Ralph Humphrey asked me about 10 times what I thought of his last show. I said something different each time he asked. My characterization of the paintings as Protestant Philip Gustons amused him the most. I think I was referring, in a short-hand fashion, to a combination of the blunt and poetic in the same painting which Guston and Humphrey’s work share. The Protestant relates to the plain American, almost Hopperesque mise-en-scène situation. But rather than the sense of something which has already happened, as in the Guston KKK paintings, or the sense that something may occur, as in Hopper, Humphrey’s paintings themselves are virtual.
I met Ralph Humphrey when I was 19, and I knew him until his death in 1990. From the beginning, Ralph’s work was individualistic. It did not adhere to the reigning dogmas but reflected his particular way of seeing. It withstood separately at a time (the late ‘60s, early ’70s—Minimalism, Greenbergian formalism) when the pressure to forge a consensus exerted enormous power in the art world. His paintings, often outward-projecting and object-like, operated in a complex way—the more they shared (invaded) the viewer’s space, the greater was the role of their illusionism. Ralph’s art never eliminated the tentative, emotive or idiosyncratic. He followed his own natural poieses: he felt his way through.
The paintings in his show in March 1990 were his last completed works. The shapes in the paintings, painted, cut and pasted on have personas, are individual, have constrained poignancy. Often in the isolation of each shape a restive bleakness is apparent.
These shapes are not figural to me yet I identify with them. Apprehending them and their fugitive movements enables me to sense my connection to a living organism which is not I, to that part of the world and perhaps even the universe which is isolated yet related to the rest, as I am. All the paintings but one from this show take their titles from SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels on the upper west side where Ralph had lived in the 1960s and are also, except for that one, the same titles he used for a group of his paintings in the ’60s. Great Jones, after Bill Jones, is the exception. Those hotels had long been demolished by the time Ralph titled his paintings for his 1990 show. Bill Jones was dead.
What is left of one’s past when it’s physically gone? Had all those people who had lived on the edge (of society) disappeared? Is shelter impossible? Was the significance of these transient shelters dual in that they performed a temporary task and then disappeared?
I think the paintings are about the transience of the physical world, even when it is their own substance: their object-like quality diminishes as one looks at them. More than most paintings they change as one looks at them. What had appeared as visually static and absorbent begins to oscillate; a pulsating flicker caused by a slight chromatic transposition occurs where the shapes meet the ground. As the dynamic aspect of the painting affects one’s perception, the shapes seem to dissolve. In a constant alternating interplay, seeming certainty is relinquished by the most concrete elements as the rest becomes activated, the paintings take on depth. Through color—glowing color, saturated yet crepuscular color—these paintings assert their vitality.
Through color the paintings operate simultaneously as illusionistic and inverse illusion, moving towards the viewer and returning to their own boundaries. As followed by our gaze, color acts as the amplification of our motor being. During the long gaze the material nature of these acutely scaled paintings fades almost completely as the penumbral color activates a response to depth and its limits. Not to that of the space around one but to the limits of depth within oneself through one’s body. From the painting to the eye we know it must be but it feels like it touches the inside of the body first.
When Ralph died I became conscious of everything I might have asked him and hadn’t. I had taken for granted that the ideas behind the work of the people I knew would reveal themselves over time, without my directly inquiring; there is no substitute for an understanding gained during the course of seeing work and the subsequent spontaneous attenuated exchanges which have no purpose outside of themselves. But after Ralph’s death it began to seem possible that the thoughts of the artists I knew, what those artists regarded as their motivating forces, might remain unknown to me if I didn’t ask about them specifically even though direct examination risks changing the thing examined. I am now more inclined toward the notion that an artist’s verbal communication may bring the outsider closer to the meaning of that artist’s work. Connected to this is my belief (which forms the basis for some of my questioning) that how people live—their politics, how they have accepted or rejected their own backgrounds—has an effect on the art they make.
