PRINT November 1977

Ralph Humphrey: An Apology for Painting

THE EARLY EMOTIONAL AND INTELLECTUAL adventures of Ralph Humphrey distorted his experience into pure immediacy. He developed without a strong sense of cause and effect, and he chose and acted on the theory of life as hallucinations in surfaces. Humphrey discovered in color the means of expressing an intense visual experience which felt as though it had no correspondence with other sensations, no connections with solid objects, and no past and no future. Self-enfolded, he experienced himself as a floating cluster of feelings which could not be referred to any objective ground, and he investigated painting as a way to convey his painfully intense questions about immediate sensations and powerful emotions that have no tangible means of support and few connections with the ordinary actuality of other people.

The emotions and ideas of the early work can show him as the victim of external social forces, born as he was into the ugly commercialized poverty of Youngstown, Ohio, in 1932, in a social class which shunted him into schools and jobs which were like what the poor so often say their children need: a good slap across the mouth. But the early paintings transcend victimization, becoming as political as wall posters, by showing what daily life in the modern world can do to a person. The attacks of this society on its citizens extend to painting and color, consciousness and feeling—and injuries to consciousness and feeling are like a wound in the mouth in that they make us unable to speak of them. An apology might be offered, in the sense of “expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense,” and Humphrey’s early paintings are, in a deceptively passive way, apologetic about their own existence. But their apparent softness is strength. The man who has been wounded in the mouth can counterattack with the intelligence of his eyes, and he can paint an apology in a different sense of the word: “a formal defense or vindication from accusation or aspersion.”

The early paintings of Ralph Humphrey are allover and uncomposed, with close values of a single color, with lyric and equitable distributions of energy and attention. They resist an identification as visual units which would permit the categorical definition of an idea. The paintings raise a feeling within the viewer, but with no perspective or limit on that feeling—no fixed relations or points of reference or explicit inferences. The absence of even any rectilinear or biomorphic relations that would determine a scale or a rational structure yields a uniqueness and immediacy, a refusal on the part of one thing to be translated into anything else. Now, a whole made up of parts can be equated with, or mapped onto, another whole; but a whole without clear-cut internal relations (not even a figure-ground relation), in which color is not subsidiary to linear relationships but is focal, and where colors dissolve the physicality of the surface into an immediacy with an indeterminacy of depth—that is a whole that declines both spatial relations with the context of life around it and temporal relations with the past and future. This approaches pure presentational immediacy, in Whitehead’s phrase; it is non-metaphorical, and refuses to yield an idea that can be abstracted from the experience of color in relationships and made more or less equal to another idea. The painting is intensely concrete and self-consistent, and inconsistent with everything else.

The color in these early paintings by Humphrey feels fraught with meaning, but the meaning is immanent in the color and not imposed or external. And color can mean. Iris Murdoch, who uses colors brilliantly in her novels, writes, “Why not consider red as an ideal end-point, as a concept infinitely to be learned, as an individual object of love? A painter might say, ‘You don’t know what ”red“ means.’ This would be, by counter-attack, to bring the idea of value, which has been driven by science and logic into a corner, back to cover the whole field of knowledge.” The painting of sheer color can be part of such a counter-attack, an apology for color, by making paintings that offer color not in a mediating role, but as itself. The value defended in these paintings would be the value of present consciousness, the good of intense feelings, the enjoyment of satisfactions however transitory. Their immediacy—their most problematical value—is not an evasion of the actual context of mediating relations, but is, rather, the exhibition of an exemplary intensity and fullness of feeling. For the (emotional) origin of the work thus still to be alive in the work makes a statement about an exemplary relation between work and life.

