Jacqueline Humphries, New Paintings, Oct. 14-Nov. 27, 1999, at Greene Naftali, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
The secret of Jacqueline Humphries' series of six "To Be Titled" abstract paintings (all from 1999) is the band of white space at the base of their blackness. Sometimes its edge is curved, sometimes fuzzy and sometimes a simple straight line, but it makes the black space above it all the more ominous, deep and dramatic. In half the works, vertical lines of varying thickness curtain the blackness, making it seem even deeper -- creating an illusion of boundless, remote space.
Some of the lines are fragmented, some seem to be drawn with a ruler, others are gestural and some turn inward to the center of the canvas, never reaching it -- dangling helplessly. In one painting, red stripes form a vertical band above the black -- a few drop into it -- which rests on an unstable, atmospheric band of white.
Black and white are a familiar contrast, and Humphries is not so much interested in uniting these opposites -- although the blackness sometimes penetrates the whiteness, adding a touch of atmospheric morbidity to its purity -- as if playing them off one another. The verticals sometimes are reminiscent of Barnett Newman's grand zip run amuck and reproducing wildly, like some one-celled creature, and at other times are like a residue of pattern painting, with the pattern miniaturized -- minimalized.
Indeed, there is a Minimalist sensibility at war with expressionistic extravagance in Humphries' paintings, but their core is the gnostic drama of black and white, fighting it out with neither side clearly winning. Or maybe the whole painting is a Pyrrhic victory: the despair left after interior space has been explored, and discovered to be empty.
It is the magnificent emptiness that gives Humphries' paintings their credibility. Her familiar esthetics ingeniously accents it -- throws it into relief, as it were, drawing us into it, without comforting us, as esthetics is supposed to do. Perspective is created, but interior space remains immeasurable. Humphries has given us a negative of the sublime, that is, shown us just how negative -- abysmal -- the sublime is.
Art historically, Humphries breathes new life into abstraction by way of an eclecticism that rises to originality through the strangeness of its synthesis. One is struck, in the end, by the bizarreness of her construction -- by the uncanniness generated by the incongruity of her elements.
She is at bottom a formalist, struggling for new expressive effects, yet hesitating to become too outrageously expressive, for that would disturb the ceremonial calm she also aims for. Indeed, her verticals give the blackness a dignity that softens its impact, keeping us at a distance, as though to save us from being drawn into its abyss.
These are esthetically eloquent works, but they don't really understand the meaning of the terror that alone can plumb the depths of inner space. Her vertical lines are ropes we hold so as not to be dragged overboard, rather than plumb lines dropped into the depths, even as one knows the attempt to fathom it is futile.
New paintings by Jacqueline Humphries are also on view at Galerie Heinz Holtmann, Cologne, Nov. 12-Dec. 31, 1999.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.