Publisher: Eric Firestone Press
Title: Pat Passlof: Memories of Tenth Street, 1948–63
Contributors: Molly Warnock
Publication Date: May 2022
Dimensions: 10 x 8 in
Pat Passlof: Memories of Tenth Street, 1948–63 accompanies Pat Passlof's solo exhibition at Eric Firestone Gallery.
Pat Passlof created abstract paintings that, much like poetry, responded to memory, experience, and place without narrative descriptors, with open-ended forms and a variety of painterly marks and tempos. The linear and the lyric combine, suggesting a belief in the manifold possibilities of how paint communicates. The exhibition represents one of our first opportunities to fully examine Passlof’s significant contribution to postwar, Abstract Expressionist painting in New York. The exhibition focuses on the years 1948-63, when Passlof lived and worked on East Tenth Street: that highly concentrated “art colony” where painters and sculptors gathered on stoops and created artist-run spaces to show the new generation. Passlof was central and active in this community.
Pat Passlof was born in Georgia in 1928 and grew up in New York City, attending Queens College. She left school to study with Willem de Kooning, and found him, along with Elaine de Kooning, at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948. It was there that they learned of the death of Arshile Gorky, whose painting would also be a significant touchstone. At the end of the summer, de Kooning helped Passlof find a place to live at 80 East 10th Street. He suggested that she continue as his private student. Under his instruction, Passlof made a series of detailed 6H pencil drawings from still life set ups. Abstract paintings were made on the side. This foundation and connection to art history, despite working in an innovative style, runs through Passlof’s work.
In 1949, Passlof helped renovate the Eighth Street loft, which was the first location of “The (Artists’) Club,” attending every talk and panel. Noticing that many of her peers rarely spoke when they come to the Club, she decided to organize an alternative “Wednesday Night Club,” envisioning it as a kind of “junior club.” The Wednesday evening sessions quickly became popular, leading the old guard to squelch it for fear of competition.
Her loft at 80 Tenth Street burned, and her landlords, J &J Plating, offered her another loft across the street, at number 79. Passlof shared the space with the company’s stored machinery, and “since there wasn't a wall to paint against, Bill built me my first easel.” There, Passlof “began to draw from still lifes made of J &J's surreal machinery and to make abstract paintings from the drawings.” In 1951, Passlof went to Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan. After completing her BFA, she returned to her Tenth Street loft. In 1956, she helped found the March Gallery, where she had two exhibitions and helped organize many shows of other artists, including Mark di Suvero’s first exhibition. The March Gallery showed artists as varied as Allan Kaprow, Yayoi Kusama, Boris Lurie, and Elaine de Kooning.
Her March Gallery exhibition was reviewed by Fairfield Porter, who wrote “Pat Passlof’s painting begins with the proposition, which is not always taken for granted, that a painting is made up by painting, as a poem is made up out of a series of words.” This statement highlights a salient quality of Passlof’s work: each painting contains a variety of approaches to constructing form. Passlof allows these elements to co-exist; her process was a system of open structures. The painting “March Bird,” 1956, is emblematic of this approach.
By the 1960s Passlof’s palette began to lighten. She used repeated patterns and marks across the canvas to create dynamic rhythms. She drew upon experiences and memories, as noted by titles referring to people and places, such as “Mark’s House,” 1960. Her work often suggested abstracted landscapes, like the later work of Claude Monet, although Passlof more commonly worked in a vertical format.
Passlof’s friendship with Mark Di Suvero led to her 1961 solo exhibition at Dick Bellamy’s Green Gallery. The show was reviewed by Donald Judd, who, noted that Passlof’s work referred to experience, writing “These paintings are much more ‘Impressionistic’ than ‘abstract.” He describes the variety of color areas in the monumental painting “Ile Fra.” In writing about the relationship to Resnick’s work, Judd says: “within the naturalistic scope, the color is different, more full and lyric, and somewhat sweet.” Judd suggests a kind of feminine aesthetic with those words.
It is meaningful at this moment to consider Pat Passlof’s significant contribution in the context of other women Abstract Expressionists, like her peers Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler. Many museums and institutions are actively engaged in this work right now. Mary Gabriel’s 2018 book Ninth Street Women also provided a major spotlight on the women of Abstract Expressionism.
A Passlof painting was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and included in their 2017 exhibition, “Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction.” A retrospective of Passlof’s work was held at the Black Mountain College Museum in 2011. Her work is also represented in the collections of Black Mountain College, the American University Museum, Washington, D.C, and the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Eric Firestone Gallery represents the estate of Pat Passlof in coordination with the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, located at 87 Eldridge Street, New York.