Artweek Magazine, was a product of the influential California artist and publisher Cecile McCann (1917-2009). The venerable newspaper style weekly was a pulse-beat for all visual arts in California. Although McCann worked from Oakland (East Bay area) the coverage was divided into North, Central and Southern regions of the state. The editor / co-editor Joan Hugo (1930 – 2006) was based in Los Angeles. My writings were performed under the aegis of this legendary editor. Miss Hugo was a pioneering art librarian at the Otis Art Institute, distinguished author, editor and curator. The publication, defunct since the death of the publisher, was partially inventoried in the Artweek Index (1975).
Martha Alf is a gifted and skillful painter and draughtsperson. A Santa Monica College Art Gallery exhibition catalog biography describes her — “After growing up in San Diego and raising her family as a traditional housewife, she went to UCLA and studied with well-known figurative painter Richard Diebenkorn.” More than just brilliant artist, she possessed the ability to animate seemingly inert subjects. My 1981 Artweek (Volume 12, Number 6, page 16, February 14, 1981) essay: Still-Life Personalities.
“Ten beautifully crafted images by Martha Alf, at Montgomery Art Gallery of Pomona College, demonstrate her technical prowess as she infuses sets of pears, apples, and other fruits and vegetables with drama. In these still-life compositions, Alf gives expression to human emotions. Clusters of pears, gourds, kohlrabi, persimmons and apples play out scenarios of intimidation, frustration, rejection, disobedience, pomposity, dominance, submission, and friendship through a gauze of exquisitely precise, parallel pencil strokes.
Alf’s pencil marks, less than an inch long, originate at the right and progressively aim downward at a forty-five degree angle. The fruit and vegetable vignettes are perceived through this “texture screen” of marks. The process has an ancillary benefit – it yields a shimmering light. The “tooth” collects graphite or charcoal on high spots; the valleys retain little of the medium. Globules of white paper twinkle in dense grays and blacks, as in Pears #9 (1976).
Kohlrabi (1979), Persimmons (1977-78), and Persimmons, No. 2 (1978), all in pencil on paper, reveal Alf’s extraordinarily fine workmanship. With unrivaled elegance, she gently moves strokes from right to left. The thousands of marks make up a ledger, recording the individual character and “aspect” of subject matter while maintaining an almost automatic, stylized plainness (or unexpressiveness).
The drawn line can be typically romantic or classical, casual or formal, implying various qualitative and quantitative degrees of humanity. Humanism in drawing is betrayed by elements of “drawnness.” Alf’s austere dramas range from expressive, sensual line (Persimmons, 1977-78) to formal, precise line (Three Apples, 1980).
Measured on a scale of expression, Alf’s formal lines lack compassion. Kohlrabi (1979) holds the marks with both gestural, figurative sensuality and precisely formal eloquence. Although Alf has the distinctive ability for imbuing character in the drawn line, she can also drain expression from her lines, depending upon the specific temperament that is her objective. Fabricated to illustrate a stylized psychology of human evolution, Alf’s drawing style gently shifts from the humanistic and compassionate (Three Gourds, 1969) to the dispassionate (Apple #3, 1979).
Suggesting human emotions, the humanlike figures and shadings prance, dance, strut, cluster, tilt, and lean in postures of love, friendship, trust, hate, and despair. Conflicting schemes of dominance and subordination appear in each drawing. In Pear Series, III, #4 (1977), a single pear at the left poses as the aggressor, threatening and intimidating two acquiescent pears to the right. A mysterious glow shines on the dominant pear, which by this celestial endowment, gains a highlight that humbles its companions.
Kohlrabi (1979) is the strangest work in the exhibition. Eerie shadows, brilliant highlighting, and the odd configuration of the vegetable are disarming in effect. The kohlrabi, recalling automatons, kachinas, and Aristophanes’ “hermaphrodites,” advance toward the viewer with an intimidating posture and pace.
In these superbly crafted drawings, Alf is able to animate or call up from the unconscious, the viewer’s conception of self. David S. Rubin’s excellent leaflet accompanying the show explains: “When drawing, Alf does this through the process of projection; for the activities and temperaments of the fruits and vegetables in the drawings are, in effect, those known from the personal experiences of the one who pencils the scripts, selects the cast, and directs the action – Martha Alf.”
The author gratefully acknowledges contributions from the sources listed above. This document was originally assembled as a review of an Alf exhibition at the Montgomery Art Gallery of Pomona College. Special thanks to the artist, the artist’s representative Joni Gordon (1937 – 2012) of Newspace Gallery, Los Angeles, Joan Hugo and Cecile McCann (Artweek) and David S. Rubin, Director, Montgomery Art Gallery. Some materials related to the original review may be found in William Hemmerdinger Papers at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.
Appraisals and opinions regarding modernist painting, sculpture, ceramics, drawing, and printmaking may be obtained by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org. Inquiries regarding art registry, purchase, sale or commercial galleries representing Alf art should be directed to Winfield Gallery, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.