PRINT Summer 2019


Jacqueline Humphries, :)green, 2017, oil on linen, 100 × 111".

THANKS TO THE PERVERSE incentive structures of platform capitalism, we have witnessed the weaponization and proliferation of the rhetorical technique of decadent insincerity. On our screens, every emotive utterance drips with the air of pseudo-truth: performative outrage, virtue signaling, disingenuous smarm. Even the most heartfelt cris de coeur sound empty. One day, Notre-Dame burns. That night, an Instagram post appears in my feed: A picture of the blaze, captioned: “So sad.” So sad! Eight hundred years of history—-gone, in a white-hot flame. :(


These are some of the thoughts brought to mind by Jacqueline Humphries’s monumental Emoticon Paintings,* which foreground smiley faces, frowny faces, a number of emoji, and other artifacts of affect, in addition to stenciled fragments from Humphries’s previous paintings and “real” brushstrokes. :)green, 2017, which debuted two years ago in an exhibition at New York’s Greene Naftali gallery, is illustrative: The nearly eight-by-nine-foot canvas features a rough field of turquoise, alternately smooth and streaked. A darker, gestural emerald scrawl careens down the center of the canvas; lower in the composition, and to the right of this brushstroke, a crisply stenciled colon and parenthesis form a smile emoticon. Finally, around the rectangle of the painting’s edges, a faint interior frame sets the composition in recessed, screenlike abeyance.

To the extent that such a work draws on the New York School, it is via a legacy of parody and distance, one rooted in the appropriation-driven critiques of the Pictures era. The composition possesses an elegant, impersonal cool: The brushstroke seems to have glitched itself into being, and the emoticon’s grin—slightly hazy behind a wash of pigment—isn’t so much cheerful as coldly sociopathic. Yet this is nevertheless a real painting. It has depth and power and authority and mass. It holds together as a cohesive visual statement. It commands space. As is true of much of Humphries’s thirty-year oeuvre, it is niether a joke nor a sneer but a clear-eyed expression of paintings’ possibilities as the medium unfurls through ever-shifting conditions of vision and attention.

Jacqueline Humphries, Hor. #6, 1997, oil on linen, 90 × 90".

HUMPHRIES GRADUATED from New York’s Parsons School of Design in 1985 and a year later entered the Whitney Independent Study Program, where High Theory was reaching its involute peak and photo-based Conceptualism was de rigueur. Humphries, however, was a committed painter, and at the ISP, the medium was thought to be deep in its grave: To paint, she says, was “artistic suicide.”

But painting had her hooked. Early on, she attempted to make paintings that self-consciously thematized her medium’s endgame, such as a suite of monochromes that grew progressively smaller in size. But such deadpan statements of the medium’s failure were not her style.

Soon, however, the mood changed. With the crash of 1990, the curtain officially closed on the ’80s. Works plummeted in value. Dealers went bust and galleries shuttered, vanishing in the glitter-dusted air. A new, uncertain world was there for the making. The ’90s! John Elderfield’s Matisse retrospective opened to rave reviews at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; interesting news was rolling in from Cologne; and, with its forest of empty warehouses, Chelsea promised a new, post-SoHo era, a field of potential presided over by the zealous, idiosyncratic lodestars of Pat Hearn and Colin de Land, with whom Humphries would become close. One day, Humphries received a studio visit from a young assistant at John Good Gallery named Carol Greene. Greene burst through the door, bought a painting off the wall, and mentioned she was opening a gallery of her own. Humphries was the subject of Greene Naftali’s first solo show.

The Silver Paintings erupt with a violent, angry shimmer: You can practically hear the coruscating clashing of metal.

The orthodoxies around painting changed, too. If the cynical irony of the ’80s was the antithesis of AbEx’s heroic authenticity, the dialectic began to resolve itself as those sensibilities merged. As artists such as Charline von Heyl, Jutta Koether, Laura Owens, and Amy Sillman would also find, it was no longer necessary to choose between bloviating Straight White Male sincerity and clinical parody. Now, you could commingle, reimagine, and reinhabit these stances in destabilizing ways.

Jacqueline Humphries, Sunset (Yellow), 1996, oil and spray paint on linen, 72 × 72".

