Saturday, April 28th, 2012

Skepticism Free: The Abstract Paintings of Jacqueline Humphries

Jacqueline Humphries at Greene Naftali

March 29- April 28, 2012
508 West 26th Street, 8th Floor, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 463 7770

Jacqueline Humphries, Untitled, 2012. Oil on canvas, 90 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Greene Naftali Gallery

Jacqueline Humphries, Untitled, 2012. Oil on canvas, 90 x 96 inches. Courtesy of Greene Naftali Gallery

Jacqueline Humphries, who was born in 1960, works quite free of the kind of anxieties regarding post-Greenbergian abstraction that prevailed when I started writing art criticism, in the early 1980s. Robert Ryman and Brice Marden, so almost everyone said, were the last possible abstract painters.  The anti-aesthetic era of installations, photography and video, so we were told, was at hand.  Painting, and especially abstract painting. were officially dead. Humphries paints as if this history never happened. She has eleven paintings on display, all Untitled, all made in 2012, all but one 90 by 96 inches (one is just slightly smaller). They are mostly painted in metallic silver, but there are also touches of blue, pink and red. Humphries’s robust all-over compositions often are broken at the corners by areas of intruding color.  Her limited palette means that gestural activity alone must carry the pictures, which for the most part it does.

Sometimes Humphries creates rough broad vertical silver stripes. In one picture she breaks that field with narrow green stripes coming in from the lower left corner. In another, small dark areas peeking through break the all-over silver covering the canvas. And in yet another patches of bright red are found throughout the canvas and smaller areas of pink interrupt the silver field. Or, and this is a further option, a field of green on the left edge can be set alongside a body of narrow vertical silver strokes. A vigorous, fearlessly energetic painter, she shows how much visual variety is possible within a limited, seemingly confining format. This ensemble of paintings, hung in the marvelous north light of Greene Naftali’s space, high above Chelsea, resonates together, creating a very happy harmony.

Initially it is perhaps most helpful to characterize Humphries’s art in a negative way. She is not a monochrome painter.  A great deal of recent abstraction plays with geometry, often with reference to computer technologies. That is not her interest. Many abstract painters seek to give meaning to their art via references to nature. Humphries does not. Some distinguished abstractionists allude to the rhythms of the modern city. She does not. Often abstract painters lend historical resonance to their art with art historical tropes. She does not. Her vigorous sensuous gestural style owes a lot to Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell, but her color-sense is very different. Humphries owes nothing, I think, to the post-modern tradition of Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.  Free from skepticism about the capacity of abstraction to convey feeling, her paintings have a promising ‘bigness’.  If abstraction has now lost its supportive genealogy, for her that turns out to be no real loss. Humphries is a million miles away from the curiously tentative art of the Whitney Biennial, for her proudly beautiful abstractions advance no obvious personal or political agenda. They do not aspire to make the world better, except insofar as they contribute to our aesthetic pleasure. Standing on their own, these drop dead gorgeous paintings show how much life there is still in the grand tradition of Abstract Expressionism.

Installation shot, Jacqueline Humphries at Greene Naftali Gallery, March 29 to April 28, 2012

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Jacqueline Humphries, Untitled, 2012. Oil on canvas, 80 x 87 inches. Courtesy of Greene Naftali Gallery

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  • Justin Terry

    I like this review.
    It’s refreshing to hear someone liberate abstraction in this way. I’ve always found it hard to believe that in 2012, people still have to have this reaction to abstraction, simply because it’s abstraction – as if its an unwanted child, or an embarrassing drunk uncle – as opposed to just looking at how adept an individual artist might be at what they do, within their own visual language, regardless of medium. If Brice Marden & Robert Ryman were the last possible abstract painters in the 80’s, what was Ad Reinhardt doing in the 60’s when he was making the last paintings anyone can make? My belief is that this type of fatalist talk is what is misguided and anachronistic, not any one specific medium. It’s the mind that moves the pen that’s important, not the type of ink that’s being used. I’ll barrel on to point out that installations are not a new form of art invented in New York galleries during the 60’s, but that humans have actually been creating multimedia, site specific forms of expressions since the beginning of civilization. And even if this form of expression was created in the 60’s, that would still make it over 50 years old, just slightly younger than its older sibling, Ab Ex.
    Anyway, thats my rant.
    Great review!