New York

Ralph Humphrey, Armanda, 1959, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

Ralph Humphrey, Armanda, 1959, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

Ralph Humphrey

Ralph Humphrey, Armanda, 1959, oil on canvas, 72 × 60".

By the time Ralph Humphrey (then in his fifties) came to my attention in the late 1980s, he was already known as a painter’s painter, and this reputation only increased after his death in 1990. He remains for a certain cohort “someone to aspire to, and someone I want to continue the conversation with,” as painter and critic Stephen Westfall explained in 2012.

I never fell in with this sentiment. Yes, Humphrey’s odd color choices could linger with the viewer like a musky perfume, but beyond that I could never get the hang of his work. Its heavily built-up relief surfaces, which for Westfall are “reminiscent of the stucco textures of the fake grottos that were built into late-Renaissance and Baroque gardens,” put me more in mind of a musty Italian clam bar in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Its almost abstract, almost referential forms—as if Philip Guston were trying to make cartoons of Bonnard interiors—somehow felt both too blatant and too elusive for their own good.

So I was completely unprepared for my own enthusiastic reaction to the seven ravishing paintings in “Ralph Humphrey: Monochromes,” a show of works made between 1957 and 1960 (when the artist was in his mid- to late twenties) and last exhibited together in 1960. As with many so-called monochromes, the designation has to be taken with a grain of salt: Each one is certainly dominated by a single color, but there are many hues combined within them. These flickering surfaces are full of blushes, reflections, accents, and nuances that aerate the paintings while at the same time providing fullness and solidity. Humphrey’s surfaces are materially recalcitrant and imposing, without any sacrifice of delicacy or allusiveness. Wholeness is uncontradicted by unconstrained variegation. A look at the works’ edges revealed that each one takes off from a colored ground. But only sometimes does the final image reflect the starting point. Both E.M. #1, 1959, and Oliver, 1960, for instance, have red grounds—but the former remains red to the end while the latter takes a detour toward russet. For Humphrey, color was to be explored, not unilaterally declared.

Nature, the perceivable world, never seemed far away from these pieces, despite their complete eschewal of representational form. The complexity of their color comes from life. In many cases I could hardly help identifying their hues with specific memories—who cares how sentimental, subjective, or simply unverifiable the associations? Take Century, 1958, and its brown akin to that of decaying autumn leaves on a forest floor; Armanda, 1959, whose blue resembles feathers on the breast of a parakeet; and Wentworth One, 1957, its green like that of pine needles—and so on. I did not take these hue referents to be the subjects or the inspiration for the paintings. I simply mean to say that here, the richness of associations inherent in color’s relation to everyday experience remained vital and welcome.

These paintings were made around the same time as Frank Stella’s famous “Black Paintings” of 1958–60. Stella’s works immediately became icons of their moment, and have rightly remained so. Humphrey’s, however, somehow slipped out of the collective memory until now. Both artists were attempting to make something new in the wake of Abstract Expressionism by distilling some essential structural core and rejecting what seemed an overemphasis on subjectivity and the vagaries of composition. In retrospect, it seems that Stella’s path—leading “only into painting,” as Carl Andre famously put it—quickly devolved into a sense of closure against which Stella himself soon had to rebel. Humphrey’s path opened up to life itself. With this in mind, I wonder whether, given another opportunity, I’d see Humphrey’s later work differently—more sympathetically—now that I know where it came from. In any case, these so-called monochromes, some sixty years old, could not have looked fresher or more full of promise.