Apfelbaum has unveiled another new project, multihued printed wallpaper. Not only is this the first time any part of her process has been delegated (the printing) but the wallpaper's endlessly repeated rainbow-hued ovals resemble digital design. True to her obsessive method, however, each oval was hand drawn using a template. In Ms. Apfelbaum's New York studio are mock-ups -- large white bed sheets with rows of ovals in identical color sequences. The idea, she said, was to make a ''graphic design in a systemized color pattern organized to pull your eye down to the floor.''
And what was that color system? ''It was a set of markers just the way they came in the box,'' Ms. Apfelbaum said. ''When you were a kid with a new box of crayons or markers, didn't you just want to use every color?"
She is fascinated by structure, color charts and arbitrary systems. ''Some of my pieces are all structure, color clarity and geometry, and then I'll totally rebel and make a big kind of splat.''
Those ''splats'' are her best-known works -- shimmering, intricate arrangements of swatches in myriad colors. They've been likened to ''abstract paintings that slid off the wall'' or ''form on vacation.'' '
"She's a real colorist,'' said Claudia Gould, the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. ''It's interesting to see how methodically and organically the works grow from very small, often inchlong pieces.''
Several of these ravishing installations, including ''Reckless,'' ''Split'' and ''Ice,'' are included in the institute's show, as are considerably less elegant earlier works. ''The Color of My Fate,'' a piece first done in 1990, consists of a small cardboard box stacked with multicolored rolls of crepe-paper streamers. Though humble, it seems born of the same delight in color and playful materials as the new wallpaper design.
Ms. Apfelbaum, 48, came of age when austere Minimalism, Conceptualism and fabricated art were in their prime. Ever the contrarian, she yearned for irreverence, tactility and cheesy, fragile, everyday materials; but most of all, the trace of the artist's hand. ''I wanted to bring in the everyday,'' she said. ''I loved just pouring a bottle of dye and making this beautiful stain. Or just dropping fabric on the floor and making a different piece every time.''
''The Color of My Fate,'' she said includes ''a little comment on Don Judd'' (and his sleekly fabricated minimalist boxes); ''a little feminist response to bridal hope chests,'' but ultimately, a little poetry. ''What color is my fate?'' she mused. ''All colors, it turns out.''