New York

Ralph Humphrey

At first, RALPH HUMPHREY's recent paintings look as if they grew that way; it is hard to know how they are made. They have a slightly moldy look to them and may be actually past growth, heading for decay. Humphrey's surfaces are dark, mysterious and bumpy, they look neither man-made or machine-made. Far from pristine, they still don't seem to result from any regular painting activity, from any normal kind of touch. Just by being so clumsy and bulky, his paintings achieve a neutrality; they are not aligned with anything else, they are totally independent. Humphrey uses thick matte paint, additional layers of canvas (barely visible under the paint) and paints around the edges of his deep stretchers whose sides sometimes slant into the wall and become part of the frontal image. He builds his surfaces up beyond the point of personal identification but as they tend toward objects, they also tend to disintegrate visually before your eyes and to emit rich lustrous color. Their darkness yields an infinite variety of blackened reds, purples, blues and greens. One painting uses a relatively straight blue but everything else is heavily cut with black. Humphrey's color is an optical phenomenon—expansive like a Rothko or a Reinhardt—however it still emanates from a dense obdurate object. The disintegration is far from complete; the object is always there, but softened and subdued by the color. As with Joe Zucker's work, Humphrey's surface, ironically, allows him to make more subtle distinctions about color, to give each color its own actual piece of the surface. This can seem almost humorous, and certainly funnier than Reinhardt or Rothko, but in the end most of the paintings are, like theirs, fairly sobering. These paintings are lush but in a slightly implacable way—you can't get too close to them, nor can you take in this lushness quickly or easily.

Sometimes Humphrey gets a little too involved with the image. In one painting a deep purple rectangle framed and divided by blue continues around the slanted side of the canvas. This ends up looking architectural—something like a bay window. In two others Humphrey keeps the image simple and vague. The smallest painting in the show is mostly black but across its midsection, edge to edge, are two adjacent squares which tend more toward purple or green. In another, broad strips of canvas placed horizontally across the painting become the substructure for bands of deep blue, barely distinguishable from the slightly grayer blue around the painting's edges and on the sides of the stretchers. (The top and bottom sides, slanting to the wall, give the painting a total shape of a rectangle with truncated corners.) I guess I'm saying that Humphrey's surface is explicit enough, that he doesn't need to make his configurations any more so. The configuration, like the color, is better when it emerges from the closed surface of the painting. It is the slow process of discovering the image and the color within this surface which finally makes them so lush.

Concurrent with this exhibition of the recent work was one at downtown Bykert of 11 paintings from 1957–65 which reveal the extent to which Humphrey has come full circle. They also reveal his early debt to Rothko, his persistent investigation of different ways of painting and handling material and an equally persistent interest in expansive light and color. There are four kinds of paintings:four ostensible monochromes from 1957–60 with thick surfaces and queer shifting colors (most related to the recent work); two stain paintings from 1963 in which the paint, contrary to the usual method, seems deeply and actively worked into the surface, with Whistlerian results; four paintings from 1964–65 with a matte gray center surrounded by an even frame of color at the edge; and, also from 1965, one gray painting divided by three equally spaced lines of color, edge to edge, which are narrow, thickly painted and yellow, orange and green in descending order. With the exception of one red stain painting, Humphrey's color is consistently muted and off. In most of these paintings, even the heavy earlier ones, the surfaces here tend to dissolve, to become somewhat atmospheric, or, in the case of the frame paintings, downright empty. In many ways these paintings are easier to take; they are pleasant and beautiful and peaceful; I like them very much. But I like the recent stuff better, it is more powerful and more distinctly Humphrey's, and not so much part of a general, if very good, kind of abstraction. Now, Humphrey comes across as a slightly perverse, Gothic personality; his obsessiveness seems tangible but not total and not without a glimmer of humor. He has compounded his resonance with a very sophisticated clumsiness—a surface which stops you in your tracks before it lets you know what's going on.

Roberta Smith