Ralph Humphrey asked me about 10 times what I thought of his last show. I said something different each time he asked. My characterization of the paintings as Protestant Philip Gustons amused him the most. I think I was referring, in a short-hand fashion, to a combination of the blunt and poetic in the same painting which Guston and Humphrey’s work share. The Protestant relates to the plain American, almost Hopperesque mise-en-scène situation. But rather than the sense of something which has already happened, as in the Guston KKK paintings, or the sense that something may occur, as in Hopper, Humphrey’s paintings themselves are virtual.
I met Ralph Humphrey when I was 19, and I knew him until his death in 1990. From the beginning, Ralph’s work was individualistic. It did not adhere to the reigning dogmas but reflected his particular way of seeing. It withstood separately at a time (the late ‘60s, early ‘70s—Minimalism, Greenbergian formalism) when the pressure to forge a consensus exerted enormous power in the art world. His paintings, often outward-projecting and object-like, operated in a complex way—the more they shared (invaded) the viewer’s space, the greater was the role of their illusionism. Ralph’s art never eliminated the tentative, emotive or idiosyncratic. He followed his own natural poieses: he felt his way through.
The paintings in his show in March 1990 were his last completed works. The shapes in the paintings, painted, cut and pasted on have personas, are individual, have constrained poignancy. Often in the isolation of each shape a restive bleakness is apparent.
These shapes are not figural to me yet I identify with them. Apprehending them and their fugitive movements enables me to sense my connection to a living organism which is not I, to that part of the world and perhaps even the universe which is isolated yet related to the rest, as I am. All the paintings but one from this show take their titles from SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels on the upper west side where Ralph had lived in the 1960s and are also, except for that one, the same titles he used for a group of his paintings in the ‘60s. Great Jones, after Bill Jones, is the exception. Those hotels had long been demolished by the time Ralph titled his paintings for his 1990 show. Bill Jones was dead.
What is left of one’s past when it’s physically gone? Had all those people who had lived on the edge (of society) disappeared? Is shelter impossible? Was the significance of these transient shelters dual in that they performed a temporary task and then disappeared?
I think the paintings are about the transience of the physical world, even when it is their own substance: their object-like quality diminishes as one looks at them. More than most paintings they change as one looks at them. What had appeared as visually static and absorbent begins to oscillate; a pulsating flicker caused by a slight chromatic transposition occurs where the shapes meet the ground. As the dynamic aspect of the painting affects one’s perception, the shapes seem to dissolve. In a constant alternating interplay, seeming certainty is relinquished by the most concrete elements as the rest becomes activated, the paintings take on depth. Through color—glowing color, saturated yet crepuscular color—these paintings assert their vitality.
Through color the paintings operate simultaneously as illusionistic and inverse illusion, moving towards the viewer and returning to their own boundaries. As followed by our gaze, color acts as the amplification of our motor being. During the long gaze the material nature of these acutely scaled paintings fades almost completely as the penumbral color activates a response to depth and its limits. Not to that of the space around one but to the limits of depth within oneself through one’s body. From the painting to the eye we know it must be but it feels like it touches the inside of the body first.
When Ralph died I became conscious of everything I might have asked him and hadn’t. I had taken for granted that the ideas behind the work of the people I knew would reveal themselves over time, without my directly inquiring; there is no substitute for an understanding gained during the course of seeing work and the subsequent spontaneous attenuated exchanges which have no purpose outside of themselves. But after Ralph’s death it began to seem possible that the thoughts of the artists I knew, what those artists regarded as their motivating forces, might remain unknown to me if I didn’t ask about them specifically even though direct examination risks changing the thing examined. I am now more inclined toward the notion that an artist’s verbal communication may bring the outsider closer to the meaning of that artist’s work. Connected to this is my belief (which forms the basis for some of my questioning) that how people live—their politics, how they have accepted or rejected their own backgrounds—has an effect on the art they make.
My natural inclination is toward apprehending work sensually; toward art which is optically complex; toward art which is generous, inclusive, not worked over toward a signature style, towards artists who have more ideas than they know what to do with; towards vision, not the adjustments thereof; and an art which goes all over the place, sometimes literally.
