It’s a relatively limited type of adjective that clings to recent abstract painting: intricate, quiet, lyrical, seductive, mysterious, atmospheric. Aggressive doesn’t much come to mind, much less assaultive; hence the fracture between Jacqueline Humphries and the archetypical 21st-century abstractionist. Paintings without content have taken on dubious connotations of overwrought interiority. Humphries’s paintings—whether metallic, phosphorescent, or paradoxically not even there—do the opposite: they put you on the spot. Her silver paintings reflect glaring bursts of light back at the viewer, necessitating a multi-angled tour of the canvas in order to form a complete image of it. With strokes both gestural and hard-edged, the silver paintings are a heap of contradictions: they catcall only to become invisible; their spontaneity is policed by tape. Humphries’s lightbox paintings are made with fluorescent paint on translucent fabric, set within a lightbox, and lit with a black light—sneering X-ray abstractions. These and her paintings on canvas lit by black lights coolly conjure the nocturnal energy of a sweaty danceclub. Recently back from an emotional trip to her hometown of New Orleans, where she showed paintings and—in her words—“non-paintings” in the Prospect.1 Biennial, Humphries is preparing for an April solo show at Greene Naftali. For this interview, Humphries had a series of conversations in her New York City studio with fellow painter Cecily Brown, whose brushstrokes edge toward figuration more than Humphries’s do, but are equally strident and confrontational. Here the two discuss, among other things, whether an abstract-figurative dialectic remains relevant to painting, and how to channel something positive from the destruction of your birthplace.
Cecily Brown Let’s talk about how your paintings discourage stationary viewing. They seem to want to be perceived from multiple points of view. The reflectivity of your silver paintings especially emphasizes the unfixed nature of things; do you think of them as having one preferred point of view? Or does that change as our physical relationship to the painting changes?
Jacqueline Humphries What fascinates me is how little I can control their behavior in new situations. An image will coalesce and then disintegrate, giving way to another reading that sort of comes out of the background. To me some parts of a painting appear as if you’re looking down at them from an airplane window; others might evoke something that you’re very close to which is out of focus, and maybe this is interlaced with forms that feel very distant, and crisper. The objective is to knit wildly varying perspectives into a unified space. Because of the way light reacts to the metallic paint, the paintings change as your physical relationship to them changes. I like the unstable situation that depends on the light and the viewer both moving around; the painting changes before your eyes. They’re impossible to photograph—there’s no “accurate” image.
CB And that destabilization almost becomes the subject or content of the painting. Do you want uncertainty to be the content?
JH I don’t think the artist can determine the meaning of content. What I am trying to do is alter baseline conditions of viewing to anticipate a new kind of viewing, to establish a site for “content” or experience. In a way, the paintings resist meaning.
CB I wouldn’t want to pin it down that much, either. The more I look at your paintings, it seems like space and light are your subjects.
JH Yeah, well if you’re painting anything, you’re painting air to some extent. It’s not so much that I’m driving at uncertainty as content as much as I want to captivate and entertain a viewer. I think a painter’s first job is to get someone to look at a painting. Perhaps it’s about motion and light. Having a heightened sense of the painting changing in front of your eyes gives it an almost cinematic quality—light moves across the surface and makes new images before your eyes.
CB In a way, that’s what painting has always done. A painting shifts and changes as one moves backward and forward; it has from Velásquez to Pollock. If destabilization isn’t your content, it’s at least something that’s always present.
JH Yes, it is always present; that’s what makes painting so fascinating, that it’s fixed yet in motion. I read you say that somewhere. With the silver paintings, the same part will one minute be bright, as if in light, the next dark, as if in shadow. This kind of image behavior is proper to cinema. Any painting looks different on separate viewings, and it forms a kind of composite in your mind: “Today the painting did this, yesterday it did that.” Paintings do behave this way, or rather people do, so I attempted to heighten this sense of mutability.
CB It’s more like a living thing.
JH Or something that gives the illusion of being alive. This comes with its own risks: a painting can look really bad sometimes, which I’m willing to accept for the possibility that it’s going to look good at other times. Under normal conditions of viewing, some things are going to excite you and then maybe later the same thing won’t. It’s a very human thing to see a person today and like them; they attract you, but next time maybe they don’t. So you could say that consciousness is built into the actual viewing situation as an aspect of its subject matter.
