Michael Hafftka: Dreamworks
By Professor Sam Hunter

In Michael Hafftka’s vivid world unsettling figures emerge from the shadows as abruptly and mysteriously as they do in dreams, or, perhaps, during haunting nightmares and in half-remembered cultural myths. The airborne creature in his painting Fly, oblivious to the figure dropping into measureless depths below him, is oddly like a dark, post-millennial version of the buoyant lover delivering a tender kiss in Marc Chagall’s Birthday painting.

Disembodied and ghostly, a face hovers to the right of two truncated figures in the equally edgy work, The Observer and the Observed, its presence as inexplicable and irrational as the bright-eyed lamb in Chagall’s lyrical evocation of his Eastern European home, I And The Village. Here, with Hafftka, the drama is tinged with a modern, very personal ambiguity. In Hafftka’s painting, The Selecting Hand, similarly insubstantial, possibly imaginary forms appear against a backdrop whose sooty blackness is relieved only by smoky suggestions of random urban artifacts: stair steps leading nowhere, crenellated walls or gap-toothed fences through which a skeletal figure peers, amid rotting pilings rising from invisible waterway, and fragmentary figures fading in and out of view.

Much like the memorable, searing works of Francis Bacon or, more aptly in the Brooklyn-based artist’s curiously dispassionate paintings, there are also reminiscences of the works of Chaim Soutine and Francisco Goya’s “black” paintings, which Hafftka admires unreservedly. In these unconscious references one encounters enigmatic emotions that drive his mysterious figures. These effects and unconscious references are broadly signaled by the artist’s lush gestural brushwork. Whatever its significance, the hazy halo of white pigment that erupts from the upright book on which The Selecting Hand’s iconic image appears, becomes in turn a virtuosic, abstract passage in the gripping pantomime, frozen as if by the crime-scene photographer’s flash.

The dynamic impact appears to be sui generis, like nothing historically imaginable, an explosion illuminating a disparate group of grotesquely distorted bystanders, and it simply makes the enveloping darkness appear even darker and more penetrating. Contrasts are sharp, masterful and totally tactile in The Selecting Hand, lending a sense of somber significance to what seems to be a crucial narrative that can almost – but, provocatively, not quite be deciphered, and it remains a gripping, ultimately incomprehensible puzzle.

As a result the observer is left with a wealth of possible interpretations, all demanding urgent resolution, and, most important, we encounter a formal statement so powerful that it too demands our full attention. Like other works in the Brooklyn-based artist’s thirty year artistic career, The Selecting Hand springs from assimilated perceptions of his own world, and it thus reflects an inner reality through his own glass: darkly, but with a sly sense of wit and irony.

His pictorial sources are rich, far-reaching and profound. They include the constantly changing urban environment Hafftka traverses constantly, between his home and nearby studio in Brooklyn, his family life, with growing children; his studies of art and artists, contemporary and past masters; impressions from a Bronx childhood; European travels and a seminal year on an Israelie kibbutz where he encountered a wealth of stories and histories, myths and legends. Those sources form the raw material for works in which reality and metaphysics blend and blur, spinning into their complex matrix modernist influences and memories of art’s great masters. And in the process, they coalesce into an emotionally charged theater of the mind, replete with forms that are both absurd and tender, cunningly abstract but still realistic.

Nowhere is that more evident than in recent works, where the spidery veils of The Selecting Hand and the ominously blurred imagery of Stumble Dance have taken on greater solidity and specificity. A broad white band outlines the reclining and upright figures in Ninety Degrees, setting them apart from a background where red ladders seem to stand at the ready – perhaps to lead the ravaged recumbent woman straight to heaven, or possibly merely to hang a storm window. And while the narrative implied by the title and subject remains enigmatic, the tension between the fragmentary woman and the arm extended in what might be a healing gesture or, just as likely, fresh violence, together indicate passions barely held in check, and only for the moment in which  Hafftka presents his ambiguous theater.

Almost defiantly, he crams his paintings with more information than the eye can see, and more details than the mind can process. His compounded theater of action is not primarily a visual concept; his main concern is with the emotions embodied in his subjects and, simultaneously, with our reactions to those subjects – both his own response, and that of the viewer. He works intuitively, striving to express in tangible form the sort of visionary impressions that he himself began to experience 30 years ago, while he was working on the Kibbutz. Yet he considers himself essentially a realist in the sense of drawing on an inner reality and giving it distinctive, urgent form and gesture.

His pared-down, challenging figures, often stripped beyond nakedness and without the body parts unnecessary for conveying the desired emotions, might seem grotesque as they carry out what seem to be rituals from another time, and from another, alien universe. Yet the considerable power of Hafftka’s paintings arises from the fact that his figures never fully cease being human, and are thus capable of either extreme cruelty or self-sacrifice – or, shockingly, of both. His recent Upheaval shows precisely that effect: flayed figures either tossing a bleeding person into the air or, conversely, trying to catch and cure him. Muddy reds flare in the background, as if to suggest distant fires, and crudely painted white lines over brown building blocks introduce the notion of urban structures.

