PRINT April 1982


The following conversation took place in February, 1982, between Amy Baker, executive publisher of Artforum, and the artist Ralph Humphrey.

Amy Baker: Right from the beginning with the Monochromes, 1957–60, and continuing with the Frame Paintings, 1961–65, the Shaped Canvases, 1967–70, and the different uses of canvas, paste, and wood to achieve what we will call here the Constructed Paintings, 1971–present, your formal concentration is highly evident. In all, a concern with color and structure is constant. The Monochromes are wall-like; the Frame Paintings can be understood as an examination of support or, from the perspective of your current images, as abstract windows; and finally the Shaped Canvases, with their suggestion of volume, make sense as parents of the wood Constructed Paintings. There has been discussion as to whether these moves continue an examination of painting or instead are about sculpture.

Ralph Humphrey: This painting/sculpture question seems to disturb people. It’s a relationship I’ve been interested in all along. My paintings are definitely paintings—but they can also be interpreted as painting with real volume. I’ve always been interested in pushing paint into the room’s space. At one point I wanted infinite space so I used very pale colors, which you could hardly see, trying for this endless space you look into. Then I began to get interested in the actual space of the room, and instead of going out into the universe I explored that. In this way the space of the specific object, in other words the painting, became more concrete and objective. I started to paste canvas on top of canvas as I painted one plane over another, finding that a new kind of space was happening between close tones and surfaces, pushing the painting forward. There’s a particular example of a Constructed Painting, #10, 1973, in which the shapes of canvas crisscross, that’s important because it’s an early visualization of four or five planes simplified. The work got more orchestrated as I moved into an investigation of colors and as I became more and more involved with the possibility of structures within each painting. Using volume in painting, real volume, I saw that questions of sculpture could come into the painting. It’s more this than my painting going into sculpture.

AB: Do you think sculptural problems in painting are traditional, or something new?

RH: Not new in the sense that they haven’t been dealt with before—African sculpture; the Cubists; the Constructivists; the ’40s and ’50s when painting affected sculpture, and sculpture drew in space (Jackson Pollock and David Smith); or Minimalism in the ’60s, to give just a few examples. It makes better copy to say that something’s finished or being born, rather than saying it’s simply moving.

AB: You’re saying that this friction is a continuation of Modernism . . .

RH: I see it as a way of not regressing, as a progressive direction, as revitalizing while at the same time taking on questions of the past.

AB: Interestingly, it was Don Judd who wrote one of the first reviews on your Monochromes.

RH: That’s right. Later there was an article—“Specific Objects,” which was reprinted in his book Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959–1975—that impressed me because he talked about real space as opposed to illusionistic space. The artists I knew in the ’50s were both painters and sculptors. One of my earliest and biggest influences was the way Alberto Giacometti used space and surface to trap light so that his work doesn’t just take up space. it makes you aware of space. I don’t think his paintings are as resolved as his sculptures, but some are remarkable anyway because of what happens with line on the surface. You can learn from the way he used color—he was going for something in the greenish-bluish grays, and he proved that color is a substance, not just a layer dumped on top.

AB: Isn’t space more a sculptor’s problem than a painter’s?

RH: No. Painting alludes to frontal space. The whole issue of painting and sculpture in my work is more complex than either of the terms, “painted sculpture” or “sculpted painting.” In the Shaped Canvases, specifically the ones called “needle paintings” from 1967-68, the body of the canvas actually comes slightly forward, like the body of an airplane wing. A 1974 untitled painting has a forward movement that has a lot to do with Mark Rothko’s space. In this one I curved the edges back around about six inches, so as not to have the edge disappear, and then I let it fade out to give it more presence and less illusion. Curved edges have an ability to tie the painting to the wall, and that obviously integrates the way we see a painting. In Why I Don’t Paint Like Mark Rothko, 1977–78, I was comparing my space to Rothko’s. It’s actually a homage. In it I introduce lines to emphasize shape and simultaneously they exist as free shapes themselves on the surface. These lines do not dig back into traditional space; instead, they bite into actual room space. The shadows prove it. Line is edge for me. I did a drawing to clarify this idea called Edge Over, 1982. Even in drawing I want line to come out rather than dig into the paper. Rothko once said to me that anybody who was truly influenced by his work wouldn’t paint the way he did. I think that’s true about influence. If you think work’s important you learn from it, it becomes part of you, you become part of it, but you certainly don’t imitate it. Imitation is a hostile expression.

AB: Do you think of yourself as a colorist?

RH: It’s an honor to be a colorist. Color is one of my aspirations, something I want to achieve; it is never separate from the composition of my work. Intuition tells me what color to go after, and then I have to use my brains to get there.

