Ralph Humphrey by Betsy Sussler

BOMB 11 Winter 1985
011 Winter 1985

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

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Ralph Humphrey, Untitled #3, 1977, 4 × 4 × 6 feet. Courtesy of Willard Gallery. Collection of A. List Family.

Ralph Humphrey I got to Cincinnati at 2:30 on Monday. I was going to stay a week, but I was back in New York by 2:30 on Tuesday.

Betsy Sussler (laughter) I was on the train to Connecticut and ran into a friend of mine who is a writer. She told me she had been working on this article about art and literature and had gotten very excited about it, in fact carried away with it—on Joyce and Proust, very impressive insights, and made all these asides and then forgot her point. And she absolutely can’t remember what it was.

The way I’d like to start this is by asking you a very simple question, which is: Where did you first live when you came to New York?

RH I got a cold water flat on Second Avenue and 46th St. I was making forty dollars a week and the rent was twenty dollars a month.

BS Was it a dump or was it pleasant?

RH It was my own. The first years were very tough but then I met fifties eccentrics. It was after the McCarthy era and people were moving towards a more liberal way of living. The mid-’50s—the Beat Generation was just beginning to happen. The people I met in those days were living this financially difficult life but were also involved with art. There was an exuberance.

BS Who were the first painters you met?

RH The first person I met in the art world was the legendary Betty Parsons. The first painters…I got invited to a party at the Motherwells. I walked in and there was Robert Motherwell, David Smith, Rothko, Guston…

BS Those are actually some of the people I think about when I look at your paintings. That American tradition of thought which is very metaphysical, very tender, and very violent, abstracted. Who else was at the party?

RH Tony Smith—he was very important to me and became a very close friend. He was the first person to impress me with his seriousness and complexity…. It was 1956, things were much more relaxed, a lot of these people… I remember going to a party for Rothko and he had just sold a painting for $900. So it wasn’t the big bucks hype yet. I had been in Paris and it was still a bit like that—writers and painters together, very serious. Those were very personable days but they were scary, too, because I saw the deterioration…

BS You mean in their personal lives?

RH Yes, there was more violence, more battles going on too. If you went to a party, there were certain things you could and could not say around certain people. Certain powers that were interesting, a bit like La Boheme, being in New York then. Now you realize all of the conventions within that framework which no one expected.

BS Who was most important to you? Rothko comes to mind immediately.

RH Oh, Rothko was an island—I loved his work.

BS What’s the first work you showed?

RH The first work I showed was at the Stable Gallery, and the first one man show were monochromatics at John Meyers’s.

BS You said you stopped showing after that.

RH It was a scary period then because all of a sudden things were happening at the same time. I was working full-time and painting and I had gone from the monochromatics to the framed paintings—the first framed paintings were in a show at the Guggenheim called Abstract Expressionists and Imagists.

BS Did you think of them as abstract expressionist paintings?

RH No, I still don’t know what they mean by that term—it’s just an idea and then…artists say now “the abstract expressionists” and believe me, I was there—the terms were wrong. A Guston, a Rothko, a Klein are all very different. The talk then among painters was late Monet. He was being rediscovered, you see—I remember Tony Smith talking about Mondrian and Monet. The whole sense of plane, what Monet was doing, making the surface much more apparent. That sense of space is just as potent now as it was then.

BS If there is anything that represents a linear development in your work it has been this involvement with the surface as a support. Layers upon layers of paint…and it seems as if you don’t paint into the surface but apply onto it so that a dichotomy develops which draws you into the density and yet keeps you from it, as a shield would. There’s the tension.

RH For me it’s a feeling and idea about surface that would be false to deny—like denying my own time.

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Ralph Humphrey, For Norman, 1977, acrylic on canvas, 4 × 4 × 6 feet. Courtesy of Willard Gallery.

BS What was it precisely that drew you to Pollock?

RH The imagery, the energy. I’ll never forget seeing Lavender Mist — it was certainly coming out of Monet, but also it was a new kind of space.