Still, the historical and neo-avant-gardes continued to anchor those artists’ work. One of Humphries’s early paintings, Sunset (Blue), 1996, is a riff on Rauschenberg’s 1957 Factum I and Factum II, often understood to be among the first works to “evacuate” AbEx gesture. Humphries’s mid-’90s revision of Rauschenberg’s famous act of self-copying involved a duplicated set of pours.

Jacqueline Humphries, Sunset (Blue), 1996, oil on wood, two panels, each 30 × 30".

Importantly, there is no assemblage or collage in Sunset (Blue)—unlike Factum I and II, it is “straight” painting on canvas, made via a relatively impersonal, “post-painterly” method. For Humphries, it was generative, leading to additional, related works. With Sunset (Yellow), 1996, Humphries added a pseudo-mechanical step, making pours and then creating stencils of them, overlapping the stenciled twins with the original pour along a vertical axis. The result is a heterogeneous admixture filled with subtle self—-mirroring and replication, a zone in which mediation and self-appropriation offer new compositional potentials. In this piece, telling apart real and fake, manufactured and spontaneous, is not only impossible but also thrillingly beside the point.

Jacqueline Humphries, High Noon, 2001, oil on linen, 90 × 102".

IF THE ’90S OFFERED artists new freedom to explore the possibilities of paint on canvas, for Humphries, a different, though related, anxiety took hold: Why would anyone want to look at painting in the first place? Transcendent Cold War contemplation, disembodied immersion, the sacred time of looking: These were difficult asks for an audience steeped in the spastic demands of the late-capitalist sensorium. (As Gretchen Bender observed in 1987, “I go into galleries to see shows, to be aware of what is going on and it takes three minutes to see a show. . . . It’s our nervous system—the time we live in—it’s not about reverie.”) Humphries wanted viewers to experience reverie, but she fully understood that to induce this old-school state she had to do some work for them. She had to entertain. So, she began rummaging through the profane history of visual culture, digging up strategies for bringing eyeballs to the canvas. At first, she experimented with one-point perspective and vanishing points, which she deployed in a group of paintings produced in the late ’90s, each bisected by a line of discontinuous brushstrokes. Amid the field of thick purple marks of Hor. #6, 1997, for example, a landscape’s inviting horizon brings a comforting sense of Euclidean space to the optical disorientation of allover mark-making. (To 2019 eyes—as it perhaps did to ’90s eyes, too—the effect calls to mind the visual stutter of a computer monitor.)

By adding the emoticon to her painterly vocabulary, Humphries yoked a wide swath of painting’s history to a contemporary argot, elegantly articulating the parallels between art’s self-negating tendencies and our online vernacular.

Next, Humphries found inspiration in the cinema, producing a series of canvases with black expanses, often streaked with white drips, whose proportions matched those of various filmic aspect ratios. Shown at Greene Naftali in 1999, these sought to reproduce the movie screen’s seductive voids: inky blackness, abyssal space. (A few such works featured broken yellow lines and dashboard-like shapes, recalling the hypnagogic vortex of the film Lost Highway, which had premiered two years earlier.) Aspect ratios returned in 2001, this time in Technicolor, for pieces such as High Noon, where a movie-screen rectangle glows hot like a toxic sky.

Jacqueline Humphries, 80s-90s, 2006, oil on linen, 80 × 86".

A few years later, a breakthrough arrived, when Humphries began exploring the possibilities of metallic paint, mixing the scintillating pigment with quantities of color. The ensuing Silver Paintings erupt with a violent, angry shimmer: You can practically hear the coruscating clashing of metal—streaked and shrieking. For 80s–90s, 2006, for instance, she mixed the pigment with black and created crazed circular gestures, a furious, CBGB’s-bathroom expressionism that yields delirious optical confusion. Kat, 2006, meanwhile, is muted and heaving, almost atmospheric in its iridescence. For Haymaker, 2006, Humphries created an abstraction in layers, taping off sections of the painting. The picture plane appears to have been torn and Photoshopped into oblivion, shredding and fragmenting with bright, voluptuous energy. (The suggestion of violence is no accident: “I have to destroy the painting I know to make the one I don’t know yet.”) Intriguingly, the phenomenology of the movie screen haunts these works; far from static, they unfold continuously in time, shifting and flaring in the unstable gallery light.

Jacqueline Humphries, Haymaker, 2006, oil on linen, 80 × 86".

