New York

David Humphrey

McKee Gallery

One persistent reading of Surrealist painting divides the artists grouped under the heading of that movement into two groups: the pictorialists (principally, Giorgio de Chirico from 1910 to around 1922, René Magritte, and Yves Tanguy) and the automatists (André Masson, Joan Miró, after 1925, and Roberto Matta). The automatists are seen as precursors of the Abstract Expressionists, while the pictorialists failed to give birth to a movement or style in America. The agenda imbedded in this reading is the maintenance of that old sawhorse, abstraction versus figuration. Since Philip Guston challenged this view with his late ’60s paintings, artists as diverse as David True, Archie Rand, Cheryl Laemmle, and David Humphrey have all been influenced in one way or another by the work of the pictorially inclined Surrealists. They found ways to arrive at the pictorial through the use of techniques associated with abstract painting (gesture, pouring, layering, painterliness, and emblematic images), deliberately conflating abstraction and pictorialism so that unexpected events and meanings might emerge.

Something similar has happened to Humphrey. The major difference between his recent exhibition and his earlier ones is the absence of the figure. Having abandoned the strategy of placing a figure within a fragmented landscape, he is now investigating the possible meanings that can be achieved with an abstract spatial composition. It seems to me that Humphrey got some of his ideas about how to change his work from printmaking, particularly etching and its use of plates, which he recently began to explore. The abstract realm he has entered is riskier because he has removed himself from the narrative conclusions available to him when he relied on the figure. In effect, he has decided to make his work less seductive.

In the paintings in the exhibition, all from 1987, Humphrey has layered emblematic, representational, and abstract images within a shallow space or has simply superimposed them over an atmospheric ground. In Itinerant Pleasures, vignettes of beautifully evoked interiors (an empty double bed in an empty room and an ominous covered box by a window) are combined with such motifs as red Arp-like kidney shapes, a red disk, and a form that resembles a truncated human stomach. Love Letter features two trompe l’oeil images of envelopes, one white and one black, mixed in with the abstract shapes. In the lower half of Exalt, Humphrey depicts what appears to be an empty hospital waiting room, highlighting a section of it within a green Arp-like biomorphic shape that isolates an empty chair in the foreground from the rest of the room. Just to the right is an abstract configuration of two concentric circles (black within pinkish-red). The upper half features three more of these black-and-pink forms (one of them seemingly in the process of splitting in two, like a cell reproducing) against an abstract ground of thinly painted washes that have run down the surface. He has painted the letters of the painting’s title in sequence within the five black circles.

Taken all together, the hospital waiting room, the word “exalt,” and the cell-like shapes evoke Humphrey’s recent experience of becoming a father. There aren’t many artists who have addressed the theme of fatherhood at the moment of metamorphosis from husband to parent. The painting is all the more striking because Humphrey goes beyond the anecdotal to explore deeper emotions. The colors (shades of green, various flesh tones, black and white) are suggestive rather than descriptive.

Although other paintings in the exhibition are slower to reveal their meanings or resist all but the most speculative readings, their variousness should be seen as the sign of an artist who is searching and for the most part finding ways to deepen his ambition.

John Yau