BS And a new kind of gesture that made the space possible.

RH Yes. American painting and sculpture has this kind of raw intensity to it. That’s changed too. There’s more psychology now—content in American art has changed and deepened. The American experience is much more explicit.

BS The search for meaning is through the substance you use—paint.

RH Oh yes, and there is meaning, colors, amount of texture and time, as in Proust… all these things take on meaning.

BS Your paintings are very literal.

RH I love the kind of sharpness, not a hardness, but a kind of balance of color.

BS Which you have in your paintings. I’ve never understood the word abstraction.

RH The best abstraction started quite literally with subjects and then moved away from that. When I got into the window images, they are windows. There’s no two ways about it…I was on a panel and someone asked me if the paintings were always the same thing. And I said yes, the wall, the window, the mirage.

BS Max Ernst’s painting of the two children running from the nightingale, there’s the anxiety the viewer has of being drawn into it. Fear. You don’t think about that?

RH Fear?

BS Yes, not fear depicted in the painting itself, but the fear the viewer has of being drawn into the painting…

RH That’s very gut level. I do feel that. It’s very hard to express though. There’s a novella by Peter Handke, The Anxiety of the Goalie at the Penalty Kick…ultimately most work is vulnerable. There’s a certain tenderness and a slight melancholy. I’m always amazed at the amount of emotion you can get into a work. Someone asked me about emotions in my work, but how do you say that—I paint emotionally? It’s not something you can talk about. There’s a painting of mine in Philadelphia, that has a very precise build-up of paint but it’s cartoonish in a way. It’s funny on one hand, but on the other it’s also ravaged. The duality creates emotion.

BS As in Phillip Guston’s work?

RH Exactly, paint equals content.

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Ralph Humphrey, Tango, 1978, acrylic and modeling paste on wood, 3 × 3 ×6 feet. Photo by John A. Ferrari.

BS I know too many people have already asked you about your involvement with the color blue.

RH OH CHRIST, I had hoped… (laughter) No, no, ask me.

BS Because it’s a meditative color, the kind of color you want to sink into but it’s also reflective so that one stands away and sinks into it at the same time. Which goes with the way you apply paint and structure in your paintings.

RH But it also has to do with your eyes and the surface…it represents space too. It doesn’t have to be blue but blue represents air to me.

BS Or Untitled, 1974 which is that deep dark, grey-green, like a northern sea. What I keep coming back to is the sea that I knew as a child. I was afraid to dive into it because I was afraid of drowning and yet was irresistibly drawn to it—the same feeling I have when looking at your paintings. I want to dive into them.

RH Hypnotic, but I don’t see them as sad.

BS I don’t either. Under hypnosis, there is no time—one can go backwards, forwards.

RH Yes, certain colors tend to grab you and turn you around, have powers of experience.

BS You’ve been in group shows since 1958, shows with titles that range from Abstract Expressionists and Imagists in 1961, Systematic Painting in 1966; Focus on Light, and A Romantic Minimalism in 1967, The Reductive Object, and The Implicit Image in 1979; in 1981 Abstract Mythologies; Between Painting and Sculpture; The Erotic Impulse in 1982 and finally in 1984, The Meditative Surface. Your work has a very strong and consistent presence, and somehow you’ve been able to participate in different movements and yet not get trapped by any classification.

RH Well. I was around in the ’50s and saw what happened to a lot of people who had problems with that.

BS And there was such an emotional involvement, so that their lives…

RH Oh, believe me, what it was, what it portends is really scary.

BS Why do you think so many of those painters had violent deaths?

RH An awful list were suicidal. They couldn’t take success, I guess. To be an artist, any kind of artist, is a personal thing and it’s a way of living that is unique. And they couldn’t handle the business side. I mean young painters now, I think they are very smart because they are aware of what they are getting into.

BS We never really answered the question of why you stopped showing your work after your first exhibitions.