On the other hand, the recalcitrance of color-feeling toward thought, and the lack of connections between the colors as colors and the total context of life, mean that in these paintings the experience of color is unsupported, and this feeling of unsupported, foundationless experience can shade into a disillusion with feeling, as well as with painting, which finds feeling as immediately transitory as color. That we bear the world up in our constructive perception of it can become unbearable. These paintings: if they don’t add something to one’s feeling, they are useless; if they do add something, isn’t that something likely to spoil or compromise the purity of the feeling, if only because the paintings are also commodities? And the emphasis on immediate color in isolation: doesn’t it induce an anxiety that there isn’t anything but the immediate present of sensations, with no enduring self and no enduring objects—an anxiety that the immediate present, with its pleasures and problems, is founded on no past and begets no future? In this sense these paintings suggest that nothing exists but themselves, but they make that suggestion truthfully, and this truthfulness redeems them even as it introduces the contradictory relations between solipsism and truth. The artist, at this stage understandably oblivious of causality because of its abuses in industrial capitalism, has caused effects which will modify himself as cause.

Donald Judd wrote in a review of a show of these paintings in 1960: “The complete surface, its texture implying improvisation, the very impure, ambiguous color, and the consequent frontal and impassive space are in the realm of sensation. The sensations of blue-black, not a color’s seemingly logical relation to a complementary, or its suggested position in a fixed scheme, are refined, reduced to a single blue-black, expanded in size, given a little of the variation and tone of the visual world and attendant emotions. The consequence is that the rawest, most unique immediacy is coexistent with generality, the basic quality and meaning; sense perception is particularized into universality.”

The feeling that immediate feeling is everything becomes disillusioned and disenchanted, so color is brought to the threshold of rational order, where a new nihilism begins. The “frame” paintings of Humphrey’s next period present a flatly painted frame around sheer color, with a suggestion of ambiguous spatial depth. The emptiness of the central panel represents the depletion of the imagery and values of art history, the exhaustion of the exchange system of emblems and symbols: emptiness as a representation of the emptiness in representation. The flatly painted frame of literal paint obviates a gallery frame, displacing the convention of framed canvases as ornamental or decorative commodities.

The edge or “frame” is painted with brush marks that call attention to the surface of the paint as paint, so that the framing paint is literal, with a matter-of-fact feeling of raw immediacy. But the literal paint of the frame opens onto the exquisitely proportioned emptiness or near emptiness within. The central amorphous gray areas of these works show that the paintings have no image that can be translated into an idea. These areas of low visual energy have nothing to offer the future, and offer no future: they must be seen here and now, on their own unyielding terms, offering no illusions or consolations and suggesting the “savage scrutiny” (Stevens) of nothingness.

The frame paintings express a feeling of the emptiness that can arise in the midst of the literal, everyday experience, with nothing to support feeling. They are bleakly futureless as images and as commodities. But the illusion of rather drab space in the central panel is not a representation of nothingness, but the feeling that there is almost nothing, or that one is almost nothing. A feeling of drab desolation in the midst of everyday literal experience is conveyed without the energy it would receive from a position of sharp opposition to an absolute. The statement is not “All is illusion,” but, more drably, “Almost everything is illusion”; not “Nothing has meaning,” but, more bleakly, “Almost nothing has meaning.” This paltry experience of nearly nothing isn’t enough to found a nihilism on, yet the paintings constitute a philosophy, and such a philosophy, as a reflection on the times, is indeed a political philosophy, one which says, “This is how this society is mirrored in me, as an almost nothing that reduces my experience to almost nothing.” They reproduce visually the injuries that the reproduction of this society in oneself has caused.

The literal color painted as a flat frame around the center is an image of the immediate present. And the central area, where in conventional painting the figure would have been, is an image for the transcending future—in this case, with an almost empty center, of the feeling that in fact there is no (or next to no) transcending future. So the structure locks the “present” of flat factuality—the frame—in warped and warping integration with an image of futurelessness. Such integration as there can be is there, here and now, in the precariously poised proportions between present/literal and future/imaginary. The implication is that the present has only an immediate value, without foundation, and opens onto or is up against a future that is next to nothing and offers little hope. Too much would have to be forgiven (and self-forgiven) to permit imagining a future. The frame and the center panel may thus represent time as two different rates of consumption, a raw present and a deferred future, and suggest that there is nothing much in either. The need to consume immediately (which is the feeling of the literal paint of the frame) supports the feeling of futurelessness because it proclaims that feelings are not enduring and that nothing will be preserved out of all that is perishing. There is no exchange to be made unless it be the exchange of illusions for disillusions. These paintings risk everything on color and feeling—which, in combination, suggest a foundationless present which consumes itself without contributing a foundation for the future. Moreover, the feelings are in isolation, within a self, not between or among people: the gray-space does not delineate an image that can enter into exchanges of reciprocal feelings such as occur in friendship or love.

