The basic elements of Jacqueline Humphries’s studio in downtown Manhattan set the stage for the primal battle between abstract painter and canvas. There is the paint-spattered chair for brooding, and next to it smudged art books and magazines and half-empty coffee cups. There is the canvas itself, not yet finished, about ten feet away, and, hanging in the long, loftlike space on Fulton Street, several other large unfinished paintings. All that’s missing is the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts.
But Humphries in person doesn’t fit the mold of the tortured painter engaged in a solitary dialogue with the canvas. For one thing, she is lean, with streaky highlights in her stylishly cut hair, and looks to be brimming with good health. For another, she is remarkably forthright and comfortable talking about the process that leads to a finished work. “These are paintings I’ve been working on—overpainting them,” she says in a matter-of-fact, husky voice. “This one might end up on the trash heap. I’ll work on it until I can’t anymore. These are failures, and I know that about them.”
What happens, she speculates, is that “sometimes I lose an emotional connection to the painting, and then I can start to put too many ideas into it, expect it to do too much. A painting can be overworked and still keep my interest, but I find if I lapse into crafty solutions, or designing, then I’ve lost the thread.”
Which means several big—roughly six-foot-square—canvases will be consigned to oblivion. But as Humphries explains, “It’s just a constant in my work. It’s like getting the garbage out before I can make a painting. To try and fail is a spectacular experience which I carry on to other paintings.”
At 50, Humphries is part of a stalwart group of painters (many of them women) who are continuing a tradition of making large abstract paintings with strong roots in both Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism.
Born in New Orleans in 1960, she comes from a family that nurtured creativity. Her mother, a designer, “was making leather clothes before that was the thing,” she says. Her father had a day job in an investment company, but played music on nights and weekends, “including Saturday nights on a riverboat.” After her parents divorced, when Humphries was eight, her mother became involved with a painter, and the two of them took her to a show of late works by Cézanne in Houston. That’s when it all began, according to Humphries: “It was my first real encounter with art. There was a big fanfare about that show, and that made me work harder to relate to his art.”
She had another formative experience when she spent a summer in New York, living downtown with her mother just before her parents’ breakup. While her mother was taking courses at Parsons and working to sell her designs and fabrics, her mother’s artist friends would take charge of Jacqueline during the day. She remembers how enchanted she was when she first saw Canal Street—”it was like a hardware mecca”—and she made up her mind that New York was the place for her. “I was not happy in school, and this was like an alternative school.”
When she finally did get to a real alternative school, Bennington College in Vermont, in 1978, she found that “there was no one there to teach me what I wanted to know. I wanted to learn to draw,” she says, “like, draw a nude model. And paint. I was way too conservative.” So after a year of escaping to New York whenever she could—”getting more out of the Museum of Modern Art than being in school”—she moved to Paris.
“Mostly what I did was walk around. I just walked and walked. I’d never been to a European city before. If you want to know what civilization is, just walk the streets of Paris,” she says. Humphries had no interest in renting a studio, apprenticing herself to a famous artist, or taking classes. Instead, she supported herself as a salesgirl in a needlepoint shop and spent her free time at the Louvre, among other museums (and, of course, checked out the clubs at night). Since “there was also no art history at Bennington,” she recalls, “I looked and looked until I began to gravitate toward certain things rather than others. I was creating my own history of art.”
After returning to New Orleans for a year, she moved to New York to finish school, enrolling at Parsons. There she finally got the foundation she’d been looking for, in painting, sculpture, and drawing, and could visit all the city’s galleries and museums. It was a heady time for young artists: Neo-Geo, German and Italian Neo-Expressionism, and homegrown talents like Julian Schnabel and David Salle were infusing new energy into the debate about the viability of emotionally charged subjects and surfaces. “I remember seeing this show by Sandro Chia,” she says. “He was figurative, but he was making these paintings that had large areas with pounds and pounds of paint. He was painting in this very macho way, and I loved that.” Humphries’s own first abstraction was a painting of a swatch of fabric. “By the time I’d finished, it was completely abstract, and that was it for me. It became a jumping-off point.”