CB It’s almost like allowing the paintings to be fickle. I’m interested in your use of the word entertainment, by the way. It’s very refreshing. It’s not a word that artists use much—entertainment is usually seen as frivolous.
JH I made a whole series of paintings about cinema screens, cinema space, so I’ve thought a lot about what movies do—how a whole crowd of people will walk into a room and sit in their seats and look at the screen and not confer with each other but devote their attention to the screen with the expectation of being entertained. But there’s no protocol for making people look at paintings. I don’t know if this happens to you, but I can get upset if I have a picture in the room and no one really looks at it. I know it’s greedy and I shouldn’t admit it. Does that happen to you?
CB Oh, God, yes, it’s awful! I think that’s why I cling to figuration: it seems more likely that a figural work will get people’s attention. It’s a hook, especially in narrative painting, where people feel included in the action. I would think that when painting in a purely abstract way, if there is such a thing, there’s a danger of not hooking the viewer in the same way. Viewers want to feel that they’re part of the space of the painting. I think you pull that off; there’s a generosity to the space, an almost baroque feeling.
JH A complete refusal to depict “real things” forces me to seek other ways of getting you on the hook, of making you feel included in the image or addressed by it. What I’m after is a kind of psychological hook, as if there’s almost suspense or a sense of something wrong. A kind of pictorial distortion. And I pull out those stops, the reflectivity and the disruption, to get across a pressure or urgency. There’s a kind of theatricality which may even veer toward the melodramatic.
CB Disruption is an important part in thinking about the works you did in New Orleans for the Prospect.1 Biennial. You had regular three-dimensional paintings hung on the walls alongside paintings that were spray painted directly onto the walls. This must have given viewers a sense of dislocation. At a glance it looked like a room full of paintings, but as you got closer you realized some were not there in the same way. You managed to express your way of thinking about painting as a type of trace. The pieces that were directly on the walls were like shadows or ghosts of paintings.
JH There’s a play between the paintings and the non-paintings. I wanted to see if real paintings would behave differently in this space, an auto garage, than if they were simply in a white space with other paintings. I left a trace to point to an absence with the wall paintings. So there’s something there as a way of saying there’s nothing there. It’s almost like the hyperpresence is the paintings themselves, the presence is the room itself, and the absence is those black paintings on the wall that give the sense of the reality of the environment having vanished.
CB Exactly what happened in New Orleans—
JH Displacement and disappearance. Architecture, of course, is a very important register of the events that occurred. You go there and see how the architecture has been affected, and you think, These were homes, lives happened here. I wanted that context, which is why I chose a space with all the texture and ambiance of New Orleans; it’s decayed, its paint is peeling, it’s old, it’s dirty, it’s soggy, and baked. It’s all those adjectives that characterize the look and feel of the city, before the hurricane and after.
CB We talked recently about how your new paintings in Prospect.1 had started looking almost figurative. Being from New Orleans, you must have felt so ... ravaged.
JH Every now and then you see an image in the world that crystallizes so many things for you—a symbolic energy gathers there and says something not just about what it pictures, but about repercussions and implications on a much larger scale. This thing had a global impact.
CB It showed how America neglects its own.
JH Yeah, it was like a true image; it revealed something. And more particularly, things that I actually saw—a washing machine in a tree or an upside-down car on top of a house—lent an utter transparency to ... something. Something that interests me: the feeling of uselessness and waste. So much was expressed just by what you saw on the streets. It gave me a lot of ideas about how I might go about structuring a painting. The crushed houses in the Lower 9th Ward looked very particular but also totally generic. When water pushes a house three blocks down the street, the way the resulting debris sits is both generic and very specific. It doesn’t have to be illustrated in order to be depicted or expressed. I was down there a few months after the storm and took a lot of photographs, none of which came close to expressing what it was really like.
CB New Orleans is your childhood, your home. I wonder how this is going to affect you over time. It sounds kind of cold, but as a painter, you can take this and use it.
