The abstract artist Ralph Humphrey (1932-1990) never developed a signature style during a career that was tragically cut short by his death at the age of 58. His lifelong preoccupation with paint’s materiality, with muted colors, and with softly trembling light informed his resistance to branding his work. But his absorption with physical states and fluctuating light was not purely formal. Rather, he found meaning in his pursuit of compressed combinations of the visual and tactile, which is something he shared with Brice Marden, with whom he showed at Klaus Kertess’s historic Bykert Gallery.
The other currents running through Humphrey’s work are a tendency for understatement and a rejection of conforming to accepted categories, an impulse that became particularly evident when his paintings became objects, starting in the mid-1960s, and grew more pronounced as the years went by. At the same time he was refusing to make work that could be defined as a painting or a sculpture, he was also rejecting the widely accepted options explored by his contemporaries. Instead of making sharply shaped paintings, to cite one example, he made understated shaped paintings characterized by gently curved edges. All of this adds up to an almost passive refusal to indulge in self-branding, which is probably the major reason why Humphrey is not better known, and why, in my opinion, I believe that he is deserving of a comprehensive survey of his work.
I first pointed out the need for a museum exhibition in 2012, when I reviewed Humphrey’s first show in New York in 14 years, which meant that his work had not been seen here since 1998. This what I wrote about that exhibition:
Completely lacking in histrionics, without references to the mass media, and rather slow to reveal themselves, Humphrey’s paintings require the kind of looking that an out-of-control, consumerist world long ago rejected. In the middle of the constant hubbub and hoopla, with mindlessness careening full speed ahead, Humphrey made works — at once retinal and tactile — that allude to “frontal space,” as he put it in an interview with Amy Baker.
Six years later, after seeing Ralph Humphrey: Monochromes at Garth Greenan Gallery (September 6 – October 20, 2018), I am even more convinced of the need for an in-depth survey show. Started shortly after he first moved to New York from Youngstown, Ohio, where he grew up and studied art, the paintings in the current exhibition were included in his first shows at Tibor de Nagy in 1959 and 1960 and have not been seen together since. They show us how Humphrey started out.
One thing that struck me about these paintings is that they are seldom if ever mentioned in any survey of monochromatic painting in America. It is as if he was never there, which is completely wrong. Is it because Humphrey did not brand himself as a monochrome painter, like so many others? Is it because his monochromes do not have uninflected surfaces, like those we see in the work of Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly? Is it because he is not conclusively reductive in terms of color and does not end up with the same color that he started with? In addition to Reinhardt and Kelly, the art world has celebrated the monochromes that Yves Klein, Frank Stella, Robert Ryman, and Milton Resnick were making in the late 1950s, but it does not seem to remember that Humphrey was in the mix. Whatever the reason, his paintings from this period are largely unknown and that should not be the case.
The seven paintings in the exhibition were finished between 1957 and 1960, which means that he started them shortly after he arrived in New York — and before Jasper Johns mounted his first one-person show in January 1958 at Leo Castelli Gallery, which famously consisted of the “flags,” numerals,” and “targets” that went on to influence a younger generation. The surfaces of Humphrey’s monochromes are physically uneven, even turbulent. He seems to have applied the paint with a brush and a palette knife, imbuing the surface with a volatile physicality.
The other difference is that you can see other colors — blue, green, or orange — peeking through the overall hue. These hints and embedded colors pull us into the painting’s depths: we don’t just see the surface but interact with it, as our attention drifts over the painting’s intensely physical surface, where Humphrey never seems to attempt an all-over uniform mark or employ a repeated brushstroke. The rough unevenness of the painting’s terrain and the clear evidence of the artist’s hand compel your attention. The paintings become unexpectedly cartographic, while the shifts in color pull the eye this way and that. An unnameable color peeks through or lurks beneath the surface.
In contrast to the bracing optical purity of an Ellsworth Kelly monochrome, Humphrey’s paintings are physically gritty and much less pure. For the most part, the palette he uses is somber, as is the mood that the works convey. In this regard, Humphrey seems to have been influenced by the darker paintings of Mark Rothko, who befriended him shortly after he got to New York. At the same time, Humphrey’s uneven, tactile surfaces immediately distinguish his work from Rothko’s. There is something inelegant and unstylish about these paintings. Their color is not uniform, and whatever palette Humphrey might have started out with has been long covered over with an avalanche of paint. But the interaction of these elements has become part of what is so captivating.
There is so much going on in these paintings that you are apt to forget they are monochromes. The surfaces and layers of color pull you in. Humphrey was not trying to make grand or conclusive statements. He wanted an intimate experience. He wanted to pull the viewer up so close to the painting’s surface that they would no longer see the physical edges. They might even forget – however briefly – that they were looking at a painting.
Stepping back, and reflecting upon the different bodies of work that Humphrey made over a short period of time, it becomes clear how restless an artist he was. And I think that the kind of restive, probing spirit that Humphrey embodied is not honored enough by the art world and that’s a pity.
Ralph Humphrey: Monochromes continues at Garth Greenan Gallery (545 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 20.