Ralph Humphrey (1932-1990)
Ralph Humphrey (1932-1990)
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Ralph Humphrey (1932-1990)

Untitled

Details
Ralph Humphrey (1932-1990)
Untitled
signed 'HUMPHREY' (lower right)
acrylic, ink and graphite on paper
22 ¼ x 20 ¾ in. (56.5 x 52.7 cm.)
Executed in 1964.
Provenance
Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1990

Lot Essay

Ralph Humphrey’s work in painting can be understood as, first, an exacting excavation of Minimalism’s harshly logical aesthetic landscape, and second, a radical expansion. Early canvases are especially preoccupied with their own boundaries, their edges painted with thick unmodulated bands of color. At the center are vivid, cloudy tones that seem to lift and swell as though buffeted by gentle winds. This focus on the outer limits of the painted plane would lead to further experimentation with shaped canvases, rounded edges and finally, the intensely sculptural, cryptic later paintings which seem to create their own space rather than simply occupy it.

Humphrey’s fascination with expressing this specific kind of physicality in painting was inspired by his admiration for the work of Alberto Giacometti, as he explained in a 1982 interview with Amy Baker published in Artforum: “One of my earliest and biggest influences was the way Alberto Giacometti used surface to trap light so that his work doesn’t just take up space, it makes you aware of space.” When Amy Baker countered that space is “more a sculptor’s problem than it is a painter’s,” Humphrey replied resolutely, “No. Painting alludes to formal space. The whole issue of painting and sculpture in my work is more complex than either of the terms.” (A. Baker and R. Humphrey, “Painterly Edge: A Conversation with Ralph Humphrey,” Artforum 20, no. 8, 1982, pp. 38-39). For Humphrey, the commingling of painting and sculpture generates an allusive friction and is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Rendered in casein, a quick-drying milk-based paint, over wood coated in modeling paste, the surface of these works is similar to stucco and immediately conjures architectural associations. But perhaps the most crucial aspect of Humphrey’s painting is color. Not unlike his predecessors Mark Rothko and Pierre Bonnard, Humphrey creates profoundly deep color tones by layering complimentary—or competing—pigments over one another. His palette favors the rich and the lyrical: fathomless indigo, pine green, shades of violet, carmine red and Spanish orange. Even a seemingly monochromatic painting such as Oval Composition is made up of subtly shifting hues of maroon-inflected purple and Byzantium.

Another important formal touchstone for Humphrey is the motif of the window. Although abstracted, windows recur at the center of Humphrey’s paintings, providing a kind of frame within a frame that at once expands and confines the composition. A window can also be read as a symbol of transmission, a portal that connects interior and exterior, perfectly in step with Humphrey’s architectural and sculptural exploration of painterly space. The window motif is immediately recognizable at the heart of Sinclair, where it encloses interlocking planes of hovering ovals, checkered squares and bisected spheres. Throughout his career, Humphrey was committed to mining the deepest emotional possibilities of abstraction, and he strived to share the knowledge he gleaned through teaching painting at Hunter College over the course of decades. His romantic notion of creativity is evinced in this quote from 1985: “I think there is a great deal of longing in American art. Painting has a pathos and a profundity—a faith.” (B. Sussler and R. Humphrey, “Ralph Humphrey by Betsy Sussler,” BOMB 11, Winter 1985).
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