Seeing Ourselves Through Martha Alf’s Paintings of Toilet Paper Rolls

Martha Alf, “Black” (1974), oil on canvas, 37 x 46 inches

LOS ANGELES — Although Martha Alf (1930-2019) is recognized for her distinctive pear drawings, her inaugural posthumous exhibition at the Michael Kohn Gallery, Opposites and Contradictions, sheds new light on her breakthrough moment as a painter. While the exhibition presents a small selection of later drawings, hung salon-style, the primary focus is on the body of work that earned Alf a place in the 1975 Whitney Biennial: her paintings of toilet paper rolls, which she preferred to call “cylinders.” Such phrasing is significant because, by this point in her career, she was a formalist who boldly applied what she learned about abstract painting to still life, but with a twist in the form of unconventional subject matter. As she wrote at the time, she was “finding reality through an artificially contrived arrangement customarily associated with the stage or an altar, which raises the most mundane of material objects in our society to the authoritative power of an icon. It is about the absurdity of the idea that a roll of toilet paper is so important to our society that it can become a symbol of it.”

Born into the Silent Generation, Alf was a frustrated faculty wife in the 1950s, and would never identify as a feminist. Nevertheless, the Women’s Liberation movement impacted her enough that she earned her MFA in 1970 at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she explored abstract painting, became involved in Southern California’s blossoming art scene, and broadened her knowledge and understanding of contemporary art.

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