Marcia Hafif, an artist best known for monochromatic paintings that explored the intersection of color, brush stroke, surface and light, died on April 17. She was 89.
The Fergus McCaffrey gallery, which represented her, announced the death. It did not say where she died or specify the cause.
In a career that spanned some 60 years, Ms. Hafif exhibited throughout Europe and the United States, experimenting with Pop Art, video, text-based works and more. Beginning in the 1970s, though, much of her focus was on monochromatic painting.
“Marcia Hafif will always be known for her relentless investigation of color, with monochrome painting, always square and modestly scaled, as her preferred vehicle,” Michael Ned Holte, co-director of the School of Arts at the California Institute of the Arts, said in a statement. “But Marcia’s true gift was patient and astute observation — not just to color and its wild potential, but to the weeds that appeared in her Laguna yard, which she photographed, and to language, which she marshaled into experimental texts and provocative essays.”
Marcia Jean Woods was born on Aug. 15, 1929, in Pomona, Calif., to Harold and Martha Eye Woods. Her mother ran a nursery school and was a substitute teacher.
She received a bachelor of arts degree from Pomona College in 1951. At her death she was working on her first show on the campus, at the Pomona College Museum of Art. It is to open in September.
Also in the early 1950s, she married Herbert Hafif. The marriage ended in divorce after a decade. She taught elementary school for a time while doing graduate study in art history at Claremont Graduate University.
“I realized I wasn’t an art historian, but an artist,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2015.
Living in Los Angeles, she occasionally worked at the Ferus Gallery near her home. An exhibition of paintings by Giorgio Morandi, an Italian painter known for still lifes of simple objects, was transformative.
“When I first saw them, I thought, ‘Why do these simple paintings command such a big price?’ ” she said. “But then I saw that there was this rigor to his repetition. There were these surprising differences in shadow, volumes that disappeared. There was a movement to them.”
In the early 1960s Ms. Hafif moved to Rome, having become intrigued by Renaissance painting while studying art history. She began painting abstract works there and had several gallery shows, including in Rome and Venice. In 2016 those early works were displayed at Fergus McCaffrey in New York in a show called “The Italian Paintings: 1961-1969.” Ken Johnson, writing in The New York Times, said that they “channel the groovy hedonism of their time with terrific panache.”
In 1969, Ms. Hafif returned to the United States to attend the University of California at Irvine, where she earned a master of fine arts degree in 1971.
“I took those two years at U.C.I. to explore other things, to see, read, study, meet people, make work,” she told The Orange County Register in 2011. “That was extremely useful to me and changed my way of thinking about painting. Afterward, I went back to painting, but I was painting with a different view.”
She began doing color studies, experimenting with works of a single color and with grouping such works together to achieve an effect. In one, “An Extended Gray Scale” (1972-73), she painted as many gradations from black to white as she could come up with — 106, as it turned out, each a 22-by-22-inch canvas.
In a 1978 essay in Artforum called “Beginning Again,” she explored the complexities of monochromatic painting, discussing how the works of the various artists painting in that mode varied widely, by choice of canvas, type of brush strokes, even how the work was hung. Such paintings, she wrote, were not something you viewed as an illusion of some reality, but as an objects in their own right.
“The eye stops on the surface, where once it expected to go within,” she wrote. “Where we used to read a surface, ignoring the material it was made of, we now look at that surface’s very materiality.”
Ms. Hafif is survived by a son, Peter Nitoglia, and four grandchildren.
Ms. Hafif came to refer to many of her works collectively as “the Inventory,” a grouping that grew to include 26 different series with titles like “Neutral Mix Paintings” (1976) and “Shade Paintings” (2013-18). She liked to see what different types of paint did on different surfaces. She painted in oil, in enamel, in egg tempura; she painted on canvas, on wood, on walls. Her paintings could be small, or quite large, as were the ones in “From the Inventory: Black Paintings, 1979-1980,” a show at the Newman Popiashvili Gallery in Manhattan in 2010.
“Each of the four paintings here, all measuring 7 feet by 6½ feet, has its own qualities of tone and texture,” Roberta Smith wrote of that show in The Times, “nearness and farness, like various night skies. Their differences, while subtle, emerge without undue taxation and with a deeply characteristic Hafifian earnestness that seems to say: Just do it and mean it; it will be new enough.”