When she entered the Whitney Museum’s studio program upon graduating from Parsons, she had to wrestle with a different set of problems. Back then the museum’s post-graduate curriculum was famous for theory-oriented reading seminars. “If you went into the Whitney program,” she jokes, “you stopped making art. You went to meetings.” She renewed her acquaintance with a battery of critical discourse, familiar from her year at Bennington—treatises on feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, and structuralism—and listened to all the old arguments about painting. “Painting was what I was interested in,” she says, adding she was encouraged “to abandon it for all the reasons put forth, and there were powerful reasons—’painting is bourgeois, it’s naive, it’s a reinforcement of the male hegemonic order; what we need in society is activism.’ But painting itself was also powerful, and that was a good enough reason to continue.”
In particular, she was drawn to the ideas and working methods of the Abstract Expressionists, whom she calls “the founding fathers of American art.” Four decades later, she admits, their attitudes and ideology “were no longer valid or applicable to contemporary experience, but I was still completely seduced by what they had done in their time. It was a question of not abandoning those painters per se, but picking apart the strands and finding a way to follow up on that in my own time.”
Humphries started out doing odd jobs for other artists while renting a small studio in SoHo. In 1987 she made a picture that signaled her “eureka” moment. “It was an allover painting, very Minimalist, but with a continuing concern with gesture in a way I thought was new,” she says. “I think that happens for every artist. One day you make something that locates you within the conversation, and then you have a place to start from.” Curator and critic Raphael Rubinstein, a friend who shared her love for punk rock, put her in shows at the Aubes Gallery in Montreal and the John Good Gallery in New York, and from that point on her career snowballed, with solo and group shows every year or two. (She is currently represented by Greene Naftali Gallery in New York, where her work sells for between $20,000 and $75,000.)
In 1996, she took part in an exhibition in London, “Young Americans: New American Art in the Saatchi Collection,” and at a press lunch for the show was seated next to video artist Tony Oursler, with whom she immediately established a bond. They discovered that they had both spent time in the tiny town of Allendale, South Carolina, where Humphries’ father was born and Oursler had many relatives. When she moved into her Fulton Street studio, she learned that Oursler was living around the corner on Nassau. They married in 2002 and now have a son, Jack, age seven.
“As a video artist,” she says about Oursler, “he’s the furthest thing possible from painting.” But the two have nonetheless explored parallel interests and even collaborated on a couple of projects. In 2005, Humphries did a series of “black light” paintings—big, gestural abstractions made with fluorescent paints or mounted on lightboxes. These “came out of Tony’s work, seeing an image light up like that,” she explains. “I wanted to get some of that into my own art.” In New Orleans, just before the two were married, Humphries and Oursler teamed up on a project called Sleepwalk (2002), an endeavor she describes as “painting and video all mixed up together and projected onto billboards or sign shapes.” With a sly grin, she adds, “Tony’s a closet painter.”
Humphries returned to New Orleans under grimmer circumstances, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, to participate in Prospect. 1. The sprawling 2008–9 exhibition, featuring 81 artists, was designed to inject a note of hope into the devastated city. Humphries’s contribution was an installation in an old garage space “that had a kind of patina of New Orleans,” as she puts it. She made paintings for the show in New York and then sent them down. “Then I thought I would make non-paintings, to give a feeling that there was something else there that had been removed, something that would point to a kind of absence.” These “ghost paintings,” made directly on the wall, seemed to be dissolving into or fusing with the brick surfaces of the installation space.
“I was haunted by the whole thing,” she says. “I felt this place where I’d grown up didn’t exist anymore in some essential way.”
This past fall and winter Humphries was working in her New York and Greenport, Long Island, studios, preparing for her February show at Galerie Forsblom in Helsinki. As she paints, she listens to post-punk bands like Magazine, the Fall, or Echo and the Bunnymen, along with slacker rock or talk radio on WNYC. “Whatever helps me focus and seems to fit the persona of the work.” She’s also an avid reader, favoring contemporary fiction by Junot Díaz and David Mitchell.
Mostly, however, when she’s not actually painting, she’s thinking about painting, and comments, “What makes a painting work or not work is something I don’t understand; it’s the mystical aspect of painting, which is part of its power.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.