JH Yeah, in the way that Goya channeled things that he saw and elaborated on them. We have to think about how what we do is open to the world. There was a readiness in Goya’s imagination to receive these things. Similarly, when you grow up in New Orleans, people talk a lot about the big storm: “It’s gonna come and the whole city’s gonna flood and it won’t exist anymore!” and it’s like, Hahaha! Party on! I had become so used to the precariousness of the city. I never imagined that New Orleans would become this symbol of trauma and neglect ... of cruelty, really. I had long thought of New Orleans as still being in a just-post-Civil War era, where all the tensions of Southern history remain, alongside a latent desire for release from those conditions. It always felt to me like a left-behind place. Then suddenly it was really left behind, right there on national television. So it is changed but you have to wonder how the situation could have been addressed differently to really benefit the city, both on a practical and a visionary level. Which also throws a light on the nature of the failure of politics. I mean, where is our Voltaire to put the proper spin on this? We’re the city that care forgot.
CB It seems like your installation dealt with it in a very eloquent way. It felt melancholic without being melodramatic. The ghost paintings where the bricks are showing through—it’s a very clear way of talking about something that could have been sentimental.
JH I wanted the installation to be for the people living there. And I actually thought to avoid melodrama in this situation in favor of stating something very soberly. I avoided doing anything in the 9th Ward because I felt like the damage and suffering is truly citywide without being publicized that way. Mid-city: the neighborhood in the heart of the city is basically abandoned, and I don’t know how they’re going to knit back any urban community with that population hole.
CB Your next paintings will be the first body of work since making those. Do you feel that the experience is going to inform what you’re up to next, or is it too soon to say?
JH I’ve done that work; it’s finished. I’ve said what I had to say about it, and it was nice to have had that opportunity at all. Things in the studio are going in a different direction now; I intend to have a bit of fun.
CB I’ve said to you that I don’t want to talk about myself because I think that’s really vulgar, but we have to just slightly go into this abstract thing.
JH But I want to talk about you, see?
CB I always get panicky when there isn’t really a figure or a trace of a figure in a painting of mine. But your abstract paintings for New Orleans seem filled with content about loss and about destruction, and, to me, that’s the magical thing. How do you get that without depicting anything, without referring to anything? Do you paint out the references?
JH The referent is never there; there’s no starting with something which I then paint out. I like to think you make a painting against the background of all other pictures, so the figures are there, offstage. My goal is always to paint a picture, not just an abstraction. It’s a kind of situation where you’re totally thrown back on yourself to conjure something, and confronting that situation of not knowing what the picture is going to be interests me maybe because it makes me so anxious. It’s nice, what you said you got out of the New Orleans paintings. I always find this hard to put into words. It’s a notion I have about what abstraction can do, which I attempt to answer differently with each body of work; that maybe you can augment the “real” effect without the intermediary of represented “things.” For example, there are ways of expressing fullness and emptiness other than with objects. And what really compels me is the very palpable risk of failure, as if edging up to an abyss.
CB I think it’s almost impossible to not allude to something. I must say, “abstraction” is a term I personally find very frustrating and limiting.
JH For painters I know, the dogmatic division between abstraction and figuration is no longer relevant, because maybe both camps are dealing with many of the same problems. Possibly one day people won’t make the distinction between figurative and abstract painting.
CB I don’t make the distinction. A painting ends up as it wants to end up. It’s a combination of will, consciousness, and self-consciousness. You’re the kind of painter you are; you can’t help that any more than you can the sound of your own voice.
JH I think painters identify certain things that nag at them, maybe beginning with their preceding generation.
CB And the more you create your own history, the more you paint, the more there is to deal with, because you have to deal with what you last did as well.
JH Right, and then maybe you’re working away in your 21st-century way, and suddenly you’re thinking about a 17th-century artist you never gave much notice to or didn’t like and then you see this whole dimension opening up. I used to hate Caravaggio, and then one day I had an almost revelatory experience in front of his work in a church in Rome. I suddenly saw what he was doing—it was not an obvious thing. The forms on the canvas were making me see things that weren’t actually painted there, yet I had the overwhelming feeling I was seeing what he wanted me to see. I felt like I’d seen a ghost. So the more you paint, the more it opens up what painters did in the past for you, which then gives you more insight into ways in which you can refigure what you’re doing. Painters you love—the great ones, dead ones, usually—they’re like lovers. You get so intimate with them, and it’s thrilling and different with every one. But then you’re spending all this time in the graveyard and eventually you have to get out of there. Painting always has been dead, but, in the same measure, so alive. It’s the unlife.
CB You paint in relation to the things that excite you, so inevitably the New York School was a starting point.