Painting is a method of thinking. The truthful rendering of the foundationlessness of experience touches upon truth, and upon the power of painting, even when the powerful feelings which are its truth are feelings of disillusionment, skepticism, or flaccid nihilism. Paintings that represent a low-level despair about existence prepare for paintings that arise from the fact that the despair was actually painted truly and beautifully. Hopelessness, truly conveyed, evokes hope, through self-forgiveness. These paintings of somber partial disillusionment are so beautiful that they must have made their painter happy, introducing thereby different experiences to be expressed. Painting them made changes which were yet to be painted.

The change which had next to be painted appears in Humphrey’s three-line paintings, with their even intervals in a grayish field. The lines are thick, physical paint. They suggest a feeling of the origin of relationships, an appreciation of the intervals that mark relations with others. If the frame paintings turn inward upon themselves, these turn out toward their world, occupying a wall differently. Three colored lines cross a gray field (itself like a void) at evenly spaced intervals, with a thin illusion of space. The vitality of life is evoked in the intervals between the colors (which are not close in value) and the spaces between the lines. The colors form a systematic yet subjective order of their own. These paintings venture toward objectivity, and they render the excitement of touching external, objective constraints without surrendering freedom or selfhood.

While the lines all differ in color, they are placed in an order which makes them weigh the same visually. The same in some respects while differing in others, they share identities within their differences. The colors feel as though they could be exchanged for each other, as they are more or less equal to a visual task. And certainly the relations between them can enter into an abstracted system of exchanges. The possibility of exchange introduces the feeling of the possible—of possibilities in a world of relations—with an openness of combinations that is personal but rational, not solipsistic or onanistic. The internal relations allow these paintings to suggest the origin or threshold of relationships, or perhaps a commitment to life as adventure among external relations. They differ in commitment and enthusiasm for existence—which is understandable, since they still comprehend the feelings of foundationlessness and emptiness that are in the frame paintings—and they include the memory of the self-absorption of the allover close-value paintings. They do not negate these previous feelings, but subsume them as part of the enduring background of experience. These paintings are strikingly similar to, and may have been inspired by, a beautiful series of paintings by Robert Irwin. Allowing that they show this influence from a contemporary painter, since they seem actually to be about developing relations with others, they can surely include relations with the paintings of another artist without detracting from their originality or truth. But, again, the changes made by the thinking represented in these paintings are still to be thought and painted further by Humphrey.

The history of painting is the history of visual inferences in relation to their material grounds, but the fact is that visual inferences are not fully reversible with their physical grounds. Through that gap (probed open by David Hume and widened by Immanuel Kant) has entered the visual skepticism, sliding toward nihilism, which has underwritten the attacks on painting that have become fashionable in the last 20 years. Because they involve an underestimation of painting, such attacks are a tragedy for the imagination. But that same attack has the consequence of investing painting with the meaning of being under attack, of having its right to exist called into question. Here color is often the place to wound. As Rousseau wrote:

Just as the feelings that a painting excites in us are not at all due to colors, the power of music over our souls is not at all the work of sounds. Beautiful, subtly shaded colors are a pleasing sight; but this is purely a pleasure of the sense. It is the drawing, the imitation, which gives life and spirit to these colors. The passions they express are what stir ours; the objects they represent are what affect us. Colors entail no interest or feeling at all. (“The Essay on the Origin of Languages,” XIII.)

