Color Blocking & Blending: Polly Apfelbaum’s Prints

Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955) is best known for her large-scale installations and “fallen paintings,” compositions of dyed synthetic fabrics that she places directly on the floor. The exhibition Chromatic Scale: Prints from Polly Apfelbaum, currently on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery, presents a focused survey of Apfelbaum’s recent prints.

Installation view of Chromatic Scale: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Installation view of Chromatic Scale: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

In more recent years, Polly Apfelbaum revisited printmaking, a process she explored as an art student at the Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania. Creating most of her prints at Durham Press, Apfelbaum often collaborates with master printmaker Jean-Paul (J.P.) Russell to create her colorful, abstract works. Her works reference abstract, minimalist, and Pop art. She was influenced by artists including Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Jackson Pollock, but Apfelbaum’s work differs in style by incorporating energy, playfulness, and wit, as well as her love of popular culture and affirmative view of femininity.

Because of her prints’ clean-edged shapes and even color, one might assume that Apfelbaum’s works are mechanically produced. However, they are meticulously handmade. Apfelbaum works closely with master printers to cut woodblocks from plywood in shapes based on her hand-drawn doodles. The blocks are then inked by hand in a broad but ordered spectrum of colors. “Many times these are a vocabulary of shapes that fit into each other perfectly, but also interchangeably,” explains Apfelbaum. “This allows for a wildly fast and intuitive process, where it would be impossible for me to work like this by myself.”

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 66, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 66, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Her “Dogwood” prints are the result of woodblocks made from from slices of dogwood tree branches sourced in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where Durham Press is located. “The ‘Dogwood’ prints were made from the wood of a dogwood tree, the Pennsylvania state tree. I grew up in Pennsylvania, Durham Press is in Pennsylvania on Dogwood Lane, and a dogwood fell down on their property. So we put it to work,” says the artist. Apfelbaum’s arrangements are generally improvisational, though she cites a dress from the Finnish design firm Marimekko as inspiration for the dogwood prints like “Little Dogwood 66” (2012).

Polly Apfelbaum, Byzantine Rocker 6, 2014; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 24 1/8 x 37 in.; Printed and published by Durham Press; Image courtesy of Durham Press, © Durham Press and the artist

Polly Apfelbaum, Byzantine Rocker 6, 2014; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 24 1/8 x 37 in.; Printed and published by Durham Press; Image courtesy of Durham Press, © Durham Press and the artist

“Byzantine Rocker 6” (2014) is a prime example of Apfelbaum’s fondness for blending colors through a “split-fountain” or “rainbow roll” technique, in which multiple colors are partially mixed on a block to achieve a gradient effect when printed. “In the print world the technique is considered really cheesy, and that makes me like it even more. As far as the process goes, we lay out two-color and three-color combinations, which get rolled onto the shapes. I then place the blocks face-up until I’m satisfied with the composition.” The title of this work implies a back-and-forth movement, mimicking the way the eye moves across the bands of color.

Visit the museum to see Chromatic Scale: Prints from Polly Apfelbaum before the exhibition closes on July 2, 2017.

—Madeline Barnes was the spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Opening Tomorrow: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum

Images that embody both precision and spontaneity are the focus of NMWA’s new exhibition Chromatic Scale: Prints by Polly Apfelbaum, on view March 10 to July 2, 2017.

Born in 1955 in Philadelphia, Polly Apfelbaum is best known for her large-scale installations and “fallen paintings,” compositions of dyed synthetic fabrics that she places directly on the floor. Apfelbaum studied painting and printmaking at the Tyler School of Art in Pennsylvania, receiving a BFA in 1978. She moved to New York City, where she was inspired by installation art and started experimenting with elements from two- and three-dimensional mediums. Despite studying printmaking as an art student, she didn’t revisit the medium until 2002.

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 71, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Polly Apfelbaum, Little Dogwood 71, 2012; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 20 x 20 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Working primarily in woodblock printing, Apfelbaum intuitively positions inked wood blocks on thick, handmade paper, which is then pressed, transferring the inked design from the blocks to the paper. The blocks are carved from plywood according to Apfelbaum’s designs and are inked by hand in systematic spectrums of lush, saturated colors. Recently, she has experimented with more fluid coloring and shapes, using a “rainbow roll” technique, in which multiple colors are partially mixed to achieve continuous gradient tones.