JH There was a great deal of antagonism against Abstract Expressionism in the ’80s, so that attracted me. I wasn’t ready to be told what should engage me, but I didn’t have a sack over my head either. I never went to the Cedar Bar; I wasn’t bearing a torch. I was at Pyramid Club and Save The Robots every night. Engaging the New York School in the early ’80s did not make you popular with anyone. You have to understand, I was in the Whitney Program and reading a lot of theory even before that. But I was terribly interested in what had been achieved by the New York School. How a Barnett Newman can be so agressive, and also inviting; the way a Pollock messes with your mind and body; the kind of direct address of a Guston. The way a de Kooning feels almost magnified and turned inside out.
CB You said something about how you felt figuration had almost played itself out.
JH I felt it had lost its historical grip, and that loss indicated something important about our time. Modernist painting for me as a young artist was the given, the ground in front of me, what I had to face and think about in order to paint. I felt that there were implications there which had to be addressed, not cynically but not naively either.
CB You wrote to me recently, “Abstraction had carried on with painting and produced a different experience with it and I wanted to continue that work, take up that challenge, the legacy of all painting as inherited by abstraction.”
JH And then it soon became obvious to me that that was as much a dead end as figuration.
CB Part of the deal of being a painter now is that the dead end is yet another thing you’re dealing with, you know?
JH Right, because you must go on; you have no choice. I always thought it was historical narcissism to think that it’s our age in which no more paintings can be made. Maybe painting is dead, but paintings must still be made. We are not the first generation to feel that we’re post-art. You have to wonder about all those 19th-century painters painting scenes from antiquity—what did they think about their own time? Foucault talks about this extensively in The Order of Things: this projected time of plenitude which is always past or future.
CB How would you feel about being described as a modernist?
JH Are you calling me names?
CB A student called me that the other day, and I thought, Maybe it’s my guilty secret.
JH But there’s so much humor in your paintings, which is a way of putting your ass on the line. Postmodernism is supposed to be all about appropriation and cynicism; about adopting an attitude more suited to being intellectually advanced. But why not appropriate an attitude of seriousness, or even sincerity, whereby the distancing of cynicism is removed?
CB I think one of the great things about working today is that there is more allowance for a diversity of approaches. I was actually reading about Mondrian and De Stijl and their rules: no diagonals! When van Doesburg put a diagonal in, Mondrian cut him off! I know similar things happened with the Surrealists. It must have been rather wonderful when it was all so deadly serious.
JH The Mondrian example brings up this whole notion of freedom and latitude. Maybe in the end, painting is as much about constraint as about freedom, how constraint allows freedom ... and transgression.
CB I read your interview with Tony Oursler in your catalog for the Black Light Paintings show at Nyehaus in New York. These go back to your idea of making things entertaining. Doing lightbox and black-light paintings seemed to me like a genuine investigation, and that’s one of the great luxuries of our time. It wasn’t suddenly like you had to face a chorus of venom from purists.
JH Black-light art is a cliché. I liked to think that I could redeem it somehow, make it fresh again. I thought, What happens when I put the whole painting in this machine? What if I just change the entire light conditions of the painting?
CB You talk in the interview about all of the associations and cultural affinities of black light: psychedelic posters, spook houses, folk art, the use of black light in surveillance, jellyfish, invisible ink. You talk about the color as a lure, the seductive role of color, and again we go back to what we both agree is our primary job: to get people to stop and look. These luminous, fluorescent colors appear in nature as a kind of siren song. Did it seem sort of flat to return to regular old painting?
JH Well, the silver metallic paint was estranged enough from conventional color, so there was a lot of continuity. It was nice to be able to turn the lights back on, too. It happens very subtly, but the silver reflects what’s in front of it, so your presence registers in it when you’re standing before it. That functions as a kind of subliminal lure. There is a physics to how the metallic reflects light that is completely different from conventional pigment. It picks up light in unpredictable ways, sometimes coming forward very aggressively, at other times going more dead gray and giving way for the color to advance. So, at times they look really gaudy and crass, and at other times quite sedate.
CB Do you ever use spray paint on the canvases?
JH I like it because it neutralizes the handmade quality of the gesture. At some point it occurred to me that it really wasn’t my job to make the painting, but to destroy it. I have to destroy the painting I know to make the one I don’t know yet. One thing I’d like to talk about is the idea of intentionality versus happenstance. I think you have to risk taking responsibility for accidents as much as for deliberate acts. Because who’s to say what you really meant? This whole thing of control is an illusion; we’re not really in control of outcomes. I think most people accept that. What’s harder to accept is that maybe we’re not really in control of our actions, either.