Attacks give a meaning to the act of painting: counterattack. If in doubt about the foundation of one’s experience—if one feels next to nothing, or next to nothingness—where better to present that feeling than in painting, which is told emphatically that it has no future as a medium because it cannot prove the grounds of its appearances. But if appearances are untrustworthy, then let painting be the art of untrustworthy appearances. If one is to question the reality of one’s feelings, or of oneself as a center of feelings, painting is the medium to do it with, since its own authenticity is being questioned. If painting is the medium whose authenticity is in doubt, then the doubt creates the expressive possibility for painting which is being explored by Humphrey: doubt about existence or the worth of existence.

Conceptual art, as it abstracted theory and concepts from painting, deriving energy from its position in relation to the historical force of painting, negated painting. Except in a few brilliant instances it attempted to negate painting without taking it up into itself or without at least tolerating it. Usually conceptual art repressed or concealed its relations to painting even as it underestimated the pleasures, powers, meanings, and values of paint on a surface. Consequently, in the face of the attack on painting, each painting became an apologia for painting, a defiance, an indulgence in forbidden games or impossible objects. Painting became the appropriate medium to work in if one felt apologetic about existing, or guilty for existing (as though existing were a fault for which one would have to ask pardon or forgiveness). A painter can paint pictures which include doubts about themselves as part of their meaning, and if the painter feels in the least unreal, experiencing the emptiness of our down-at-heel nihilisms, then he might use painting to prove the reality at least of feelings of unreality:

. . . the listener, who listens in the snow
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

—Wallace Stevens

The paintings of Ralph Humphrey into the early 1970s include the awareness of the attack on painting, but they use this attack as a resource in the most direct and immediate expression of experience possible. For the problem has its origin in vision, and these paintings return to that origin and present the problems visually. Thus some of the paintings in this period have an apparent passivity which can look like weakness or even self-pity; but, given the attacks on painting (and the qualities of the dominant painting of the period) even their passivity must be understood as a tactical stance, a defense and a counter-attack.

Transitions in Ralph Humphrey’s paintings were seen by Max Kozloff in 1967 against “a background of development whose main theme was one of extreme taciturnity” (“Light as Surface,” Artforum, February 1968). Humphrey’s paintings of the time Kozloff saw as “a logical outcome, but also the most elaborate and voluble of his works to date . . . 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.” For Kozloff, “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 saturation confirms a fading of visibility at all margins, so that the largest metaphor relates to the human field of sight itself.”

My reading of this transition, which complements Kozloff’s, is that the paintings with three horizontal lines approach an acceptance of life, that the fixed relations express a choice in favor of objective and external relationships accommodated to an overall, rationalizable eccentricity: thus the paintings neither fall into the void of self—with feelings of emptiness—nor lapse into the barrenness of mere relations between relations. The three-line paintings come close to an affirmation of life, yet something is withheld. The later paintings (the “needle” paintings described by Kozloff) seem expressive of a tensioned disappointment with “happiness,” the impulse to come forward toward life now qualified by acerbic reservations. The “needle” paintings have a tensile lyricism, yet emotionally they anticipate disappointment, a falling off or falling short of experience.

Humphrey’s paintings of 1971 attempt to transform anxiety into vivid pleasure, even glamour, and the attempt usually fails. “The show,” Kenneth Baker wrote, “so superficially cheery at first, was really rather depressing” (Artforum, May 1971). The artist says, “I was involved in false loves then.”