The jumble of information, applied helter-skelter in the style of Chagall or perhaps a wise, inspired child, adds up to an alarming possibility: in the turbulence suggested by the title, a tragedy is taking place. What it is, exactly, remains open to question – and it is in that narrow window of disorientation, of multiple interpretations and the tangled emotions they bring into play, that Hafftka acts. His paintings, highly personal amalgams of his inner reality, reflect his willingness to work almost mediumistically and also, serendipitously.

He applies his pigments without relying on preliminary sketches, reveling in the physical process of transforming his large canvas into a surface alive with spontaneous gestures, writhing figures and visionary significance. Only later does Hafftka rework his “found” images to refine his overarching intention, which is to clarify and redefine the emerging reality. Over the past twenty years, since the author first studied Hafftka’s work in New York, it has expanded dramatically from its initial gripping precepts – and, at the same time, it has taken on greater depth and heft as his experiences increased, and his vision sharpened. But rather than simply growing larger in scale and size, Hafftka’s oeuvre has become deeper, more introspective and reflective.

His initial impulse dates to the early seventies, after the Yom Kippur War broke out and Hafftka decided to volunteer working on an Israeli collective farm. The child of European refugees who were Holocaust survivors, he was born in Manhattan and raised in the Bronx, where he attended public school and a Yeshiva. During his formative years, he was strongly influenced by his parents’ wartime experiences, which vividly colored his view of the world. Indeed, Hafftka says, the desire for freedom that he learned from his parents contributed to his early decision to become an artist, though it would be years before he found a medium that suited his need for creative, often extreme, self-expression.

While still in his teens, Hafftka traveled to Budapest on the first of several major journeys he made to find himself, to define who he was and where he came from. His mother had died in 1971, when he was 18, and he worked in a bike shop and Army & Navy store enabling him to travel and to meet his maternal grandmother, of whose existence he had only recently become aware. One aspect of the trip made a profound impression on Hafftka: his grandmother spoke to him in the English she had learned before World War II, and her stories emerged in a stilted style that struck Hafftka as Shakespearean, and very poetic. He traveled on to Barcelona, where he lived for several months as a “hobo,” as Hafftka puts it, experiencing and absorbing its culture, particularly Gaudi’s sinuous Art Nouveau architecture.

He continued his self-assigned task of cultural immersion after returning to the United States, visiting New York’s museums frequently and supporting himself in the bohemian style he learned in Spain before taking yet another trip to Barcelona – this time to write poetry and experience Catalonian culture surrealistically, by observing a foreign land whose language he didn’t learn. The impact of dynamic, colorful Barcelona on the young artist’s receptive psyche was profound, as was his method of opening himself to random events, incomprehensible situations and the compelling presence of great art – and then attempting to express them poetically. Hafftka changed his scenery again, by turning himself back into a peddler on New York’s streets, before leaving for the Kibbutz.

It was there, however, that the disparate influences of his itinerant life began to come together. Working on Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley – a location he recalls choosing by sticking a pin into a map of Israel – he was thrown into a fevered state by the conditions he found there. The temperature was over 100 by day, and by night a stunned young Hafftka was unable to rest. “I didn’t sleep; I dreamt,” he has said. “I was delirious every night in the beginning.

“I had a continuum of dreams that went on for several years. The dreams were often connected. They were mystical and visual in such an intense and flexible form, I felt as if my soul was being informed,” said Hafftka. “This has been the root of my art. I began to write down my dreams, but the writing of them was inadequate to express them. This is when I gave up poetry, writing and conceptual art (which had taken on the form of peeling tomatoes, drying the skins and collaging them to paper).

“I began to paint my dreams and soon enough the experience of painting brought on exciting and mysterious experiences, as suggestive as dreaming. I felt freer than I had ever felt before. Painting became revelatory.”

The doors of perception that opened for Hafftka during his Kibbutz year remained open, and allowed new material to enter constantly. He moved to a nearby village, living idyllically in an orchard near the Mediterranean Sea. “I would arise in the morning, pluck the fruit from a tree, swim and paint day and night,” he recalled of that pivotal period.

Back in New York, a long way from orchard and ocean, Hafftka worked a variety of odd jobs and painted, showing his work for the first time in 1976 at a New York artist-owned gallery and gradually building his reputation. The pace began to pick up in the early eighties, when Hafftka’s paintings were included in such group exhibitions as “Artist Protest” at Pratt Graphics Center and “The New Menace” at Gallery Schlesinger-Boisante, both in New York.