Apfelbaum pursues a precise balance between color and shape to create sequences that elicit a particular feeling or sensation. She views color as both structural and emotional. In Little Dogwood 71 (2012) Apfelbaum achieves subtle variations among the circles by forming her blocks from slices of dogwood tree branches sourced from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she works with Durham Press. Apfelbaum’s exuberantly colored prints are meticulously handmade and her compositions are often improvisational.

Polly Apfelbaum, Emperor Twist, 2015; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 25 3/8 x 25 3/8 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Polly Apfelbaum, Emperor Twist, 2015; Woodblock print on handmade paper, 25 3/8 x 25 3/8 in.; Courtesy of Durham Press; © Durham Press and the artist; Printed and published by Durham Press

Apfelbaum’s striking colors and bold abstract shapes reference Minimalist and Pop art. Her most recent prints, like Emperor Twist (2015), demonstrate her increasingly complex use of patterns and color. Inspired by medieval mosaic floors from Italy, she created this print using scores of small hand-inked blocks. The broad range of colors and alternating zigzag and diamond shapes create a dynamic visual rhythm.

This exhibition continues the museum’s exploration of innovations in printmaking, a medium in which women have worked since the 16th century. Featuring prints in NMWA’s collection along with complementary loans, Chromatic Scale takes a focused look at Apfelbaum’s print work—a part of her oeuvre that has not been extensively studied—and examines how the artist extends the conventional boundaries of color and technique.

Visit the museum and celebrate spring with these bright prints on view in the Teresa Lozano Long Gallery.

—Madeline Barnes is the winter/spring 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

#Instameets @WomenInTheArts

In honor of International Women’s Day, NMWA will host an #EmptyNMWA instameet on Tuesday, March 8. An “instameet” is an opportunity for photographers to gather, meet, and snap pictures for Instagram. The museum will give 30 photographers a chance to explore and photograph the museum’s collection before public hours.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts hosted its first instameet on December 9, 2015, in collaboration with @IGDC, a community of photographers based in the D.C. metropolitan area. NWMA welcomed local instagrammers to visit the museum before it opened to the public to capture the special exhibition Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today.

NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor guided 18 photographers through the exhibition and highlighted show-stopping works by midcentury and contemporary women designers while illuminating the artists’ processes—photographers enjoyed hearing about Polly Apfelbaum, who used a punch card as a stencil for her Handweaver’s Pattern Book installation (2014).

2016-02-29-10_27_32-Ken-Stancil-Jr-on-Instagram_-“#Connected-_-#KenShootsPathmakers---We-are-connect

Left to right: @ksdirectional’s detail image, @saifahmed99’s photo

The event’s photographs captured the diversity of the dynamic women designers whose work was on view. Photographer @ksdirectional captured an amazing detail photo of Front Design’s Axor WaterDream/Axor Shower System (2014) and @saifahmed99’s installation shot of Vuokko Eskolin-Nurmesniemi’s Circle Dresses (ca. 1964) was chosen as the photo of the day by the #ACreativeDC feed. The instameet gave photographers the chance to see—and share—the exhibition from a new perspective.

2016-02-29 10_28_16-Steph on Instagram_ “After wandering with friends during the #pathmakersinstamee

@tappety’s post about Mickalene Thomas

After spending an hour exploring the exhibition with behind-the-scenes access, museum staff invited attendees to explore the museum’s collection. Many of the participants had never visited the museum before, but were inspired by NMWA’s diverse collection and the architecture of the Great Hall. One participant, @tappety, discovered Mickalene Thomas’s rhinestone-encrusted A-E-I-O-U (and Sometimes Y) during her tour of the third-floor galleries.

Browse the 100 stunning photos captured from the #PathmakersInstameet on Instagram. Apply here by noon on March 4 to have a chance to explore the museum’s empty collection galleries on International Women’s Day and enjoy a special collection highlights tour.

Stacy Meteer is the communications and marketing associate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.