But by 1972 he finds his way again. Take one painting as an example, a canvas about five feet square with a salmon-colored square within a light square with the corners rounded—so that the whole canvas is shaped. The rounded outside corners of the painting press in upon the painted interior corners, pitting them awkwardly or uncomfortably against the physical corners of the painting. The inside square appears simultaneously convex and concave—advancing and receding, straining to fit into place—but the problem of its position is never comfortably or finally resolved. The interior area is like the fluctuating apprehension of an illusion of space, a space that feels vulnerable and vacillating, and one constrained by the surrounding frame of paint. The relation between the painted framing edge and the central panel is the relation between two feelings which outline each other by restraining each other within limits. Here is an ambivalence within a rage for unity, and pain in the frustrated desire for undifferentiated unity and wholeness. Similarly, the fear of the loss of clear contours or boundaries is consistent with a desire to lose clear and sharp outlines of individuality in larger and softer emotional mergers. The framing edge is flat, even, dead-pan, literal. The inside area is fluctuating, a transparent plane that is suspended or that hovers, an illusion of space that persists as illusion. The acceptance and persistence of the illusion of an illusion which is unequivocally there amounts to an acceptance of the nothingness and foundationlessness and groundlessness of experience, qualified by acceptance of the responsibility of constructing oneself, with the further hope of doing so by believing in one’s illusions or fictions and by honestly proving them—visually—to others. Painting is, or should be, as the philosopher Michael Polanyi says of his own book’s argument: “. . . a systematic course in teaching myself to hold my own beliefs” (Personal Knowledge, New York, 1964). The picture plane is a focal plane of belief or faith or commitment. Humphrey’s paintings from this period on will reflect ways of learning to hold on to one’s beliefs not only about painting but also about relations between painting and emotions or feelings, and about the network of mediating relations between painting and the total context of existence. Humphrey’s paintings, which were never minimal in any useful sense, were never less minimal than during this period.

In the paintings of 1974–75 the materials—canvas and paint—are right there in the surface, scratching across any illusion and calling attention to their own materiality. Close-value color creates an illusion of interior space, but that illusion seems subsidiary to the insistent physicality of the surface. And because the spectator must move around to see the shaped canvases from several angles, he or she becomes aware of bodily physicality as an accompaniment of sight. The eye becomes aware of itself as it cannot follow diagonals or verticals in smooth flight over a uniform surface. Focus must retract from one unit and advance again elsewhere. The surface is so interrupted by the materially rough pigment and ragged edges of canvas (even shadows among the strokes) that the color is immediately referred to its abrasive physical ground. For this painter, for whom painting has been a course in teaching himself to hold his own beliefs, and whose paintings have made changes in him which have been the problems to be solved visually in succeeding paintings, the relation between the visual and its ground—that gap through which Hume’s skepticism brought modern critical philosophy—has been closed.

I defined in the earliest paintings a profound feeling of immediacy alongside indeterminacy; that visual experience, which is important and true, intense but limited, is now included in, but surpassed by, its converse, since these shaped physical objects are determinate in each particular detail and interrelate with the wall and the room and the spectator. From a statement by Humphrey published in Arts in February of 1975:

I’ve found the space has to suggest a different space from any that’s been seen before. You could associate it only with the room, because it’s in the room and coming at you, not that much at you, but it’s in the room, like the other objects, although it should be doing something different from the other objects because there’s been thought and a conscious attempt at presenting something. I think a lot of people miss the fact that the paintings are directed at them at that point of themselves in time. I mean they can’t get away with leaving themselves at the door.

As the paintings become eccentrically three-dimensional, the spectator is made aware of his own sight as he focuses. If we look at a deep scene in nature, we focus at different depths even as we integrate the information from two eyes into a single three-dimensional image. A painting of a scene of deep space does the focusing and integration for the viewer, so that looking at such a painting is an act, without parallel in nature, that belongs to culture and the freedom from raw nature found in the visual and liberal arts. But these thick three-dimensional paintings must still be seen as objects in nature are seen, and this use of the eyes must revive some memories of the more original, probing use of the eyes. Such paintings attack the complacencies of culture and the disinterested esthetic contemplation of formalist theory: “The object becomes a meditation on time, space, and light. These and their translation into emotions may be the only reality we have.”

In 1975 Humphrey made an unpublished statement which bears on my interpretations:

These are contemplative works. I project my contemplations onto the object by means of color, light, forms, line, etc. These make visual the nature of my contemplation. The nature is somber. They are somber because, as Stevens says, “Thought is false happiness.” The work contains both the thought and the consciousness of the limitation, and its movement towards an unknown goal. Note: thought and contemplation are different. Contemplation is the unifier of thought. Therefore though the work may be somber, it has, as its fulfillment, completeness.

