Marcia Hafif (1929-2018), born in Pomona, California, is a plastic artist who is internationally renowned as one of the major practitioners of monochromatic painting in her time. After graduating from Pomona College in 1951, she completed post-graduate studies on the Italian Renaissance and Far Eastern Art. Throughout the 1960s, Hafif lived in Roma as a painter. She worked using a simple visual language, often organised by symmetries and a colour palette inspired by pop artists: “In those years, with a husband and a small child, I was very conscious of the simple forms that are found in and around the human body [...] I enlarged and abstracted them, sometimes making them recognizably related to a certain body part, often the hidden or sexual parts, or the negative space around them”.
Hafif became interested in photography thanks to Tony Vaccaro, a photographer that she met in Rome. She bought a reflex camera and, in the second half of the 1960s, completed her pictorial work with black and white photos. To make Roman Sunday (1968), she left her camera pointing at the door of a bar for a certain period of time, taking shots of clients as they exited the establishment. The series of photographs almost looks like a film strip and is indubitably an early suggestion of Hafif’s interest in capturing the linear passage of time. This work was a precursor to the cinematic style that Hafif adopted upon her return to California, in 1969.
In the two following years, Hafif dedicated considerable energy to cinema and photography in what was a period of creative experimentation for her. One of her first films shows nothing more than a cloud slowly transforming and moving into the distance. Hafif's first works in cinema and photography focus entirely on recording the motifs that she chooses to create. For example, she would film the goings-on of public parking lots in her home town, converting her involuntary actors into the protagonists of a narration of everyday life. For Chris Burden (1970), she focused her lens on the face of a colleague, recording a long shot of his face as he gradually lost control of his facial expression.
Marcia Hafif took creative writing classes in Pomona College and wrote narrative literature and art criticism throughout her career. Her writing was linked to her creative practice: her seminal essay Beginning Again is based on several years of her observations on painting that she wrote whilst working in her studio. In 1976, an invitation to contribute to Rooms, an exhibition at the Institute of Art and Urban Resources in New York (currently known as MoMA PS1), led to the creation of Schoolroom in Queens, a large installation in which Hafif carefully wrote an erotic text with chalk on several chalkboards.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the work of directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni inspired Hafif to devote herself more to cinema. This led to her filming Notes on Bob and Nancy (1970–1977) and India Time (1978), her two longest films. This medium allowed her to articulate her ideas through an innovative combination of textual and visual material: she wrote texts that she later added to the image like a soundtrack. This image and text editing structure underpinned many of her subsequent films.
The relationship between the visual and linguistic dimensions in Hafif’s works is defined by divergence. Her voice sometimes refers directly to the plot and explains the image in movement. In other cases, the narrative may stray away from the action or include passages in the script that are unrelated to what is happening on the screen.
A few years ago Jonathan gave one of his filmmaking classes the theme: On being human. The human, for Jonathan, is hardly exclusive. It embraces the animal in (and outside of) us. It includes the finite brilliance and inexorable passing of the earth's seasons, and the contingencies and turmoil of varied cultural and natural landscapes. As an artist and person, he is fascinated with childhood and old age and the perspectives and discoveries of each. In his films, he sometimes comments on the political or psychological follies of humanity through sound or animation, but more often explores emotional spaces through both domestic and far-flung gestures and topographies.
If Jonathan's films have an age, it is childhood. They embody his own child-like wonder at the world and the magic of celluloid – its rhythmic movements, its intellectual couplings, its paradoxical arresting and releasing of time. And one recurring focus of his cinematic attention is the childhood-becoming of his son Henry and friends. This becoming-a-child in the world is full of curiosity, but also laden with “a certain worry” (to quote the title of one of his miniatures) —the worries of the child but also of the loving father/artist who watches and revisits the time-being of his son from three and a half decades hence.
If Jonathan's films have a season, it is winter. It may be a winter just about to push away fall, or a winter of crisp sounds and hard white textures, or even a waning winter with the promise of spring emerging through superimpositions from under icy surfaces. His camera repeatedly converges with bodies skating, with the elevated elation of ski jumpers, with landscapes swaddled in snow and ice. But winter can also be hard, it freezes and halts and rages against the flows of emotion, it brings with it the cracks and crack-ups of later life as intimated in one of his last films.
Above all, Jonathan's films are encounters with life in its constant passing. In his travelogues, these are encounters with other places of dwelling that he knows he cannot grasp, only allude to. Here he finds or elicits gestures and glances that simultaneously reveal and conceal, but that are evidence of the exchange that is so crucial to his idea of what being human is all about. Indeed, the encounter of gazes, sometimes awkward, sometimes captivating, always tender on his part, is vital in all his work. Several of his films are not only meetings in the film's diegesis, but missives after the fact, dedicated as gifts to his son, his wife, and to his late-life partner. And whatever their ostensible content, they are all explorations of human being and becoming — a being-with-others that must reconcile itself to its own transience, and a becoming that manifests, in part, as a process of appearance and disappearance.
Combining his radical spontaneity of gesture with his attention to cinematic form and montage, Jonathan's films actualize the passing of time through a devotion to the present, to presence. But this lyrical presence is simultaneously and constantly aware of the inexorable passage of time and the anxiety that inevitable mortality provokes. Jonathan's whimsy and infectious sense of wonder —both in his films and his life— mingle with bouts of anguish. It is "hard to land" as he says —as some things will disappear. And we must act "as if clinging could save us" to cite one his favorite poets, Galway Kinnell.
I, too, cling to my memories of his gentle and wry being, and to his films as gifts that embody, like him, appearances and disappearances.
(Irina Leimbacher is a film scholar and occasional curator who taught with Jonathan Schwartz at Keene State College for the last nine years)