Polly Apfelbaum – Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea
Polly Apfelbaum’s immersive site-specific installation at Magasin III Jaffa is an overwhelming, sensual experience. Using painting, sculpture, and installation, Apfelbaum creates an imaginary environment based on landscapes, the Red Desert in Wyoming, the peak of the Red Mountain in southern Colorado, or the Red Sea, and specific cultural references, such as Antonioni’s 1964 film, Red Desert, or a quote from Josef Albers. Apfelbaum invites the viewer not only to see, but to take an active role in a journey and in an exciting exploration of boundaries, painting, abstraction, and color.
Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea ‘s starting point is Red Desert (1993),a velvet floor piece, included in Magasin III Museum for Contemporary Art’s collection since 1997. To this work Apfelbaum adds a new floor piece: Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea (2021), a wall painting: Red Waves (2022), and three ceramic works: Sun Targets (2017), Red Table with Red Sea Beads (2013-2020) and Red (eye) Line (2022).
Apfelbaum’s floor works, which she refers to as “fallen paintings” are key elements in her work. Drawn to the use of this ancient object by nomadic tribes who crossed borders as a way of living, she uses carpets to research the boundaries of contemporary ideas and mediums. Originally a painter, transferring her paintings into floor works, an object one can touch, sit on, and walk through, allows Apfelbaum to explore the limitations between painting and sculpture and subsequently painting and film. When placing a carpet, an object commonly found in a domestic realm, in the public sphere of an exhibition space, Apfelbaum allows herself to investigate the line between private and public. Her commitment to traditional handicraft, whether her own longtime practice with ceramics or the merging of another’s hand in her artwork, (Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea woven by the Vasquez family Pueblo of Teotitlan del Valle, from Oaxaca Mexico, the baskets in Red Table with Red Sea Beads made by African asylum-seeking women from Kuchinate collective, based in Tel Aviv), provide Apfelbaum with the opportunity to explore the boundaries between art and craft.
Although Apfelbaum’s installations are not fixed in time or in space, one cannot ignore the location and era in which Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea is being exhibit. As Apfelbaum’s examination of the boundaries between craft and art is highlighted when the viewer walks into Magasin III Jaffa from Olie Zion Street, where Persian and Afghan carpets are spread on the sidewalk, her exploration between private and public is intensified by the last two years in which we had to redefine all that we know about these terms, while moving our offices to our living rooms and celebrating our most private moments in public parks.
Magasin III Jaffa, Curator
 This term was first introduced with respect to Apfelbaum’s old floor works by Kurt Varnedoe.
Red Desert, Red Mountain, Red Sea
Notes by Polly Apfelbaum
“I want to paint the film as one paints the canvas; I want to invent the color relationships, and not limit myself to photographing only natural colors.” Michelangelo Antonioni
My 1993 floor piece “Red Desert” (from Magasin III’s collection) was an explicit homage to Antonioni’s 1964 film. I was fascinated at the time by Antonioni’s process: for his first color film rather than simply filming in color, he filmed everything in subdued tones and then, in post-production, selectively enhanced certain key elements for expressive purposes: painting the film “as one paints the canvas.” This gives the film a haunting quality, and reflects the isolation of the main character, played by Monica Vitti. The film is set outside Ravenna, in Northern Italy. Much of the visual character of the film derives from its industrial setting in post-war Italy: “My intention,” Antonioni said, “was to translate the poetry of the world, in which even factories can be beautiful.”
There is a Red Desert in Wyoming, and all of my floor work from this period alludes to the expansive horizontal spaces of landscape: fields, meadows, deserts and seas. The assertive use of color, the flatness of the piece and the expressive possibilities of color, were also in dialogue with painting, and it seems important in retrospect that the work was included in a number of exhibitions around that time rethinking the limits of painting: “Painting Outside Painting” (Corcoran Biennial, 1995); “Painting: the Extended Field (Magasin III, 1996-7) and the 1997 Lyon Biennial “L’autre (the Other),” curated by Harald Szeemann. More recently Kurt Varnedoe spoke of this work as “fallen paintings.”
Since 2013, when I returned from a year at the American Academy in Rome, these floor works have become part of immersive environments: site-specific installations that include wall painting, ceramics and carpets. The rugs especially have been important to me, and relate to an idea of the nomadic. I like what the film historian Philippe-Alain Michaud says: “…As something that is moved from place to place and which sets the feet and eyes in motion, the rug is a powerful metaphor for movement.” So, with these works, and the large-scale carpet installations, the dialogue is less with painting and more to do with working across boundaries of multiple disciplines: sculpture, painting, installation, film, craft. At the same time, color and abstraction remain important issues for me as an artist, now in a more expanded field.
The upcoming installation at Magasin III Jaffa takes off from the colors and spatial organization of the original Red Desert piece, and extends it to the walls, transforming the gallery space from a neutral container to an active and energized spatial field. Counterbalancing the original floor piece is a large rug woven in Oaxaca, Mexico. The intense reds come from the cochineal beetle, indigenous to the area, which has been used for centuries to make natural carmine dyes: A hand-made presence that answers across time to Antonioni’s use of industrial color. These same colors extend across the walls – a wave of different tones of red – that form the backdrop for ceramic pieces that reference the sun: a band of light radiating around the perimeter.
What is consistent from the early piece is the dialogue with the historical issues of painting: flatness, color and a critique of pictorial space, now in a more immersive context. I want the viewer to experience the piece by walking around and through it, being surrounded by color, objects and surfaces – you can see the installation as a kind of animated film or a painting that the viewer walks through.
The other thing that interests me – and has been consistent over 30 years of work – is the emotional and intellectual resonance of color. The three reds in the title: Red Desert, Red Mountain and Red Sea all refer to places and landscapes: Red Mountain is a peak in southern Colorado that turns red in the spring from the presence of iron sulfite in the soil; algae make the Red Sea red, and the Red Desert in Wyoming takes its name from the way the western sunlight strikes the glacial sands deposited there after the last ice age. So the installation triggers an expansive sense of open space and fluid time, not fixed in time, not fixed in space. Many years ago, as an art student, I was struck by what Josef Albers said about the color red: “If one says ‘red’ – the name of the color, and there are two people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds.” I want to get that same multiplicity into this work.