AB: The visible logic of your color is less apparent than, say, Piet Mondrian’s. There are so many layers of pigment, and all the different experiences of getting to the final solution are still so visible, that the surface vibrates from all the colors. Could one suggest a Pointillist rather than a Constructivist attitude?

RH: Pointillist is too rigid a description of my work. Georges Seurat was basing his investigations on the scientific study of color and the systematic division of tone. For Mondrian the realism of paint as part of the subject provided a physicality which I relate to my work.

AB: Are you saying that beyond the vibration your colors are actually indications of shape?

RH: Exactly. Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie,1942–43, is built of blocks of color, one next to the other. The colors constantly play against one another,and the painting starts moving, but the density of hue is just able to hold it still. Mondrian is like Bach.There’s a definite color he wants and it has every thing to do with the structure, shape, and scale of the needs of his paintings. Each layer is necessary; what you see is a flow from the colors underneath, but overall the color must be understood as a complete unit.When you use pure color it’s much stronger, not drained of its blood. I want each of my colors to exist on their own, not to fudge. The way Mondrian used color is very satisfying. He loosens up when he gets toNew York, you can just see the exhilaration coming through. When I came here from Ohio in 1956 I was also hit, we all were—Franz Kline, Rothko, Clyfford Still—you can tell from our work.

AB: Was that early reaction one of impressions or of sharp images?

RH: Always both, but it’s changed. Since the Monochromes have one overall color the paintings suggest the directness of walls; but within the space there are no specific shapes, only color, which ends up exuding what George Heard Hamilton so generously called “huge maps of emotion.” In the Frame Paintings the surface is definite, but the colors distance the object so that it’s right there but moving away, mirage-like. What started out, in the Shaped Canvases, as an objective exploration of how the eye actually sees inevitably pulled me into the subjectivity of illusion.

AB: Big cities are such subjective places. In New York one is constantly in physical contact with other people, yet ultimately quite alone. There’s a stillness. What have been referred to as windows in your work of the last decade read as transparent barriers, like the codes of social behavior, yet they open not into the public space but into a personal space, yours or somebody else’s.

RH: Everybody else’s, that’s what I’m interested in. These windows are my metaphor for observing the world.

AB: There’s a cartoon like simplicity to your sophisticated use of clichés in the new paintings, which leads me to ask if you are consciously making particularly American icons. They’re funky and corny, lovingly ridiculous.

RH: That’s a compliment, if it means that the work is not self-conscious and has a kind of ease and comfort with itself. There’s a bluntness, and I would hope a humor, which I connect to America. Using clichés lets me get to my subject in shorthand. It’s a point of freedom to use the common, most basic imagery which we see all the time, because it escapes the tyranny of the notion of the “correct” image and allows a humanity.

AB: I want to force the American question. Is there still—as there has been for the past thirty years—such a concept as “Americanness” in the painting being done here now?

RH: The work here is constantly up to something and always changing. This vitality is a way of thinking and has to do with where we stand, how we see the world. Our reference points and therefore our sense of reality are different from those in cultures that have a long tradition of known rules and regulations.

AB: Does this work reflect how we have changed? Your new paintings, for example, are vulnerable and tough, innocent and knowing.

RH: There’s a cynicism that’s new, but also a depth to American art, which comes out of our recent history. remember, during the last decade when everything was beginning to be questioned and was falling apart, somebody said it was like taking painting apart; it needed to be. Putting it back together again with an image isn’t the easy way out. You don’t just slap them down—there’s a lot of choosing, reducing, expanding, and, toughest of all, representing. When we talk about the dumbness or the cliché, we’re talking about the rawness of immediate experience. That’s different from, say, Philip Guston’s late work, where the mood is of something that’s already happened—his memory of shoes, light bulbs in rooms, the Ku Klux Klan. I’m trying to get something to actually happen, with the painting itself as the experience—on stage, like in performance art, where the artist is the art and you’re looking at what’s happening, with memory and the past as references. I need clichés to get to ritual for a view and acceptance of what we are.

I’ve been thinking about the potency of those paintings of orphans with big eyes. What if you pushed what that image unleashes till it became serious? It’s raw like William Burroughs, as opposed to Jean Genet’s elegance. I am an American. I’m not that civilized. I am the opposite of passive. I want to push people into looking without them realizing it, until they react.

AB: It’s interesting to hear a painter, one with “sculptural implications,” choose to talk about his work in the same breath as performance art. How are you different as a painter in this “fast” world of quick-action media shots? Has your means to a relationship with the viewer had to change over the years? Your earlier pieces were very closed and shrinelike.

