PRINT February 1968

Light as Surface: Ralph Humphrey and Dan Christensen

WHAT IF THE “REDUCED” and monochrome surface, a trademark of minimal art by virtue of its tangibility or thingness, is transformed into a fictive, hallucinating facade? We have been so accustomed to a kind of concretion purged of incident in modern art, that our awareness of induced or subliminal sensations given off by the work seems a by-product, or an irrelevant distraction to the central experience. The fact that our physiology involuntarily compels us to receive some measure of nuance even in the most hushed circumstances almost repels or deflects our attention back to the area of conscious will. There, at least, we confront the work head-on, and if we are chastened in the process, our moral sense, our pride in ourselves, is also flattered. For some time now, however, this satisfaction, as criticism is reflecting, has been dissolving before many normatively blank-faced works which yield, with increasing deliberation, a surreptitiously chromatic or luminous splendor. This art creates a context in which, not merely does the “irreducible” become a vestigial element, but the object-quality of the picture subsides in an oblique, problematical, yet sensuous glow.

If Rothko has been the great predecessor here, it is significant that his influence has been supplanted during the fifties and sixties by Newman, stylistically, and more lately by Reinhardt, rhetorically. Though of an older generation than that which matured in the last ten years, these men held sway through the sheer consistency and force of their reductive positions. If anything, their programs were carried to further extremes of flat pictorial or sculptural assertion—literal both in the absence of illusionist space, and in the acceptance of pre determined structural schemes. It can be seen that there was a natural transition between Reinhardt’s particular idealist outlook, and the object-oriented operations of an artist like Frank Stella. That is, from a philosophical and social exclusiveness, to a technological one, was only a short step.

But perhaps it can just as easily be understood now, that a newer reaction has set in, one that wants somehow to contradict, while still acknowledging, the total integrity of the picture surface. Partially a movement away from the theoretical impasse of a literalist art, this also registers a fatigue with consistency and discreteness—in processing, shape, density, and modulation. That phase of the reaction which has swung into a qualified stereometric projection, in artists like Ron Davis, has been amply discussed by Lucy Lippard and Barbara Rose. It is the other wing of this tendency, a sensibility that atomizes and diffuses picture matter into light, even if this is still relatively screened or filtered by a metrical order, that I am concerned with here.

First to be remembered is that lyricism, no matter how it may be implied by the iridescence and transparency of the new surfaces, is at best too easy a solution for the artists, and too coarse a description of their effort. It would be more accurate to say that such an element is remembered or mediated upon, or referred to, but is not in itself their expressive motivation. Rather, a peculiar combination of quietism, diffidence almost, and mechanistic explicitness, informs their handling. In the earlier part of this decade, the situation was represented by an occasional lone artist like Paul Brach, whose small blue fields, with their suspended “breathing” circular images, were mystical and geometric, in intriguingly equal measure. Emerging to attention more recently, within the last four years, are artists of a related, though characteristically less humanist persuasion: Robert Irwin, Dick Smith, Robert Mangold, Ralph Humphrey, and Agnes Martin, a very considerable bank of talent indeed. Perhaps taking their cue from Stella’s lavender metallic pigment, which they have skimmed for their own uses, are Al Brunelle and Bavid Novros. The most remarked, and the most Impressionist among them, Jules Olitski, correlates the tendency from a different direction, color-stain painting.

All of them may be said, whether consciously or not, to have addressed themselves to the problem of a post-Rothko color. Interestingly enough, they have arrived (with the exception of Olitski and Smith) at colorations either consistently rather high in value, or else quite low, and to have approached color as something implicit in techniques primarily involved with very slow value change, or a tactility achieved through initially graphic means. That an enormously wide range of compositional alternatives is engendered by these impulses, is revealed in the presence of grids, “hanging” bars, points and dots, shaped modular panels, or surfaces treated as mere platforms for glitter.In other words, there is no overarching structural rationale for this art, whose poly-centricity and fast-moving strategies are the result of intimate, empirical, and always “local” adjustments of form to color.

