New York

Jacqueline Humphries

The title of Jacqueline Humphries’s recent exhibition, “Past Out,” is obviously a play on words, but it’s a pun that—when taken as an edict—delivers a real punch. Over the course of fifteen years or so, Humphries has argued for abstract painting as a piquant site for direct spectatorial experience, at once ephemerally contingent and aggressively present. If critics can’t help but resort to talking about Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Cy Twombly, and even Gerhard Richter when confronted by her canvases, it’s partly because Humphries has, of course, manifested the lessons she’s learned from these and other predecessors, but also because the discourse around abstract painting hasn’t evolved much over the past half-century.

All of which leaves viewers of Humphries’s latest, mostly large- scale, canvases in an interesting predicament. How to acknowledge the artist’s debt to (and revolt against) Willem de Kooning in Haymaker (all works 2006) while also admitting the possibility of a more immediate or bodily response to the work’s tensile writhings of fleshy pinks against a silver ground? Or how, with Judith, to allow one’s attention to wander from gestural cloud to hard-edge abstraction while also flirting with the idea of what it means for Humphries to update Barney’s “zip”?

Over the course of her career, Humphries has explored a number of different modes of abstraction. She has played forcefully with the drip, for instance, and regularly utilizes what might be considered unexpectedly “interactive” pigment (in 2005’s “Black Light Paintings” at Nyehaus and here with her turn to reflective silver paint). She once described hers as an interest in “making paintings that engage one in a kind of dramatic physical event.” But Humphries isn’t referring to the Rosenbergian event whereby the canvas becomes for the painter an existential “arena in which to act.” Instead, she’s suggesting that the space between the work of art and the viewer is what counts as the real occasion—a philosophy shared by a number of today’s most interesting practitioners of abstraction (a majority of whom are women and not all of whom are painters), including Rachel Harrison, Mary Heilmann, and Charline von Heyl. Humphries’s move beyond the canvas is made literal in “Past Out,” where the viewer is strongly tempted to dance in front of paintings that seem to change according to one’s viewpoint. And while a shifting center (or total lack of center) has, of course, long been the prerogative of abstract painting, its affect has rarely been so obviously generated by the viewer instead of by the artist.

In this regard, utilizing a mirrorlike ground seems the most obvious tactic by which to produce reflexivity in viewers. But any such literalism is somehow sidestepped by the paintings, which manage a muscular subtlety that at once calls attention to and obscures the details of their making. In the turgidly viscous Brown Stare, organically folding rust-colored forms are shot through both vertically and horizontally with silver rips (not zips) that seem by turns to sit above or below the pigment they interrupt. And in Sister, which at first looks at a glance to be a silver monochrome, a slow palimpsest of colors and marks rise and then settle, like water moving under a frozen lake. A quiet, irregular form coalesces in the painting, feeling just enough like a face that even through its silver veils it seems to shoot its viewers a glance.

Johanna Burton