Some years ago I was in the back room on business at Mary Boone Gallery when Mary turned to me and asked, "Oh, you like Ralph Humphrey?" She proceeded to hand over about 40 catalogues that she had printed for two separate Humphrey shows at her gallery in 1990. "He died you know," she whispered, while I struggled with the weight of her generous gift. I nodded in agreement before leaving, and since then I've quietly distributed the books among my painter friends. Humphrey's work remains largely unseen, despite the fact that he showed at some of New York's strongest galleries, including Stable Gallery, Bykert, John Weber and Willard. Still, he has a reputation as a painters' painter. Artists who studied with him at Hunter College have told me of his influence on their work, and others can get sentimental about a particular show -- usually it's the one he had in the East Village with Jay Gorney.
The recent show at Danese, curated by Klaus Kertess, includes one of Humphrey's legendary frame paintings, Sinclair (1965), from the collection of Brice Marden, and several relief paintings from the '70s, including one from MoMA's vaults, as well as a small group of works on paper that are only now being exhibited posthumously. The show is installed well, and the paintings come alive in the low lighting, particularly in terms of their color. The sensual imperative of Humphrey's work is immediately obvious as one enters the gallery. Conveyance Painting #1 smolders like a blue and red mailbox slot on the back wall, its resplendent radiating color belying the fact that this painting and several others in the show, which are constructed with a large amount of modeling paste over plywood, probably weigh a couple hundred pounds each.
Beautiful and heavy, these works aggressively protrude away from the wall in an effort to make an essentially ephemeral color experience more real, and ultimately more literal. The blue-shingled window space of Why I Don't Paint Like Mark Rothko (1977-78) gives way to a painted open window complete with windswept curtains in South Orange (1981-82), thus adding another line to the familiar art-historical adage that so-and-so painted the window, Rothko drew the blinds and Reinhardt turned the lights out -- well, Humphrey opened the window and let in the sunshine. The ungainly construction of these paintings recalls the wooden skids that one sees strewn about city loading docks, while their whipped up and mottled surfaces retain some of the everyday eroticism of candle wax, with its melted drips accumulating around the neck of a bottle. Humphrey's paintings have the texture of tongues. The floating array of blue tabs found in Untitled (1974) are another example of Humphrey's style of Band-Aid construction, where blue strips bunch and hover randomly like minnows in a creek.
Sinclair is the only "frame" painting in the show, in which a geometric border both echoes the shape of the canvas and frames a central rectangle. Humphrey painted it when he was in his early 30s, and it's a beauty. Many contemporary painters have experimented with this formalist method at one time or another, or made an entire career of it. Here we see how Humphrey, like Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Jo Baer from the same generation, began his early mature work at a post-Pollock, post- Reinhardt theoretical endpoint -- a"last painting" strategy -- and then advanced along a perverse but not unlogical path towards the meat of their individual interests.
What was reserved as a finish point for the Abstract Expressionist generation was a starting point, an actual beginning, for the next one. Stella began with frame paintings and now makes truck-sized heaps of metal-scrap sculptures. Baer began with frame paintings and now makes mythic horse paintings. And Humphrey, as is evident from the works on paper in the project room space at Danese, began to ruminate on the subjects of the School of Paris in his final years. In his last works, Humphrey became preoccupied with problems that were presumably answered by Matisse, Vuillard and Bonnard a half-century ago. But these surprising last works are consistent with every issue that interested Humphrey from day one, whether formal concerns about the painting edge or his almost garish, cartoony use of color. As Kertess points out in his catalog essay, it's no accident that Humphrey's final works share the same working titles as his frame paintings from the '60s, which were named after single-occupancy hotels on the upper West side, such as Wentworth or Belmont, in all their shared crummy luxury.
Aside from being wholly satisfying to the eye, Humphrey's work addresses every issue and conflict that faces modern painting, especially with regard to ideas about originality and renewal. My only real regret is that the show isn't larger, and that it doesn't include examples from many of Humphrey's other great series like the early crusty monochromes from the late '50s, or the "Three Bar" paintings or the Day-Glo needle paintings from the early '70s. A fuller survey of this artist -- the kind of historical investigation of painting that has been so rare in recent years -- needs to be organized at the museum level before too long.
Ralph Humphrey at Danese Gallery, Jan. 16-Feb. 14, 1998, 41 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022. The show is curated by Klaus Kertess and organized in association with Daniel Weinberg Contemporary Art, San Francisco.
MICHAEL BRENNAN is a New York painter who writes on art.