Rather than make a horizontal survey or cut fairly superficially across the various endeavors within this esthetic field, I choose to look with more detail into the work of two artists who exemplify the way certain of the new luminist energies have been given individual stress. They are Ralph Humphrey, 35, and Dan Christensen, 24. Humphrey has received very little critical comment; Christensen, for all practical purposes, is unknown.

Humphrey’s most recent pictures, in comparison with his overall earlier output, are a logical outcome, but also the most elaborate and voluble of his works to date. Such a conclusion may seem ironic when applied to medium sized unitary fields of sponged and brushed translucent color cut open only by a half dozen or so vertical or horizontal “needles” comprised of hues closely harmonized with the field. But this restricted vocabulary must be judged against the back-ground of a development whose main theme was one of extreme taciturnity. Giving himself no more than a rather mottled, slightly crusted spread of one color for one picture—red, yellow, or green—in his 1961 Mayer Gallery show, Humphrey vacuumed even this chromatic substance from the facade by 1965, to concentrate on works which were almost illustrative of vacancy. At the Green Gallery that year, he displayed a series of unnuanced, pastose off-white fields, margined by two inch, greyed green, blue, or red borders. The formality with which they enclosed their blankness was perhaps not as tuxedo-like as comparable work by Jo Baer, or as tastefully torn as in Jim Bishop, but was as unexceptionally “reductive.” Humphrey, at this point, evinced no interest in “relationships,” but it had not yet been revealed that the way beyond the stasis into which he brushed himself, was the immaterial vibration of painted light. The latter must have occurred to him, as it did to some of his colleagues along about the time of the Guggenheim Museum Systemic show, as the proper medium in which to embody an essentially structureless pictorial investment. And from the luminous environment, seen now as a surrogate tissue for pattern rather than as an emotive matrix or vehicle of feeling, there rather suddenly issued the enhanced complexity and articulateness that indicates a mature art.

If one examines such a work as an untitled canvas of 1966 (Fig. 1), the new ingredients of this art make themselves immediately apparent. On a ground of strong vanilla yellow, are laid down three close spaced, horizontal bars: from top to bottom, a whitish robin’s egg blue, a tart day-glo orange, and a kind of pastel Indian yellow. Unlike similar and much earlier canvases by Robert Irwin dating from 1962, this work does not sliver and distance the bars (which Irwin did not consider as images so much as almost indiscernible, immaculate tapes laid in a harder, more light refractive matrix of coral, say, or beige). Humphrey’s more emphatically isolated grouping of the motif combines with his overpainting—acrylic on day-glo—to set the bars into a contracting-expanding, advance-recession, framework. The effect is one of subdued hovering. (Oddly enough, his palette was, and still is, the most Californian of any in New York, so much so as almost to look nostalgic.) Humphrey’s slightly loaded, rimmed drag of the brush, his uneven widths, the very veiled sense of subterranean pictorial life lacks the tautness, the hyper-acuteness of comparable Irwins, but it is more economically spatial, and less obsessive in its hedonism. One gets the sense of a very gently sponged matte skin, upon which long hyphens of secondary color interact to confuse the vertical distance between them, the equal alignment of their endings, and their metaphorical relation to the surface. These interactions might be linked through approximately equal admixtures of white to different hues, or they might suggest—together—variations on the complement of the ground—as in a small, airily lime green picture punctuated by three different frosty pink-orange bars. Here the linear is successfully elided into the chromatic, and the materiality of substance is negotiated, or rather delicately juxtaposed with the porosity of light.

That this kind of controlled indeterminacy led to a certain transcendence of the surface, an optical shift or buckling out from the center into the viewer’s space, is registered in the newer work. The bevelled edges of the stretchers, though they were originally intended to cant diagonally back to the wall, and “float” the canvas more perceptibly in the viewing area, have also the effect of seeming to make the surface somewhat convex. Echoing this illusory convexity is the slight entasis of the vertical “slits,” terminating gradually from a mid-swell, to rapier like points. Not surprisingly, this induces a sense of the canvas as being pulled more tightly across a support thinner than is at all usual in current painting. If, on one hand, these tactics have underlined the “aliveness” of the picture as an object, they have also intensified its metaphoric potential. In Westley (Fig. 2), for example, the slits appear to be apertures on a ground the color of Boston coffee, through which one glimpses a roseate-orange-blue dawn worthy of Giovanni Bellini. Since the ground is stained by a very bashful pigment, and the day-glo “apertures” have some body, and are physically deposited, Humphrey achieves an almost immeasurably subtle ambiguity. Moreover, a fading of saturation confirms a fading of visibility at all margins, so that the largest metaphor relates to the human field of sight itself. Combined with hues as strange as certain lipsticks that are lighter in value than the face, Humphrey’s illusory structures partake of an intricate, almost perverse glamor.

