What happened to New York painter Ralph Humphrey? Dead at the age of 58 in 1990, this master of some of the most enigmatically conceived works of the last 20 years had all but disappeared from the scene. Now he has re-surfaced in a small show of seven paintings and five works on paper at Danese in New York, organized by Klaus Kertess and accompanied by a catalogue with an essay also written by this contemporary art guru.
The show's earliest work is Sinclair, 1964, from the collection of Brice Marden. This echt Minimal canvas is one of a series of 11 "frame" pictures completed between 1964 and 1965. The preoccupation with this simple pictorial device, known in the U.S. under the rubric of "systemic painting" and in Europe as "geplante malerei," was first made infamous by Frank Stella in his black paintings of 1959 and by the 1970s had become very much a part of the formalist-dominated art discourse.
In Sinclair, Humphrey builds up a strong, dense, opaque surface of oil paint. An ochre border surrounds a putty-colored central rectangle and echoes the regularity of the canvas format, an extremely plain and simple arrangement that is subtly vibrant and seductive. The title, Kertess explains, is borrowed from the name of one of the SRO hotels that stood in Humphrey's Upper West Side neighborhood.
Humphrey's work from the 1970s finds him exploring the movement of color via paint into real space, through extremely textured surfaces applied to shaped supports that echo architectural elements like bay or porch windows, as in Untitled (1974) and Conveyance Painting # 1 (1976). Their finished surfaces, a combination of oil merged with modeling paste, looks very much like stucco. Yet, despite their pronounced forms, the paintings always privilege saturated color -- such as shades of blue interwoven with gray, or red and blue mixed.
By the 1980s, Humphrey's abstractions had become even more recognizable as imagery, suggesting windows and portals. The window both determines the forms of the work as well as providing a metaphor for seeing into the heart of the painting. The window in South Orange (1981-82), on loan from the Museum of Modern Art, is even trimmed with painted curtains. The images seem to exist somewhere between the contemporary smart-ness of Richard Artschwager's celotex building and landscape paintings and Jasper Johns' mute, symbolic, late pictures in which household and personal themes abound.
Humphrey's work from the 1980s is especially suggestive of the phosphorescent palettes of Bonnard and Vuillard, and contains a certain quiet, calm and painterly elegance. Perhaps in these last works Humphrey is confessing that he is a homebody, a painter concerned with the most definable and recognizable of subjects, and always devoted to color and its power to emote. More non-Minimal than ever, Humphrey at the end is coming into the future, a future of tables covered with printed cloths and still lifes. In Endicott (1989-90), we look into rooms, the central image is framed once again, except the frame now surrounds the overlay of bold, simple patterns assigned to scrims and wallpapers.
It is a pity that in his lifetime Humphrey was never able to see a solo show of his works celebrated in a public museum. The time for a Ralph Humphrey retrospective is now at hand and some enterprising curator should take the lead.
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 KLEIN is a New York dealer and curator.