Polly Apfelbaum’s (b.1955) artistic practice is distinguished by a hybridized aesthetic that fuses traditions of painting, craft, and installation. Deploying a wide variety of media—including fabric, paint, dyes, wallpaper, plasticine, and ceramics—her work has dissolved spatial, plastic, and temporal boundaries. She is best known for expansive polychromatic installations, which coalesce the radical and the beautiful, simultaneously domestic and irreverent. Her sensibility is informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of the applied arts, art history, and popular culture.
Active since the mid-1980s, Apfelbaum uses found materials associated with craft traditions to create sculptural objects and sprawling, floor-based installations. She has referenced the aesthetics and principles of the Italian Arte Povera movement, French Supports/Surface movement, and First-Wave Feminist art, utilizing accumulation and dispersal as her preferred tools for installations. Her material choices are often associated with craft and women’s work, including dyed fabric, shredded paper, felt, and crepe paper streamers. Connecting process and materials is a determined injection of vibrant and improvisational color, reflecting her passion for twentieth-century design and painting. With awareness of how her floor-based installations draw from classic traditions of fine art, Apfelbaum defines staining and dyeing as acts of painting; cutting, a way of drawing in space; and assembling the cut pieces a sculptural practice.
In recent years, she has expanded the site specificity of her work in order to create immersive environments that continue her interest in the cultural aspects of color and multi-sensory experience. In 2014 she created For the Love of Gene Davis, which encased a room in vibrant striped rugs and artist-designed wallpaper in homage to the Color Field painter’s 1972 landmark outdoor painting, Franklin’s Foothpath. In such ambitious architectural interventions, Apfelbaum occupies and transforms entire spaces with correlated objects including painted walls, wallpaper, ceramic wall plaques, hand-woven rugs, and intimately scaled and suspended ceramic beads. She has also created sound installations incorporating ceramic instruments, often utilizing her ‘shape notes,’ as in The Sound of Ceramics (2016).
Apfelbaum’s titles are vital and evocative, pointing to a wide range of influences, including: music, film, literature, and mass media; philosophy and politics; art history and architecture. It is both through these references, and through her use of recognizable craft materials that she places cultural and social content into her formal abstractions. Her piece Splendor in the Grass, Glory in the Flower (1994), an assemblage of small white crushed velvet squares each imprinted with a colored dot and arranged in large rectangle on the floor, owes its title both to an excerpt of the William Wordsworth poem, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” completed in 1804, and Splendor in the Grass a 1961 film starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beaty.
In 2018, Apfelbaum’s work was the focus of solo exhibitions at the Belvedere 21 in Vienna, Austria and Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, which travels to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO, in 2019. She has exhibited widely since the 1980s, including one-person exhibitions at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (2017); Otis College of Art and Design, Los Angeles, CA (2016); Bepart, Waregem, Belgium (2015); Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, MA (2014); lumber room, Portland, OR (2014); and Mumbai Art Room, Mumbai, India (2013). A major mid-career survey of her work opened in 2003 at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA, and traveled to the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO, and Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OH, both in 2004. Her work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions including Pattern and Decoration, Ornament as Promise, Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Aachen, Germany (2018); An Irruption of the Rainbow, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2016); Wall to Wall, MOCA Cleveland, Cleveland, OH (2016); Pretty Raw: After and Around Helen Frankenthaler, Rose Art Museum, Waltham, MA (2015); Three Graces, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY (2015); Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft and Design, Midcentury and Today, Museum of Art and Design, New York (2015); AMERICANA: Formalizing Craft, Perez Art Museum Miami, Miami, FL (2013); Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (2012); Lines, Grids, Stains, and Words (2008), Comic Abstraction (2007), and Sense and Sensibility: Women and Minimalism in the 90’s (1994) all at The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Extreme Abstraction, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, (2005); As Painting: Division and Displacement, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OH, (2002); and Operativo, Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City (2001).
Apfelbaum’s work is in numerous permanent collections including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Dallas Museum of Art; Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; The Museum of Modern of Art, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; Pérez Art Museum Miami; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ; Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She was the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant in 1987, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993, an Artist's Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1995, an Anonymous Was a Woman Award in 1998, a Richard Diebenkorn Fellowship in 1999, a Joan Mitchell Fellowship in 1999, an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2002, and the Rome Prize in 2012.