I have resisted the Modernist authoritarian canon, which is essentially a stylistic approach requiring a compositional a priori, and its tacit insistence on oneness. I am interested in heterogeneity rather than formal unity; in allowing a painting distinctive and particular parts, permitting the varying operations of those differing parts to retain individual character and qualities. There isn’t a hierarchy within the painting. The mode of apprehension which follows is one in which the viewer puts the painting together herself. There is no agreed on “ideal” interpretation. Hierarchies in other areas have seemed equally misguided to me.
The artists I’ve questioned here are at different levels of development and exposure. During the past year and a half I have learned and borrowed from all of them. Although they communicate with varying degrees of fluidity, acuity, and success, all have a steadfast resistance to being cast into systems of speaking about their work, to jargon.
All speak about their work in ways which are reflective of their work, using words as ways of communicating about what they believe they’ve made. The realm of ideas isn’t utilized as conspicuous display, nor are concepts advanced for the sake of invidious comparison.
Though these people were familiar to me, the underlying ideas behind their work and their motivating forces for making work were frequently surprising.
Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with Leonard Bullock from this issue. Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with Craig Fisher from this issue. Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with Louise Fishman from this issue. Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with Carl Ostendarp from this issue. Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with Saul Ostrow from this issue. Click here to read Cora Cohen’s interview with John Zinsser from this issue.
Dona Nelson I work with materials till the image floats up to the surface; then the shape and materials are almost equal in their presence. I like it when the painting can’t contain the image—when the image busts out, when it is “too”: too big, too much of one color, etc. I’m not interested in depiction or representation but in the paintings which are about the feelings evoked by certain kinds of images, and the images are entwined in my mind with colors, shapes…
Cora Cohen We’ve often discussed the way we approach work. Do you think that has an effect on what your work looks like?
DN It’s a kind of bifocal quality—in which the materiality of the work parallels and sometimes overwhelms the image. In spending a lot of time around the studio without a “proper plan of action,” not having the idea before I make the work, and in using unpainted strips so I can’t see very well what I’m doing, there’s an imposed chaos.
CC How did your collage method of working get started, anyway?
DN In the early ‘80s, I was dissatisfied with the work I was doing, but I liked certain things—a foot here, a face there. After a while, I realized that I wasn’t interested in the continuousness of realistic painting—that quality was about how paintings look but not about how the experience feels. I started cutting things up and putting different parts together. I am interested in what a painting is in relation to life—things like memory and the explosion—implosion of experience.
CC I didn’t know till today that you had begun as an “abstract painter.” What happened?
DN The subject matter paintings began in 1979 when I went back to school to become an art teacher because I had decided to drop out of the art world. I began to work with subject matter.
CC You mean, recognizably figural elements?
DN Yes. After experiencing the impact of subject matter in children’s and unprofessional artist’s work.
CC I guess you didn’t retire from the art world?
DN No. I’ve been in New York since I was young. I’m very busy with my painting, and I don’t really know where I fit in besides the art world—unfortunately, that’s the existing forum for painting.
CC Maybe you could say something about that.
DN The art world is compartmentalized. Most artists specialize. You have political artists in one gallery and abstract in another. They are very artificial kinds of separations. The formal is an aspect of the political. The world’s a mess and art is so tidy. People warn about aestheticizing content, and the art world itself is a completely aestheticized situation. By and large, most of the paintings that appear in the gallery situation are pre-digested finalities. You know, Peter Halley goes on making Peter Halleys and Roy Lichtenstein goes on making Roy Lichtensteins, etc. The ideas that generate these paintings are presented early in the artist’s career as justification and once these justifications are widely accepted, the artists more or less have their work cut out for them. The subsequent sequence of paintings is a very long parade rather than a dialogue. The whole idea of paintings as a finalized aesthetic statement rather then a mutable forum is arbitrary and deadly. There are a lot of possibilities for the play of subject matter with the making of paintings. All content, including political content, as it exists in the world, is process—full of ambiguities and cross currents.