Eventually, the initial sensory assault dissipates, and the formidable complexity of the compositions reveals itself: the reflections, correspondences, and continuities among separate planes, the force of the gestural passages. In Haymaker, sharp, taped-off edges imply two distinct layers, while also conjuring photographic reproduction. Neither of these layers easily rests in the foreground or background. Rather, they weave together according to a logic that eludes our grasp, a massing and merging compounded (and complicated) by the swirling addition of red-and-silver brushstrokes of varied weight.

Jacqueline Humphries, Black Angel, 2000, oil on linen, 90 × 102".

LAST YEAR, Humphries moved to her current Red Hook studio from Sunset Park, where she had maintained a space for five years. The ceilings are nearly airplane-hangar high, and the vast, airy space lets in abundant Eastern light. At first, the studio seemed too clean. Humphries had become increasingly reliant on marks applied with stencils made using an industrial-grade cutting machine, and she felt anxious that her sparkly new environs resembled a streamlined art-production facility; she wanted a painting studio spattered with paint.

Humphries painted her first Emoticon Paintings in 2014. In addition to featuring the stencils of emoticons and emoji—some large, others tiny and repeated in a Benday-dot-like pattern—this body of work coincided with Humphries’s burgeoning interest in incorporating appropriated fragments from her earlier output, creating an autophagic, archival collage of prior painted marks and gestures. In some cases, she accomplished this via the intervention of ascii art. Popular on ’90s usenet forums and the ’70s Teletype machines familiar from school field trips to nasa, ascii art is a crude technique for creating images from the 128 standard alphanumeric characters. Humphries employs it as a quasi-photographic means of mediation: She takes a digital image of a painting, then feeds it into a piece of software to convert the image into an ascii array (adjusting for parameters such as resolution), then fabricates the array as a stencil. The resulting grid of characters reinforces the work’s associations with digital media and emphasizes her understanding of painting as a perceptual interface or screen. It’s a process of shrinking something down, then blowing it back up again.

Jacqueline Humphries, +sssxxxx//:, 2018, oil on linen, 100 × 111".

When I visited her studio this past spring, a gargantuan finished canvas, +sssxxxx//:, 2019, leaned against the wall, displaying nothing more than an ascii grid: stenciled horizontal sequences of digits and numbers. In the array of characters—applied with thick paint that lifts somewhat unevenly off the surface—no “composition” was immediately legible. Had I not been told, I would never have guessed that these figures resolved to form an image, much less an abstract painting (the streaked and purple Untitled, 2013). But after looking for a moment, I began to see individual brushstrokes, as well as the patterned clarity of Humphries’s mark-making and the way her compositional choices had cleaved intersecting planes of depth. This was a painting: mediated, reproduced in a crude format, but a painting nonetheless. There was, for lack of a better term, artistry in the shifting, almost undulating field of characters. Yet it was only possible to notice this after overcoming the hurdle of the painting’s initial optical effect: The thin black lines of ascii code packed a decidedly retinal wallop, with dazzling, headache-inducing rows of characters that strobed and danced.

Jacqueline Humphries, Untitled, 2013, oil on linen, 100 × 111".

While +sssxxxx//: took a single painting, Untitled, as its template, usually Humphries combines ascii-rendered fragments of her previous canvases with other kinds of stenciled marks, including emojis and emoticons. In Two Cat, 2016, a stenciled blue blotch lifted from an earlier painting bleeds lushly, like a Cy Twombly blossom. Below it, a smile emoticon floats on the same plane, rotated 90 degrees. Some of the marks lift up from the canvas, impasto-like. Others lie flat. The whole thing is set into a depthless, mediated liminality, inviting strained, cryptographic decoding: Is Humphries smiling? Or is she not-smiling because the face is sideways? What about the upside-down face? Is this painting sad? Can a painting be sad?

Jacqueline Humphries, Two Cat, 2016, oil on linen, 100 × 110".

