Remembering Judith Hoffberg 1934-2009

Expert on Len Lye, editor of Umbrella Magazine Judith Hoffberg died on January 16, 2009. Tributes to her life and work continue with a memorial exhibition planned for late 2010. Judith Hoffberg wrote of her last visit to Adelaide in 2002 as one of ‘’Paradise regained’...

Remembering Judith Hoffberg BA, MA, MLS, 1934-2009
Judith Hoffberg wrote of her last visit to Adelaide in 2002 as one of ''Paradise regained’ after nursing her dying sister and subsequent exhaustion immediately following 9/11 which she witnessed at first hand. This extraordinary woman; a distinguished scholar, librarian, archivist - and activist - lecturer, curator, as well as editor and publisher of Umbrella magazine, which created ‘a new chapter in art history’ from 1978 -2008,, was a dynamic and tireless connector of people, politics and alternative art over five decades. The phenomenal international development of artists’ books was largely due to Judith’s efforts. An expert on the work of Len Lye, Judith fell in love with Australia and New Zealand during an initial lecture tour in 1982 and after a number of return visits, she unhesitatingly accepted a keynote invitation at the 2002 Adelaide Festival Artists Week talkfest. That year, the event was unfunded, appropriately titled elastic and remarkably successful, due in large part to Judith’s participation. In a typically generous response, she offered her air mile credits, stayed with friends, including myself, and set about catalysing art world responses to 9/11 throughout the Antipodes.
She was, we thought, unstoppable in her relentless hunger for information, and her even larger desire to disseminate this for the public good. In a pre-internet era the effort this involved was staggering; physically, psychologically, emotionally, and economically. Some will remember the towers of newspapers and magazines dominating her Pasadena warehouse home in the 1980s, all scrutinised with her sharp political vigilance up to 20 hours a day. Judith’s passionate and devoted promotion of non-market oriented art and social activism - mail art, Fluxus events and alternative publishing - positioned Umbrella as an extremely important source of global connectivity and ‘the best art gossip in the western world’ . From the 1950s onward, her indomitable advocacy of contemporary art transformed library collection systems to include and treasure artist books, while she also curated landmark exhibitions such as Women and the Book: Jewish Artists, Jewish Themes (1996-7).
In creating a vast, criss-crossing community across the globe, Judith’s work transformed thousands of lives. And then, incomprehensively, it was stopped by cancer at 74 on January 16 2009. Thankfully, her impeccable understanding of the power of documentation and her relentless drive for democratisation ensured that 31 years of Umbrella magazine were digitised by Indiana University and her huge collections of artists books and ‘umbrelliana’ were safely deposited in major Californian institutions.
It was only recently that I learned of Judith’s death after coming across a detailed Umbrella entry of her last visit ‘down under’. Like countless others, I was deeply moved by these wonderful memories and the privilege of having known this formidable and feisty woman whose work was such a positive force; she created so many new imaginative possibilities for so many people with so few resources. Tributes to Judith Hoffberg’s life and work continue with a memorial exhibition in late 2010. For those whose lives have been touched by her activity, it will be a nice opportunity to send Judith one last postcard.

Dr Pamela Zeplin is a writer and artist based in Adelaide. At the University of South Australia she is Research Education Portfolio Leader in Art, Architecture and Design.