Rules and Serious Play with Polly Apfelbaum

2012-10-15 11.37.41

Polly Apfelbaum’s studio at the American Academy in Rome

Polly Apfelbaum is an internationally renowned visual artist. Color and installation are vital principles in her work. She uses clay, fabric, paper, photography, dye and objects among other things. She creates environments full of energy and physicality. Ms. Apfelbaum has shown all over the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the show “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artist, Fifty Years”. MD had the great pleasure of chatting with Polly in her studio at the American Academy in Rome as she prepares for a new group show called “Serious Play” curated by Rory McAuliffe and Alex Goodman.

What materials did you bring in your suitcase to Rome?

Rule number one for Rome was to bring materials I had never worked with. Color aid paper was something I had in my studio in NYC, one of those things that sat in my studio for years and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. String. Martha Stewart scissors that cut four lines at once and newsprint.

While in your studio you told us that you limit the choices you make. How do you decide the rules?

I like predetermined rules. In this case (color aid pieces) I wanted to use all the paper and follow the color aid color order. The paper size is 6″ x 4 1/2″. Each unit I made is made up of 4 colors. I like setting up a simple way of seeing different color relationships. The cut of the scissor determined the depth of the pieces. A lot of the decisions are arbitrary. I make them up as I go.

Your work is also spontaneous. Is this allowed by setting the terms before you get to play in the studio?

I like to mix control and spontaneity, to leave a lot of room for improvisation and experimentation. It’s wonderful to let your mind wander and play. I like to set up a way of seeing as many combinations and color relationships as possible.


Books Color Aid Rome/NY and Feelies Bible by Polly Apfelbaum

I love your Color Aid Rome/NY pieces and the transformation it has gone through,  from paper to installation, back to paper and now a coffee table book. When did you start making artist’s books and why?

“Color Aid Rome/NY” was one of the first things I made when I got to Rome. I wanted to pack them up but still have a record of them so I made the book and then a set of prints.

The artist’s books started with my Feely Bible in 2009-10. I had a residency at Yaddo and came back with a lot of feely’s so I decided to make a book as a way of organizing the work. Then after the bible I made an Atlas, a book of collected images called Haunted House which turned into a show. Then came a book on the Color Revolts. That book was made in part for documentation. The work is so fragile and ethereal. Just glitter and plasticine. Then I made a book of my ceramics, Portraits. I had started a ceramics class and wanted to index that work. All of the books have been a way for me to understand new bodies of work. The book that I am working on now is a time capsule. It is to document my studio in Rome and my time at the Academy. It is called Color Stations, nicknamed the Giant as it will be 9 inches thick. All the books have been made in collaboration with Alice Chung, a graphic designer, who pulls it all together.

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Both images are from the book Color Aid Rome/NY

What is the importance of narrative in your installations and your artist’s books?

In the older work I was more interested in narrative. You could look at the titles of the work as narrative. Titles being:

1. The Feely Bible

2. Flatland: Color Revolt

3. Haunted House: Amden Atlas

3. People that I know (ceramics)

4. Rome (color aid paper)

5. Color Stations Italy Time capsule

What’s a question you wish people would ask you, but they don’t?

“What’s my back story?”

I was thinking about how artists are always rebelling against something and how that changes. Early on in my own work I had it against big macho sculpture but now I love that stuff. I just needed to find a way to re-invent it for myself. It is part of my back story.

I always feel like a shaggy dog story. So short and hopefully sweet is what keeps me interested and maybe that’s not a back story–to quote John Baldassari  “why can’t that be art.” I love exploring the line between art and life. I moved to NYC in 1978. I had studied painting and printmaking–did not study sculpture. Installation was in the air. I was looking to have my cake and eat it too–an in-between space. There is a saying “A space between 2 chairs”, I was looking for that space, visually exciting as well as conceptually challenging. That time in NYC was very important to me and I would start my back story there. A lot was in the air.

Polly Apfelbaum’s Anything can happen in a horse race 2009.

What has changed in your perspective since the beginning of that back story to today?

After having a mid-career survey in 2003 which is already 10 years ago now, I really wanted to shake things up and try a lot of new things. I started printmaking and getting a bit of distance from installation. The work that came from that push only really started in 2008-9.  Anything can happen in a horse race and Not in any way shape or form–all of that work was totally made on site, not made in the studio. So I completely changed my way of working. Being in Rome I have tried to maintain this mind set of exploration and experimentation. Its been amazing to have the time and this beautiful light filled studio to work in.

Polly Apfelbaum, Not in any way shape or form 2009

What are you goals for the next 10 years?

That is so hard to answer. From day one I have never had a goal.  I am not sure goals work for me. I am very superstitious, so I think having a goal would only fuck things up. I have hopes. I hope for interesting opportunities and that I will still try and shake things up for myself. I feel very lucky, especially right now after having the Academy in my life.

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One thought on “Rules and Serious Play with Polly Apfelbaum

  1. […] Before the crowds arrive all is quiet. Just getting the bar and snacks ready, and in the case of AAR fellow artist Polly Apfelbaum getting her beads and string ready to distribute handmade necklaces to visitors. Giving to your audience is fun and a great way to start a conversation about what exactly you do in your studio and why. Learn more about rules and serious play in Polly’s practice.  […]

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