He saw his work published in 1982, in “Michael Hafftka: Selected Drawings,” and in another pamphlet published that year, “Art of Experience, Experience of Art,” and he saw it featured that year in his first one-man exhibition. Other solo shows followed, as did his inclusion in group shows. Among them are “Naked/Nude”, Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Brooklyn Museum’s “Public and Private American Prints Today,” which traveled to the Rhode Island School of Design, Carnegie Institute and the Walker Art Center, and the Jewish Museum’s “Jewish Themes/Contemporary American Artists II,” both opening in 1986. His work was shown internationally in 1984, in a Dutch gallery’s one-man exhibition, and since then his paintings have been on view in Japanese, German and Belgian galleries, as well as in galleries throughout the United States.

Yet recognition didn’t affect Hafftka’s approach. “I continued to paint from my dreams and visions and to paint portraits of my friends (although there was no attempt at creating a visual resemblance.)” he has said. “I was after a spiritual realism and I felt I was on the right track toward achieving my desires. All the while, painting for me was in itself a guiding light. Wherever the work led me, I would follow.”

By the late eighties, as he explored “both the subject matter and the substance of paint,” Hafftka had refined his vision. The works that resulted in his masterpiece of that period, Ceremony, focused on figures crushed by the weight of the darkness surrounding them and turning inward, as if to reflect on the existential angst they were repressing beneath banal, non-committal expressions. The scrawled figure in Stumble Dance bends forward, vestigial eyes closed and flayed arms resting on crouching knees. Behind him in the inky, scumbled backdrop that resembles a horror-show stage in the 1985 work are dusty-white vertical columns – wells of light, perhaps, or dramatically exaggerated bars in the central figure’s personal, suffocatingly restrictive prison.

Yet more stark and more gestural, Fix shows two grotesque figures and the leering face of a third, emerging eerily from a luscious patch of ruddy pigment. More than merely nude, the two figures shown in some detail look like grotesquely animated corpses. One would be on the floor, lying on a side indicated by crudely painted black lines that indicate ribs, except that Hafftka shows no floor – and, indeed, no spatial parameters at all. The figures, one in a cowering position that has him gritting his lipless teeth and trying to move by using the single, slashed flipper that trails behind his truncated body and the other upright, seem to be adrift in some fathomless sea. Yet the standing man, his harshly highlit form spouting blood-red slashes, seems not so much to be rising from a murderous frenzy as recoiling at the sight of the fallen man, pulling back to hide behind the bland smiling mask that hovers before smears and swathes of red pigment.

The figures multiply in monumental canvases of the mid-eighties, among them The Selecting Hand, The Observer and The Observed and Deposition, and in each the severe backdrop, lack of landmarks and grotesque figures work to create a powerful, even sublime sense of paranoia. The looming white face in The Observer and The Observed, with its beaklike nose and vacant eyes fixed ferociously on the work’s diminutive, pathetically restrained characters, is both an awesome apparition and a creaky plot device – the Wizard’s projected persona in a post-modern Wizard of Oz, and the very face of an omniscient being, filtered through a scrim that transforms it into a cadaverous Egon Schiele visage or a slack refugee from a societal nightmare by Otto Dix or Max Beckmann.

The artist’s fascination with abstraction found full expression in works like Bird, a searing 1988 canvas that only tangentially deals with its titled entity. The brushstrokes – slashing, dripping, slathered and scrubbed – are the thing, culminating in a luscious, lavish interplay of blacks and whites, cut with fiery flares and, on what appears to be the distant backdrop, yellowed reflections of the foreground drama, a sacrificial dove seems to have been slaughtered, and held up in a ritual offering. Hafftka’s return to a more fully developed realism can be seen in works of the early nineties, most notably the stark and classically distorted Man Sitting. Enveloped in dense shadows and clad in black, the man sits on a tilted wooden side chair and stares up at the viewer, arms crossed and eyebrows quizzically knitted. Beyond his expression of sullen surprise, his features betray no real, comprehensible emotion; a prisoner only of his own device, he is modern man, cast adrift from traditional roles and ancient beliefs – and he looks, quite angrily, utterly lost.

Just so does a 1993 figure, Christ of Avignon, appear both hopeless and resigned to his fate. Enmeshed in an agitated tangle of black and red brushstrokes laid over a more loosely worked dark-green and –blue backdrop, Hafftka’s Christ – a Jewish martyr, and a real man, beyond suffering – gazes at the viewer with his simple question, “Why?” He is a dazed, footless marionette whose strings have allowed his arms to fall at his sides, and his head to topple onto his shoulder. Yet he’s no more isolated than the figures in The Old Story, a nude man and woman seated at angles to one another and pointedly looking in different directions, or the open-mouthed figures seated on the ground in Forty Years, at the feet of the hooded skeleton blowing a trumpet.