The paintings of 1976 and 1977 continue the questions I have described, with variations. I discussed this work elsewhere (Arts Magazine, February 1976), but I want to mention here Humphrey’s drawings and peculiar painted objects, which, while they scarcely fit any current look in art, clearly develop themes that I have tried to identify in the personal development of the artist, which reflect or coincide with themes in a developing esthetic theory. Changes in painting make changes in thinking which are still to be painted and thought.

The question of relations between painting and sculpture in regard to these painted objects can be brought into sharper focus by frankly facing their decorative quality. By decorative I mean to suggest, in part, a spatial flatness, without illusion of deep space. Note Humphrey’s 1975 statement: “When you look at the object, it doesn’t sink, it comes into the room, and there’s only the space of what the object is. . . . Space coming forward is more of a confronting, more like an experience, but an experience that calls attention to its own time.” The here-and-now immediacy of the early close-value paintings allowed no internal relations within the paintings, and ignored interrelations among the works, the room, and the viewer. That immediacy knew nothing of cause and effect. It made change incomprehensible, although I am arguing now that the changes in Humphrey’s style are comprehensible as changes in the relations between immediacy and mediating relations. In the paintings of at least the last five years, but especially in the painted objects and drawings, mediating relations—structural relations within the works, and relations between the work and the wall and the room and the viewer—have been brought to a level where they are observable among the other immediate here-and-now observables. The mediating relations become immediate. When I use the term “decorative” now, I mean that the interrelations and interactions with the room and the viewer are all part of the text of the work, and are to be woven into the larger context of life in our unique time and space, our matrix and our nexus.

These objects (impossible objects to much contemporary esthetic thought) intend relations with the emotional experience of the artist; more importantly, they include as part of themselves the intended relations with the emotional feeling of a viewer in a room. And they intend yet further relations, defying both “the modern industrial and administrative state and its functionalised society” (which Gadamer claims has produced the “crisis of the picture”) and that threadbare estheticism which regards the detached and differentiated object as an end in itself, to be observed disinterestedly at an esthetic distance. Humphrey, in painting which is a continuing meditation on connections between self and the world of other objects, people and relationships, is making paintings which point beyond themselves as esthetic objects insofar as they can determine that context, and insofar as that context determines them. These connections and interrelations are with the world, and with a world which might perhaps not be worth connecting with, or which it is injurious to interrelate with—this contemporary world which is a slap in the face. Such connections are the opposite of the self-enfoldings of the earliest paintings. They are an attempt to join the world as it is, not as illusion, and they attempt, in reciprocities with the room and the spectator, to heighten the feelings of actual life.

The paintings of Ralph Humphrey in October 1977 cut the edge of visual, painterly thought by exploring the architecture of painting. The “lines” are now in such deep relief, rising above the surface of the painting and extending beyond the edge, that the lines bite into the actual space of the room, bringing line into painting in order to redefine the problems of edge. The edge of a painting has been a tangent implying continued movement, so that painters have had the problem of the corners, of keeping the eye within the picture field. The weakness of drawing has been that it has induced a subjective or illusory movement, a Bauhaus whimsey, a Surrealist vertigo. In these paintings, line and edge have no tangents. The edge of the painting could be measured as four feet, but if measured more accurately, including the ups-and-downs of the raised lines, the length of the edge grows without bound. Length from corner to corner is no longer an adequate measure of size, and the true length would, in fractal mathematics, be infinite. These paintings—the working title of one of them is Why I Don’t Paint Like Mark Rothko—domesticate the infinite, bringing it onto the plane of observables, and at the same time they purge drawing and painting of the deceptive tangencies of line and edge. Since the lines and edges are not paths, implying movement beyond themselves, they do not lead away in space or time, but instead concentrate in themselves a hovering movement.

William Wilson is the author of a collection of stories, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka.