Magazine article Artforum International

Ralph Humphrey

Magazine article Artforum International

Ralph Humphrey

Article excerpt

GARY SNYDER GALLERY

Because Ralph Humphrey is saddled anew with the unfortunate appellation "'70s painter" each time his work is rediscovered--as happens seemingly once a decade--the results of these excavations have typically been equivocal. Artists such as Elizabeth Murray, by contrast, have broken free of the faint praise built into that suspect moniker.

Humphrey entered the lists as the elusive obsession of Klaus Kertess (as he tells us in a Candide-like catalogue memoir) when the latter turned away from art history at Yale University to found the Bykert Gallery. The catalogue text by the fine painter/critic Stephen Westfall details Humphrey's technical evolution from the wood-supported, curve-shouldered, shieldlike, tonal symmetries of the '70s through his more cobbled and quirky neo-Impressionist, densely chromatic compositions of the following decade. Throughout these stages of his career, Humphery would typically apply a ground of modeling paste first, a layer that was then painted over with rapidly drying casein. Thus, Humphrey's friable surfaces resulted less from the built-up residue derived from a natural hand than from a coverage that duplicated the surface of an initially palpated ground; counterintuitive, perhaps, but it worked. Nineteen seventy-three was a banner year, as Untitled, a standout in this exhibition of sixteen works, amply demonstrates.

Humphrey's reductivist blazons--frontal, symmetrical, and of recherche, toned-down color--inevitably were compared unenthusiastically to the waxen sheens of contemporaneous work by Brice Marden (who also showed at Bykert). Similarities of Humphrey's work to that of other peers (say, the crusted surfaces of Gary Stephan's painting) added to his overshadowing. And there was always the matter of his dutiful relationship to the AbEx patriarchs--Barnett Newman and, with especial rigor, the Pentateuchal Mark Rothko, before whom Humphrey was virtually immobilized.

In a startling paragraph (published with the approval of the painter's family), Westfall astutely observes with regard to Humphrey's deeply closeted homosexual-ity--he was married, among other attendant stresses--that his gayness "would heighten [his] own sense of interiority as a place of both resistance and refuge. …

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