Dan Christensen is an artist as disorderly in development as he is a virtuoso in execution. Enormous contradictions well up in a temperament such as his, devoted equally to mathematical regulation, and a kind of hazy dreaming. He has developed an impressive, blurring fluency with the spray gun as a painting instrument (whose use does not originate with Olitski, but goes back through Billy Al Bengston to Hedda Sterne), at the same time as he has maintained a contradictory interest in finite, repeating modules. This almost classic polarity provides the basic stability to an otherwise restless imagination. But it is his luminism which furnishes the context for discussing him here.

Though the series represented by the work at the Whitney (1966–67) is based on an arbitrarily progressive modular scheme, though they are essentially somber grey-brown canvases, they are implicitly luminous as well. The penumbral spray of the ground, and the curious, almost graphite reflectiveness of the hundreds of short little vertical bars that are its tiered punctuation, are like reciprocally impinging airy shadows of each other. This airiness seems to come naturally to Christensen. A silvery-white masonite picture with a staid shower of yellow bars, done within the last year, is almost Magritte-like in the openness, if not the lightness, of its space (Fig. 3).

Coupled with this buoyancy and delicacy (pictorial without being painterly), is an oddness of color, or sometimes an absence of color, that re-sembles solarized photographic prints. Christensen is fully capable of using a kind of reverse focus color—spectrum hues that make up, or rather sift in or filtrate, optical grey. If the spray gun can coat a surface as film is coated with a light-sensitive emulsion, Christensen also takes maximum advantage of the peculiar muffling of color allowed by the technique. Yet it is characteristic that he maintains his field, not only as a layered sequence of separations, but of observable, rather small scaled units.

Carried out in quite large dimensions, and with no special compositional proclivity, this has resulted in some very radical structural statements. The pulsating “molecular” field of Fig. 4, fascinating though it is, can be seen as a mere forecast of bolder canvases executed with great rapidity in recent months. Christensen, for example, can gesture with spray, not in the old action painting spirit, but ostensibly as a systemic painter, though he contradicts both rituals in his pre-ordained latitude of movement. Such paradox is especially evident in the prescribed spontaneity of Fig. 5, a lattice with a central spine dividing slat-like lozenges whose blurred outlines seem to rest precariously over the surface, even to cast shadows on it, rather than, in any sense, to be physically attached to the white ground. Equally remarkable is the consistent push against, yet affirmation of, the right and left canvas perimeters.

Though it is a nominally abstract work, the canvas here acts as a ground to house an image, instead of an area situating pictorial events. Yet, that this illusionism is often sensed in. Christensen’s work does not mean that it may be considered as a deliberate policy. Rather, it is a concomitant of certain devices, or better a formal modality that happens to be charged with illusionist potential. Though he obviously does not forego a conceptual phrasing of each picture problem, the artist does exhibit a passive attitude toward the vagrant dimensions of sensory effect. These unexcited translucencies accept the spatial implications of permeable matter, rather than impose depth through stereometric design. At this early stage, the major weakness of his, as well as many allied programs, is a certain safeness or timidity in their chromatic range. The abstract-illusionists, on the other hand, often suffer from a too familiar presentation of cubic schemata.

It has recently been proposed (Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia), that artists like Humphrey and Christensen be called “Romantic Minimalists.” This seems to me much too value-loaded, wishful, and particular, to describe the phenomenon, an area of which they represent. It is better to say something more neutral, but more encompassing: that they are a species of abstract luminists. With its sophistication and venturesomeness, their contribution has already been gratifyingly rich.

Max Kozloff