Although she had lived in the Catskills for the past 17 years, few of her many acquaintances in the area knew of her remarkable past. Instead, they remember her as a spirited, fun, great gardener. As Jan Albert, a close friend, told me on the phone ARTnews“I had absolutely no idea about their serious background” until the two really got to know each other. Albert described in an email a recent meeting of friends where Kaufman “lay on the sofa with red flowers in his hair” while “telling dirty jokes and singing songs”.
Born in New York, she earned a BA from NYU in 1960 and an MA from Hunter College in 1965. She exhibited her work extensively in the early 1970s. In 1971 the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York held her solo exhibition “Recent Paintings”, and in 1973 she took part in the Whitney Biennale. She was also one of the first women to teach in the arts department at Bard College, where she spent the 1972-73 academic year. In 1974 she received a Guggenheim grant.
Originally a painter, Kaufman soon began to incorporate embroidery and textile elements that she had learned from her grandmother. She became part of a group of artists who enjoyed maximalist decorative beauty. Developed as a deliberate contrast to minimalism in the mid-1970s to 1980s, the Pattern and Decoration movement is credited for focusing both on the contributions of women artists – although there were men in the group – and on what is traditionally Eurocentric Contexts viewed as mere “practical” endeavors such as mending, quilting and beautifying.
Joyce Kozloff, a well-known member of the Pattern and Decoration group that Kaufman knew well during his heyday, said of Kaufman: “She was passionate about this subject, decoration, and she was also fearless.”
In 1976 Kozloff was one of 10 artists Kaufman selected to exhibit their work in the Alessandra Gallery in New York. The exhibition “Ten approaches to the decorative” was accompanied by a document with statements from the artists. In her post, Kaufman explained her fascination with light as a subject in itself, writing that metal thread and horn beads, such as are sometimes used on handbags and clothes, enabled her to “make purely abstract paintings about light; ‘Real’ light – reflected, not absorbed, and at the same time the decorative element inherent in the materials. ”The pieces that Kaufman showed in the exhibition were riffs on Frank Stella’s black paintings, but smaller and studded with pearls. As she wrote, “I want you to decorate the walls – in a decorative sense.
When the pattern and decoration movement went out of style, Kaufman used her textile skills to upholster friends’ sofas and turned her decorative passion towards gardening.
Kaufman was also active in feminist art circles, perhaps best known among the guerrilla girls. She renounced a pseudonym and was one of the few to reveal her identity. According to an email from colleague Frida Kahlo (a pseudonym), Kaufman “had the ability to put a problem right at the center and the courage and principles to face those in power”.
Later in life, Kaufman continued to march and protest, sometimes with Albert. When Albert learned more about Kaufman’s illustrious past, she joined the artist’s delight in having her work recognized in the LA MoCA exhibition “Pattern and Decoration in American Art 1972-1985” and on the cover of the accompanying catalog. The show, curated by Anna Katz, opened in late October 2019, but closed several months earlier in mid-March 2020 due to the pandemic. The survey is currently on view through November 28, 2021 at the Bard’s Hessel Museum of Art in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
There on a wall hangs the work that Kaufman calls her finest, Embroidered, beaded crazy quilt (1983-85), its dimensions suitable for a queen-size bed. The effect of countless linear shapes, in shades and patterns of mostly purple with a little pink, combined with 16 sewn and beaded flowers in blue and red on black, is both strangely calming and disturbing. The flowers have a sweetness and the cacophony of the fabrics put together is edgy.
According to Katz, Kaufman used more than 100 historical embroidery stitches that she researched at the Textile Museum in Washington DC. She made all the seams and beads by hand herself. When Katz first saw the ceiling, it was hanging on the artist’s wall where her cat clawed it. The work is, Katz said in an interview with Bard ARTnews, a real crazy quilt. “A crazy quilt is traditionally a quilt made from scraps. And that is really a tenet of women’s home economics. You use what is available. This is also a basic principle of decoration. You use the given space, ”explains Katz. “And in it you make it so beautiful, so colorful, so interesting, as captivating as possible.” And Kaufman himself could describe this feeling very well.