Heraldic Patterns and Funky Variances in Polly Apfelbaum’s New Prints

Color and have long been important to Apfelbaum, whose means and media have tended to be unique among her peers. A 2011 print series with Durham featured colorful flower-like forms similar to the loose, playful cut-outs of Matisse in his dotage. Earlier works have included floor pieces composed by layering ornate textiles, or loosely hung hand-printed tapestries. Her work often plays with the precision of geometric forms and the imperfections of the human hand to produce repeating patterns with slight variations and funky contrasts.
For her newest works with Durham Press, each one a woodblock print on handmade paper, Apfelbaum has created a grid of diamond shapes, separated by thin lines. Each diamond contains one of several possible designs: circles; horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines; fields of solid color; smaller diamonds, and combinations of many designs and colors at once. the works are printed in a variety of bright, appealing colors, with a large set of purples, blues, greens, yellows, and so on. In Rusticiana (all works 2014), the largest of the prints—a nearly seven-foot square—the grid is enormous and enveloping. The array subtly resolves into larger movements by interrelated diamonds as the surface congeals and disperses at various points.
In two smaller works, Empress Shout and Emperor Twist, the dividing lines between the diamonds vary considerably, becoming multicolored zigzags that ride wave-like through the composition. This technique gives each composition thematic unity throughout the unpredictability of the discrete diamond pieces, and also provides a sense of movement through the field of the print’s surface. In the latter work, the bordering lines transition smoothly from bright yellow to rich turquoise, playing with a variety of arrangements that challenge and affirm the science of color theory.
Apfelbaum’s new works are exciting, fusing her disparate interests in controlled simplicity and exuberant abundance. While each specific element in these prints is spare and minimal, their combinations and totality are rich, and can be studied and compared for hours. Like her, they are endlessly inventive.