RH: So was I. Don’t forget that I come from a period where the idea of the artist hidden away in a garret, unaware that the world exists, was equated with the purity of the artist’s intentions. For me the truth of being an artist is not to set yourself apart—I show in a gallery, I sell my paintings, like everyone else I hope for the best. The situation of modern communication makes the earlier concept improbable, even self-defeating. With the world changing so fast one way of surviving the flood of images that we’re drowned by is to pull an image out of oneself to establish an identity. I am much more conscious of the audience now. An increasing sense of experience and involvement with people have made me more aware of my role as an artist. Content is a two-way street. I consider it my task to find out how to communicate an idea to the public. If it’s a difficult one the responsibility is all the more exciting. As I’m painting I’m going after an audience, and the odd thing about it is that the more I consider the viewer as part of the work’s reality, the more depth and bite the work gets. With the most radical work, belief in the audience is what gets me through. I have enormous admiration for actors, who go up on stage and stand there with their whole selves. I can’t deny that painting is my performance.

AB: More and more I find the experience of looking at your paintings a bit like intruding on something uninvited. The illicit combination of volume and image creates a loaded intimacy. These are peep show views, more porn than corn.

RH: I hope so. The act of painting them is my way of admitting something that’s in all of us, despite our views of right and wrong, good and bad. I’m trying to deal with all the things that aren’t considered nice—the basics. I want to put a person in the same position that Alfred Hitchcock does, a little bit scandalous. You’re not certain where you should look. Hitchcock said about his art being moral that he felt too highly about his work to bring “morality” into it. It was during the McCarthy era, when everything was so tight, that our most explosive art happened. In the ’60s it was the schools of art that were tight. There were definite dos and don’ts. The pulling-back reaction we’re seeing now is a product of the everything-goes, search-yourself ’70s, and it calls for the same kind of fight against such an attitude as it did in the ’50s. But subversive now is very different from subversive then.

AB: “Subversive” is usually considered to imply a dark and serious matter served up in even tones of bleak and black intensity. Your new paintings are bright, and the wild exuberance is delivered here like thick frosting.

RH: How one sees color is a very individual thing. Everybody thought that Rothko’s late, somber works implied tragedy. Mell Rothko told me she found that strange, since she considered the bright oranges frightening and the deep maroons warm. Color is like life itself—it is serious content. Our reading of colors is not given the importance it requires. People say to me that they really like my “awful” colors. The very words that accompany our descriptions of colors that aren’t dark (serious) indicate that we have a cultural problem toward color, and that our attitude toward it actually reflects a kind of class system. Bright colors are often called decorative or cheap, words which by the way also need overhauling. Outside of art the relationship of color to an object is often arbitrary, and rarely used according to its scale—a huge pink truck, for instance. Notice how colors change in different locales: Times Square’s are shocking and bizarre, while areas of poor neighborhoods are often spotted with oases of thrilling, moving purples, blues, oranges, pinks, and yellows, and as you move to the ritzier sections like Park Avenue or Soho you get the neatness, the status, and the cool of white, black, and gray. If you walk down the street the eye naturally goes to the neon lights, and this can’t help but shape our attitude. While I accept the influence, to parrot what I see would leave me with the tints of neon and, say, pastries. The actual experience is much more robust, and I’m trying to conceptualize the potential of its visual energy. I don’t think our biases have changed all that much toward color since the ’50s. The colors might be different but our attitudes aren’t, leaving us with manner rather than style.

AB: None of the stylistic isms ever seems to fit as description of your work. When you were associated with Minimalism, for example, there was a kind of mismatch. The work appears to have changed enormously yet there is an ongoing logic and a consistency.

RH: You’re right. I could never be quite Minimal enough—my style was too painterly, too peculiar. The work has always been about emotion. It was a way of being able to develop without getting pinned down. Being “cool” comes in with the fear of feeling only the right things, and that’s no way to find your identity. I became an artist to get free. For me my identity is my style and my style is the personality of the painting, the emotion of the object. It’s how I declare myself. Decoration, like color, is usually dismissed as a sign of affect, but when it is tied to the total meaning of what is being presented, it’s a serious sign that someone is there.

AB: After years of pure abstraction, how does it feel to use representational images?

RH: I love it. It’s like finding what I was always seeking in abstraction. I seem to be getting more abstraction out of the image. When I’m looking for an image I’m going after something that I find missing, and since I can’t find it anywhere else I have to create it to see what it looks It’s obtaining fullness from emptiness. Back to the hungry eyes of those orphans, what I’m asking is, what do people want?

AB: What don’t we have?

RH: Shelter. We’re on the edge.