RH Everything was going too fast, I thought. I was teaching it Bennington and…I was fascinated; politically and socially things were changing very fast. This was in the early ’60s. I was painting but at the same time I was changing too. I was moving away from the older group. I had gotten into these framed paintings , it was a very productive period for me and I was more interested in lifestyles, that was the Judson Church period. And then after five years, I had a show at the Green Gallery and of course Bykert.

BS Norman Fischer had a salon in the ’70s where everyone met.

RH You knew Norman? Oh yes, he could really bring it all together. The Rices in the ’50s and the early ’60s had a salon—everybody was there, Zachary Scott, Lee Krasner, de Kooning…

BS Do you think that strong tribal sense of community sheltered people?

RH The great thing was the sense of community but I’m wary of it because I feel it’s a false sense of security.

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Ralph Humphrey, Shelter for Beth, 1979–80, acrylic and modeling paste on wood, 12 × 12 inches. Courtesy of Willard Gallery. Private collection.

BS You’ve brought up compassion and tenderness couple of times. Do you paint with compassion?

RH I hope so.

BS If one is willing to dive into a surface, which could be a metaphor for death, one must be drawn to that surface, there is a trust…

RH Have you ever seen my red painting for Norman? When he died I didn’t want to do a sad painting for him so there was the red, which equals fire…

BS Which equals phoenix.

RH The act of getting paint onto an object, there’s something narcissistic about painting, in the sense that go into yourself. It’s out there — you build it up — but it’s an object that is separate from you, with a life of its own.

BS Transformation, like the phoenix…the way in which you place the colors, or the light, because color and light could be synonymous, one becomes immersed in it.

RH I hope so.

BS How do you feel when you paint them?

RH There is anxiety, and excitement.

BS The most recent titles, Storm, Haze

RH The reason I started titling them is that I got so tired of Untitled, #11, 1973…I couldn’t remember them.

BS They are all concerned with atmosphere.

RH At this point that is very important—a breathing quality. Paintings change their characters quite often, according to the time of day. The hours you are working, certain things start happening, a certain light, a certain time that passes.

BS It creates its own time.

RH Exactly, the way literature does or film. Film is so important. I don’t want to go back to minimalism or abstraction—at least not as I knew it. It is less about abstraction or images and more about a sense of time, experience and place. The finishing of a painting is the problem. Like a little one-by-one foot in my studio now. I’ve been working on it since last spring and finally it’s finished. I just noticed that it had changed, and I love that slight subtle twist…

BS You’ve been constructing shaped paintings since the early sixties and yet it seems as if the paint determines the shapes.

RH I hope so—I’ll get the stretchers and set it up—even if it’s a simple rectangle, I’ll set it up and look at it for awhile. I don’t want to squeeze something into it so it will fit. I mean my life is whether that yellow rectangle is working against this blue-green rectangle. It’s emotional but it’s also mathematical.

BS In what way?

RH The balance of one to another. You were talking about a script before, locating the beginning, the middle and the end. You want a certain kind of balance, a certain weight to it—an excitement.

BS Harold Bloom says that one generation always misinterprets the previous one…

RH Yes, but a past is always seen through a present. For instance, my generation saw the twenties quite differently than they actually were. Gatsby’s tragedy is believing the past can be repeated. A character in The Go-Between says, “You cannot repeat the past, the past is another country. They do things differently there.” And even in repeating, you create a present.

BS Painting can be about longing and desire, I mean your paintings are, in a very metaphysical sense.

RH I think we live too long for the ideal life. The dream life we expect in America and that we’re still hit with. There’s still this desperate search for happiness. That’s part of my content, it goes back to memory. I think there is a great deal of longing in American art. Painting has a pathos and a profundity—a faith.

Originally published in

BOMB 11, Winter 1985

Ralph Humphrey, John Jesurun, art by Amanda Means, David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Jackson Pollack, writing by Luc Sante, Kimiko Hahn, Tim Dlugos, and more.

Read the issue
011 Winter 1985