New York

Jacqueline Humphries

The “truncated gestures” of Jacqueline Humphries’ dot paintings of the early ‘90s, and even more the gravitational free fall of her more recent drip paintings, acknowledged the pleasures of foundering, the beauty of collapse. But now, with the big, strenuous, determined horizontal brushstrokes that characterize her new work, Humphries has discovered a poetics of resistance to this failure, an almost Victorian lyricism of effortful self-restraint. These paintings convey a massiveness and density greater even than what their considerable scale (6 or 7 1/2 feet square) would grant in itself, and use physical gesture, the pressure of the artist’s hand against the resistance of her material, to do so. Yet most of these pictures interrupt the free flow of the artist’s gestures with a horizontal or diagonal “cut” or seam across the width of the canvas. Part of each painting was taped off, it seems, to force a need to start over, to undertake an act of repetition more emphatic than that of repeating brushstrokes: Once more, from the top. The division of each canvas between top and bottom, rather than side to side, suggests not comparison between the parts but a more elemental interplay of gravity and resistance.

Although similar in their saturnine presence, each painting is quite particular in color and in its characteristic brushstroke. Hor. #6 (all works 1997) is the warmest in color and the most mellow and classical, with its brushstrokes narrower than in the other paintings, and therefore more closely woven together. The big black swipes across Hor. #4 finish with serrations as sharp as bear claws. Hor. #5 has the most restricted palette and emanates a strange nostalgia, with its blue-violet markings the color of blotted ink in a child’s composition book. Like a smeared Mondrian, Hor. #7 is dominated by the three primaries even as they become indissolubly mixed. In some works, such as #6, the shift denoted by the cut is relatively slight; in others more prominent, as in #4; the clarity of the cut fades as it traverses #5 and disappears completely on #7. Even more than the differences of palette and brushstroke, the variations in pressure along this fault line reveal the seismic specificity of each painting.

Two much smaller paintings on aluminum, Screen 2 and Page 2, feel like fragments from the “Hor.” series, and function better as punctuation for the exhibition installation than as works in themselves. By contrast, two untitled gray paintings counterpoint the logic of brushstroke Humphries has established by using one of invisible homogeneity. The color of cement, their surfaces recall the random irregularities of walls (which Leonardo once advised painters to study for inspiration). Because they do not rely on evident brush-marks, they are more fluid and unpredictable in tone, more mysterious in feeling. #1 is more obdurate, #2 more ghostly and nebulous—the first emphasizing the peremptory obstacle of the wall itself, the second the suggestive capacity of its tonal differentiations.

The taciturn density of the gray paintings highlights Gerhard Richter’s precedent for Humphries, as well as her dissent from the consensus that the mechanized nature of his gesture renders his abstract paintings derisory pastiches of abstraction. For her, instead, Richter seems to underwrite the possibility that something can still be salvaged from an Abstract Expressionism shorn of myths. She may be all wrong, but these powerful paintings suggest otherwise.

Barry Schwabsky