The “truth” of AbEx was always existential, ostensibly based in the short indexical chain linking canvas to author: The paint spatter is the visual equivalent of the face-to-face cry or shout—a forensic proof of realness. Here, Humphries has visibly elongated that distance, not to void it, but to make manifest the queasy consequences of stretching it via digitally inflected means. Her fields of stencils play an affective game of telephone: As the question marks accumulate, they mimic the delirium of lives spent communicating ceaselessly in ways that leave us vulnerable to a kind of expressionism that purports to be what it can’t possibly be—since you can’t really be gripped by emotion while at the same time tapping out strings of glyphs, can you? Or can you? (What does “Sad!” actually indicate?) Though IRL emotion can be deceptive or manipulative too, it’s hard to deny there’s something extremely unhealthy about doing most of your emoting through text. Tellingly, the artist has roughly stenciled the grid of a familiar silhouette across the field: the pointed-ear cat emoji. The feline here feels like a considered choice. Like painting, it can die again and again. And unlike the dog, with its wagging tail, its interior life is opaque. A Cheshire grin may mask hidden malevolence—or nothing at all.

Jacqueline Humphries, Two Cat (detail), 2016, oil on linen, 100 × 110"

By adding the emoticon to her painterly vocabulary, Humphries has yoked a wide swath of painting’s history to a contemporary argot, elegantly articulating the parallels between the self-negating tendencies of a certain strain of painting and our shared online vernacular. Irony, reproduction, circulation—from Lichtenstein’s cartoon Brushstroke, 1965, to Gerhard Richter’s sixty-five-foot-long Strich (auf rot) (Stroke [on Red]), 1980; from Christopher Wool’s silk screens of painterly incident to Michael Krebber’s dandyish scrawls—all of them, all of these feints and satires, anticipate and prefigure and even picture the hollowed-out, joking-but-not-joking, serious-but-not-serious rhetorical modes of the internet: the pearl clutching and trolling and histrionic virtue signaling and the pancaking of irony and sincerity into the transparent membrane of the touchscreen. But perhaps no one has so clearly pointed to the affinities between painting and the emotional conditions of the digital subject as Humphries has. Writing about her Emoticon Paintings in Artforum’s December 2015 issue, Tim Griffin noted that these works augur a new register of sincerity: “In the emoticon, a figure of genuine communication, any evacuation of authenticity in gestures is only accompanied by the sense of a new order among them that has come to pass.”

Jacqueline Humphries, Collection, 2019, pigmented methane resin, steel, 30 × 39 1⁄2 × 10 1⁄2". Photo: Don Stahl.

SHORTLY AFTER Humphries began her Silver Paintings in the mid-aughts, she began another body of work. Playing around with fluorescent paint, she created abstractions that glow when displayed under black light—yet another convenient way to wow her audience into contemplation.

She first displayed these works at Nyehaus in New York in 2005, exhibiting radioactive canvases streaked with bright clementine orange, acid blue, and slime green. As is true so often of Humphries’s work, what seems like a rejection of painting’s history is more an elaboration of it. Such outré pigments read as a hyperbolic extension of the tackiness that, as T. J. Clark discerned, was present in AbEx to begin with, in Hans Hofmann’s off-key hues, Pollock’s enamels, De Kooning’s garish lips. Installation views of the show evoke that famous shot in Spring Breakers (2013) of a lecture hall dotted with laptop screens, a sea of gleaming rectangles. In fact, the downtown party circuit had served as an important inspiration. Humphries, who used to spend “every night” at Save the Robots and the Pyramid Club, once found herself in the Rothko Chapel in Houston, compulsively imagining the dim space lit up like nightlife.

View of “Jacqueline Humphries,” 2015, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

The second group premiered at Modern Art in London in 2014 and at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art in 2015. Here, Humphries mixed her fluorescent tones with black paint. The resulting shifts in color value deepened the drama, conjuring rippling, blanketing darkness. The screenlike associations also became more explicit: The surfaces appeared cracked and spattered, suspended in refulgent collapse, slime oozing with ineffable grace. To make these pieces, Humphries had to apply the fluorescent paint quickly, resulting in a studio scene that merges with a thousand postapocalyptic images: the artist and two of her assistants in a pitch-black room, wearing Tyvek coveralls and respirators, shooting gallons of glowing paint from an industrial sprayer—painting flaring up gorgeously in the moment of its dreamlike death.

The point isn’t to know which is real and which is fake. The point is to invite a state of sustained not-knowing.