CB It doesn’t feel exciting if it’s too conscious. You don’t want to feel like you’re just plodding along, slapping paint down.
JH Maybe it’s not a respectable way to go about things. Certainly it puts the idea of an author’s authority into question, but it’s the only way I know how to go about painting.
CB You’re almost running a race against yourself while painting. The most desirable state for me is when you feel like you’re just trying to keep up with yourself. Everything is intuitive or instinctive—you know exactly which color to reach for.
JH Yeah, when it’s practical and logical but from the seat of your pants. I like the notion of instinct more than intuition because you’re dealing with a kind of impulsiveness—archaic and primitive knowledge.
CB I can imagine this is what it’s like when a writer is flowing; there’s no groping for a word. All that time spent sitting there staring, agonizing, wondering what to do next ... all that is preparation for when you’re actually painting. I have all sorts of tricks for getting myself started, like just cleaning up one corner of the palette or putting out just one color. It can help to lower your expectations—not to go into it thinking, This will be a good painting. But rather to sort of creep up on it.
JH I noticed watching the Olympics—the swimmers, of course, because that was the big thing this year—how they always get wet before they’re going to swim; it’s like they have to become one with the pool. I realized I have to be prepared to be dirty to be able to do anything worthwhile in the studio. I find that those preliminary painting activities are a similar sort of thing.
CB Yeah, even putting on work pants as soon as you get in the door can affect the whole day. I could never be one of those painters with a team of assistants mixing up my paint and who just walks in, picks up the brush, and starts at it. Sometimes you can spend half an hour mixing up your colors and then find a total void. Not knowing what to do or how to start. Or you get interrupted. But it isn’t always a waste because even if you’re not physically painting you are still using the painting brain—any painting or studio activities use that part of the brain.
JH None of this is really normal. It’s all learned. But, in a sense, it is natural. The very substance of paint is a sort of abstract, formless thing that’s very other, but physical and biological, too. It’s very base.
CB Yeah, one gets more and more informed and knowledgeable about moving the stuff around, so it’s not like being an infant smearing shit, despite what some people think. Even when you’re at your most unconscious or instinctive. That’s why painting gets more exciting the longer you do it: it’s an informed smearing of shit. (laughter)
JH Don’t you think writers have trouble writing about painting? What do we do with this thing called painting? It’s almost become its own category: there’s art, and then there’s painting. There doesn’t seem to be any available way to effectively discuss or make sense of issues in painting, or even to make judgments about it, which is astounding, especially since there’s been so much of it around lately. Note to self: reinvent the discourse of painting; try to get it done by Tuesday.
CB Do you think reinventing the discourse is ultimately up to the artists?
JH I think what painters have done in the past 20 years calls for a reinvention of the discourse. Certainly there is art writing which is attempting to do this. A sticking point seems to be the issue of form and how to discuss that. Like what does formal mean?
CB Formal issues are the elephant in the room. A lot of students I talk to are so focused on content that they seem shocked if you say, “Have you tried putting a little more oil in your paint?” or “How about using a yellow ochre instead of lemon?” Outside circumstances may shift slightly, but in the end, painters are still concerned with the same handful of problems.
JH Yes, but maybe painters are doing things differently. Like the precise way in which your paintings are truly figurative but approach concerns that are more properly in the domain of abstraction: certain ways of using paint, making forms, the way the image disperses and re-congeals, the respiratory quality of your forms and how they seem to expand and contract, the way movement occurs. I think there’s something new happening there.
CB I’d like to think so, because you want to feel like what you are doing could only be done now. It would be depressing to feel that you could have been making these at any time in the last 50 or 70 years. But at the same time, doesn’t painting move on a slower timescale than other art? Are we juggling the same issues as Manet?
JH I think every painter has to start from the very beginning.
CB How does it avoid just being self-regarding?
JH Or self-referential ... do you know the answer? (laughter)
CB No, although I think painting is the least elite of all the arts. It still irritates me when painting is accused of being the evil capitalist when everything else is just as expensive these days.
—Cecily Brown is a painter who lives in New York and was born in London. In addition to several solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery, she has had exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington DC, the Reina Sofía in Madrid, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.