Painted as intuitively as all his other works, relying not on a programmatic or pre-determined design or concept, Forty Years might pay tribute to the artist’s age at roughly the time it was painted, 1985, as he has said in conversation with the author. Or it may be a work in which sources, influences and intentions are subordinated to Hafftka’s primary working method: applying pigments intuitively, and only afterward refining his subject or general theme. And, indeed, vaguely Biblical references abound, linking the imagery to a fevered dream in which personal and archetypal angst intertwine with that of mythical or heroic figures. The Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for forty years after Moses led them out of Egypt, and King David ruled Israel for forty years, stories that are part of the cultural milieu in which Hafftka was raised, and which he adopted during his own days of wandering in search of the spiritual home art has provided.

Too Late, his 1996 painting of a man standing above a second figure crouched in a red-outlined box, is a lamentation, as is Hafftka’s painterly tribute to his late father, the affecting Last Wish of 1999. When he painted Too Late, Hafftka was suffering a personal loss – and his emotions were transmitted to a canvas which captures both the anguish of the friend who committed suicide and the grim reality of life after the self-murder, for the people left behind. Similarly, Last Wish expresses the artist’s sorrow as his father’s health failed and he died; as literal as the work might seem, however, its emotions are universal. The elderly creature can be construed as  Everyman, reaching out for the hand of Death, a Halloween figure in  black hooded robes and bloody athletic shoes, while to his right the limp figure on a slab has only to step up to Jacob’s Ladder to rise heavenward.

Childlike and intensely felt, both late-nineties works mark transitions in the life of the artist, as he wrestles with inner realities and manipulates their physical manifestations in oil on canvas. It’s a feat Hafftka has mastered over the past thirty years, and one he is continuing to develop and push to new heights. While his immense and compelling painting of urban life, Dead End, made in the year 2,000, overtly ruminates on scenes witnessed by Hafftka daily, as he goes from home to studio and back again, it portrays not visual but emotional reality, cast onto the world stage of the artist’s imagination and projected as a fevered, fiercely expressive morality play. Props are simple: a brick wall to the left, benches and chain-link fencing to the right, a driverless sedan and rough cobbled street in dead center.

What is most compelling in the imagery, and brings the painting to nightmarish life, are actors who only seem to wear masks. Grotesques in the Grand Guignol tradition, they are the “usual suspects” sporting their horrifying true characters. Demonic and distorted, a gang gathers at the street corner, one holding a walking stick and a werewolf’s head while a second figure, his lips smeared with blood, reveals his base, subhuman nature. The three figures to the right are just as terrifying creatures of the artificial night that surrounds them. One, as gaunt and pasty as any disease-ridden urban junky, stands and stares out at the viewer; beside him are other haunted hunters. A pale woman reaches long, elastic arms out to her mark, a legless man with the face of a rodent or simian. Wherever the black hearse-like sedan may go, the end is as dead as Hafftka’s denizens of an eternal, yet childlike and magically theatrical night.

One of the artist’s strongest works is also among his most recent. Like others in New York, Hafftka was directly affected by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and the World Trade Center towers’ collapse. The chaos of that day could already be glimpsed in his personal visions of suffering, torture, sacrifice and, paradoxically, everyday life; what is remarkable about works such as Survivors is that they extend the path Hafftka has been on for the past thirty years, and add new dimensions opened by new experiences. This spiritual change now appears apart from the subject itself, in this case a virtuosic depiction of an upright figure with only one leg, his head thrown back in horror and the thickened fingers of his oversized hands clasped in Adam’s classic gesture of shame at his nakedness.

The Garden from which this figure is being expelled isn’t in Eden, however; it’s one where the graying forms of fallen figures are a tangled mass worthy of a Holocaust memorial, and where a background curtain of wavering vertical bands suggests a city of tall buildings, of lighted towers. Hafftka’s palette is muted but rich, with slashing lines of putrescent yellow the only deviation from his stark red/black/white combination. What is most remarkable is the brushwork, with its varied slashes and spatters of pure pigment forming a surface whose outrageous sensuousness only makes its colossal suffering all the stronger.

It seems  that  in the thirty years since he began projecting his visions onto a larger, more public screen, Hafftka was preparing for this very special moment in history, when his brush and muscular work would embody the special bestiality of our challenging post-millennial world. Yet for Hafftka the subject matter is familiar, since it also embodies his allusive, elastic vision encompassed so powerfully in Survivors and in his other dramatic new works. These extraordinary canvases clearly present the artist’s preexisting inner reality, and yet they also reflect the frightening truths of our grim, destructive  contemporary  world, and they make its enormity not only credible, but also pose a heroic challenge for both artist and viewer to confront and assimilate.

© Sam Hunter 2004