New York

Ralph Humphrey

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Throughout his three-decade career, Ralph Humphrey (1932–1990) neither submitted to nor reacted against the agendas of successive art-world movements. Though he began exhibiting in 1958 at a moment that can be seen to mark the beginning of the art world’s turn toward Minimalism and Pop art, Humphrey never became an orthodox practitioner of either style. By the mid ’60s, however, he had abandoned the allover gestural paintings with which he inaugurated his career, and had come to be considered, along with Brice Marden, a “romantic Minimalist.” This is the closest he ever got to the mainstream; and it was from this period that the 11 works in the exhibition “Frame Paintings: 1964 to 1965” were selected. In retrospect, these breakthrough paintings not only reveal the artist establishing the foundation for his subsequent efforts, but they also underscore his commitment to the possibilities of abstraction as a container of affect—as simultaneously a looking in and a looking out.

Resisting the period’s accepted ideal of the painting as a literalist object, in these works Humphrey treats the canvas as a sensitive, permeable membrane connecting states of interior feeling with the outer world. At a time when oil painting was considered, at best, an archaic mode, Humphrey employed the medium with all of its metaphorical and atmospheric potential to create works that pointedly exceeded Frank Stella’s “what you see is what you see.” Humphrey didn’t oppose the impersonal authority of either Formalism or Minimalism with painterly dramas of the personal and psychological, rather, he subtly proposed that the personal—our need to interpret—was an integral aspect of seeing.

Compositionally, the paintings consist of a layered border of color around a slightly atmospheric, monochromatic field of gray. Although it wasn’t necessarily evident at the time, these paintings exerted an influence on younger artists such as Jake Berthot. If we are to judge an artist by his influence on successive generations, then it is important to remember that during the ’60s Humphrey was an abstractionist younger painters looked to for clues as to what was possible within their field.

While it is clear that Humphrey’s frame paintings build upon Mark Rothko’s signature abstractions, it is also evident that they have transformed the older artist’s legacy. Whereas Rothko’s weightless clouds seem unself-conscious, Humphrey’s frames remind the viewer that all looking is a dual movement, a combination of introspection and a gazing outward. In echoing the way we observe the world, the paintings become actual things as well as enigmatic metaphorical propositions. These paintings suggest that seeing is not the same as knowing.

Humphrey’s frame paintings whet the viewer’s appetite to know more. Their grays seem both familiar (a misty foggy day) and strange (are these evanescent fields signs of someone’s interior weather?), while the frames (the cooled-down warmth of the colors reminds me of hardened lava) would elude one’s attention if they were not set off against the gray areas. Frame and field are interdependent; these are allover paintings unlike anyone else’s.

Like much of the work Humphrey did up until his untimely death, these paintings encourage the viewer to make an analogy between color and mood. In doing so, the viewer not only senses the limits of all understanding, but also quietly becomes aware of the conformist pressures inherent in the notion of a common language—an ideal that Pop art and Minimalism put forth in different ways. Ralph Humphrey spent his career quietly pursuing his own vision, and it is time we look beyond fashion and appreciate the delicate, bracing work of this undersung talent.

John Yau