For all the associations with screens in Humphries’s various works, it’s noteworthy how stridently they resist screen-based circulation. It’s a long-standing cliché to warn that you shouldn’t judge an artwork based on how it looks in reproduction, and this refrain has only grown louder—and, for some, suspiciously nostalgic—as the art world reconstitutes itself around Instagram’s decentralized arteries. For the past fifteen years, Humphries’s paintings have established themselves as a powerful argument in favor of IRL. The violent shimmer of her Silver Paintings simply cannot be reproduced in a photograph. Nor can the radiance of the Black-Light Paintings. And her Emoticon Paintings are completely different depending on whether you’re up close or far away: No one picture can simultaneously capture the tactile details of the stenciled emoticons and ascii code and the gestalt of the entire composition. The multifariousness and mutability of these objects, the dazzling ways in which they shift and change, reaffirm IRL experience—and place painting on par not with the solitary mindsuck of the iPhone, but with the sacred, rapturous twentieth-century environments of the nightclub and the cinema.

This summer, Humphries will present a new body of work at the Dan Flavin Art Institute, a former firehouse in Bridgehampton, New York. The Dia Art Foundation established the site in 1983 for the permanent installation of nine of Flavin’s works and opened a gallery space for rotating exhibitions. To preview the exhibition, she led me into a windowless space in her Red Hook studio—a short walk from the room with the Emoticon Paintings. After calling out to an assistant, she turned on black lights hanging from the ceiling, activating the fluorescent pigment.

Jacqueline Humphries, Sign, 2019, pigmented epoxy resin, 32 1⁄4 × 12 × 1 1⁄2". Photo: Jason Mandela.

What appeared was an array of weirdly glowing objects—an bioluminescent installation of Minimalist sculpture. A panel hanging on the wall, another leaning against a rack. There was a seashell sitting on another panel sitting on the floor.

To make these objects, Humphries coated molds with dry fluorescent pigment, then made casts from resin tinted with more fluorescent paint. Seen under black light, their low lambency flamboyantly fucks with your calibrated sense of what’s real and not. My favorite among the objects was based on a cast of a piece of plywood. Humphries engraved the cast object with a blown-up image of plywood, magnifying the grain and knots by a factor of roughly ten. The mind strains to make sense of this alien object (to see the “thread which is not there,” to quote Ernst Gombrich). At first it reads as a projection—but not quite. The engraving isn’t an illusion. Rather, the etching or “image” is internal to the object itself, very much of its substance, as is its eerie effulgence.

Taking a cue from the Flavin Foundation’s “out east” location, Humphries also had the idea to play around with nautical motifs. She was first drawn to hunks of driftwood—that winsome, Waspy mainstay of beach-cottage decoration. But she didn’t have any pieces of the stuff on hand and wouldn’t be visiting the site for a few weeks. So she went online, downloaded a 3-D model for driftwood, and printed it out. Next, she made a cast of the 3-D printing, then juxtaposed the ersatz-driftwood cast with a cast of real driftwood. Is the difference between the driftwoods obvious to the viewer? Sort of. But as with the juxtaposition of an emoticon and a brushstroke, that question is both a red herring and the meat of the matter. The point isn’t to know which is real and which is fake. The point, rather, is to invite a state of sustained not-knowing, and to recognize the stakes of that condition.

Today, the question of representation in art is paramount, and the legacies of the historical and neo-avant-gardes have seemingly grown ever more distant and oblique. To some, in fact, what the past 125 years of art primarily offer today is a repository of ready-to-use styles and forms. While praising the “waning” of the “fetishization” of Duchamp and Warhol, Jerry Saltz, in his review of the 2019 Whitney Biennial, described Modernism’s history as a “fabulous scrap heap of visual culture,” one that offers young artists materials, tropes, and approaches to discerningly pluck from and fill with subject matter. Humphries’s largely subjectless work both insists and demonstrates that, to the contrary, material and form still have things to teach us. They’re not just empty vessels. They tell us things. The grim or ecstatic lessons of the avant-garde, the arcane problems internal to the history of painting—its interfaces with technology and perception and affect and meaning—have rarely been more bracing, as our collective attention fragments and mutates, develops addictions and triggers responses, melding compulsively and angrily with an infinity of luminous screens. 

“Jacqueline Humphries” opens June 22 at the Dan Flavin Art Institute, Bridgehampton, NY.

Lloyd Wise is a Senior Editor of Artforum.