The Notebooks of Ralph Humphrey

David Reed

In the spring of 2015 there were, by chance, two related shows at Chelsea galleries next door to each other: RalphHumphrey: Conveyance (paintings 1974-1977) at Garth Greenan Gallery and Blinky Palermo: Works 1973-1976 at David Zwirner Gallery. Ralph Humphrey and Blinky Palermo are two of the most important painters of the 1970s in New York. Insisting on their passions, both artists turned the restrictions of Minimalism into something else, something more poetic, heartfelt, and intuitive. As a young painter trying to find a way to make painting relevant, they were especially important to me. Since the 1970s, there have been several generations who have looked hard at their work, making them the teachers of an underground school. Palermo’s work has been rediscovered and has recently been the subject of several exhibitions, including a traveling retrospective. Humphrey’s work is still waiting to be discovered by an audience wider than that of New York artists, who have always loved him.


I’ve always thought of Humphrey as the “American Palermo,” so seeing these two exhibitions was a way to test my idea. As I expected, there were similarities in color (both artists use strange palettes of non-normal hues, colors too muted and strange to be decorative), but I hadn’t expected the convergence of their mutual interest in geometric forms with a slight torque. Instead of being presented straight on, their forms are often set off-kilter in space. The two bodies of work also share a strange physicality—materiality but without weight due to a strong sense of light from color. And perhaps, most importantly, they possess a slow sense of humor. For me, Humphrey’s work stood up to Palermo’s. Sometime soon there should be a full Ralph Humphrey retrospective.

At Humphrey’s exhibition I saw several notebooks written during the 1970s. This week I heard that there are many more, ninety-eight in all. A few days ago, I went with Raphael Rubinstein and together we saw many of them stacked in several piles. Raphael chose one notebook, which turned out to be from 1976, for us to look through. It was filled with sketches of possible paintings, ideas about painting, color, the relation of paintings to film, as well as Humphrey’s very personal struggles and doubts about painting and his life. The bubble letters that he sometimes uses in the notebooks have the same kind of physicality as his paintings, thick but light. And they have a similar humor. These unusual letters also make it surprisingly hard to read the words. They slow one down, as the paintings do.

Some of the notations in the notebooks are extremely intimate. At times Raphael and I found that we were uncomfortable reading them. To me, it brought back powerful memories of what it was like at the time, both trying to find my way in relation to other people and also searching for possibilities in painting when it was assumed that there were none. Outside support was closing down. I am so glad that these notebooks exist. They are a document of both the times and Humphrey’s ways of surviving, as well as his particular solutions within painting. Since, apart from a few close friends, Humphrey had no one to dialogue with at that time, he had to speak to himself. Exhortations and incantations were his way of keeping going.

—David Reed

 To experience this essay with the rest of its full-resolution glossy images, purchase Gulf Coast 28.1.