My natural inclination is toward apprehending work sensually; toward art which is optically complex; toward art which is generous, inclusive, not worked over toward a signature style, towards artists who have more ideas than they know what to do with; towards vision, not the adjustments thereof; and an art which goes all over the place, sometimes literally.
I have resisted the Modernist authoritarian canon, which is essentially a stylistic approach requiring a compositional a priori, and its tacit insistence on oneness. I am interested in heterogeneity rather than formal unity; in allowing a painting distinctive and particular parts, permitting the varying operations of those differing parts to retain individual character and qualities. There isn’t a hierarchy within the painting. The mode of apprehension which follows is one in which the viewer puts the painting together herself. There is no agreed on “ideal” interpretation. Hierarchies in other areas have seemed equally misguided to me.
The artists I’ve questioned here are at different levels of development and exposure. During the past year and a half I have learned and borrowed from all of them. Although they communicate with varying degrees of fluidity, acuity, and success, all have a steadfast resistance to being cast into systems of speaking about their work, to jargon.
All speak about their work in ways which are reflective of their work, using words as ways of communicating about what they believe they’ve made. The realm of ideas isn’t utilized as conspicuous display, nor are concepts advanced for the sake of invidious comparison.
Though these people were familiar to me, the underlying ideas behind their work and their motivating forces for making work were frequently surprising.
Cora Cohen What is the basis of the dimensional pieces you do?
Leonard Bullock They are anecdotal in relation in to dimension. I see them as combination collision, aggregation of near polarities. They derive meaning from relation. The works, made with found materials, carry age and decomposition in unlike ways, stressing vernacular association. A table once used to roll tobacco leaves is not antipodal to the crystals used in the painting rising from its surface. The two things come from parallel domains. One is not assimilable into another. Each part retains something of the origin of its use, or of both. I made an attempt to mix the pure system of the traditional painting studio with the minerals (“fragments of a larger fragmentation” R.S.) and the tobacco rolling table with its parochial history use and decay.
CC So there’s a relationship in your thinking to that of Robert Smithson’s?
LB In one of his essays Smithson speaks of the slate in Bangor Non-Site as being “fragments of a larger fragmentation.” This stresses that the material of the works is from somewhere else in the world. Because the site pieces rely so much on transitive metaphors of displacement they continue to be activated by a sense of productive unresolve as works of art. Planet on the Table is intended in part to operate along these lines. These works satisfy a specific ambiguity grown out of the apposition of new matter the way it occurs in nature: one thing put next to another in succession, aggregated, part of flowing movement but retaining its nominal character.
CC How do you mean nominal?
LB I have to say that I’ve used the word nominal here as in its relation to the philosophy of nominalism. The nominalists held that there are no universal essences in reality—to our intellects everything real must be some particular individual thing. So all general collective words are mere words.
The poet William Carlos Williams’s notion that “there are no ideas but in things” bears a relation to this sort of thinking. I wonder if your family doctor can impart that kind of influence. (Williams was Smithson’s childhood doctor.)
CC You often mention the notion of negative capability. Has it a direct bearing on the nature of your work?
LB The English poet Keats first transposed his idea of “negative capability” in a letter to a colleague. He describes the moment of making (creating) at its most frustrating uncertainty, of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. If at that moment the artist/poet could continue without resorting to reasoned exit, resist difficulties and the urge to rationalize the effort, that “negative capability” would awaken the imagination.
CC In what way has your having been itinerant enhanced your work (or detracted from it)?
LB I’d rather it be peripatetic but both have been true. Yeah, I wanted more freedom and New York didn’t provide it. The offer I got from Rudolf (Zwirner) to live and work in Cologne was exhilarating; it fueled my work, no doubt. The time of my life at which it came (I was 27) was perfect. I needed the challenge more than I knew.
So I allowed myself to wander for a few years. That can do damage and it did, but it released so much untapped power. I hadn’t undertaken all this to achieve that end; it wasn’t a project; I’d done it out of desire . . .