the greatest show on earth

1982

I always wanted to know famous artists. As a kid I would go to exhibitions the way other kids went to ball games and when they announced that the class outing was to the Museum 01 rme Arts and not Fenway Park I was the only one who didn't groan. If you'd asked me what I would do with a million dollars I would've said, "Buy a Vermeer". How naive. Even then Vermeers cost two million. But I wanted paintings, and, for what it's worth, I wasn't so different from my contemporaries because it seems that everybody wants to own pictures. The difference with me was that I felt a direct communication with the painter through the picture, a communication that had nothing to do with what the painting looked like but with the person who made the thing. I knew, stance, Watteau and I would have hit it off, Courbet wouldn't have been able to bear me, and that Picasso would've done my portrait. I also know which ones would've been my boyfriends but that's between us. Of course I made a iot of mistakes, but by the time I was sev- een I realized that it was just as easy to start at the top as to start at the bottom so I moved to New York and made my first Warhol film because his paintings spoke directly to me: I knew I was cool, and the rest of course is history.

When I first heard about Judy Rifka seven or eight years ago she was already spoken of in terms of a pioneer. The early 'seventies were a virtual Siberia for young painters and just to be doing any kind of painting then, especially good painting, was a way of setting yourself up to be exiled. But even if no one else was looking at new painters the painters themselves were looking at Judy and that's what really matters. I know of one painter who has back- dated paintings so that they would be anterior to Judy's Suprematist explorations.

Unraveling abstract painting of the 'seventies will be a tricky business and I suggest that anyone interested in the truth about it come to me. Whatever cross-currents there were, whatever shared truths, centered around imagery; as we look back. on the paintings from that time we can see that the important experiments weren't in the images but in idiosyncracies that would be unremarkable until they pushed tliemselves to the foreground. Not the least of these, in fact, was the push to the foreground. We can see small Suprematist paintings as an experiment with Russian scale, which was small. (When a man does them it's experimental and a response to abstract expressionist public scale, and of course when a woman does it it's just feminine scale.)

What Judy Rifka was really doing besides suicidal experiments in scale was advancing the surface other paintings; slowly and almost imperceptibly the inside of them began to push towards the outside. Judy always had a relief building up under her paintings. Even the simplest shape had an underpinning the shape was held up on. It recently came to my attention that the difference between real artists and just painters is that the entire life of a real artist is dedicated to research, and that their researches are only visible in retrospect: what seemed gratuitous becomes what's important. We abstract the historical process from the results. Surface aggression? How much modeling paste could she use before the inevitable happened? Stack up the canvases.

I spent years trying to meet Judy Rifka. A dealer told me she was crazy, had given up painting, was doing performances, nothing they could sell. wnai was meant was that she couldn't be pushed around. She was experimenting again. She was moving around because she wanted the new paintings to jump. She had to find a whole cast of characters because they had to be more than paintings; they had to be machines. Now that I know her I can see that notiimg she ever did was wasted; every thing she does ets worked, into the work.

So that's what was happening backstage at The Judy Rifka Show; it's only important as gossip and curiosity. Sure, you want to feel the way these paintings look: such beautiful paint. Whatever is new about this show is not yet visible. But what is visible is a whole new kind of light. This is a light show. She turned rabbit skin glue into glitter. Painting in spotlights. Flashing light. The physical gratification of her paint turned into a brand of light, a joyous light rare in painting that radiates from the canvas and floods the room, surrounds her sublime characters who are finally released from behind the iron curtain to step into the spotlight in The Greatest Show On Earth.

-rene ricard