In 2005 a fire broke out in Jacqueline Humphries’s studio in Manhattan’s Financial District. “You know how they say, about a painter, that the best thing that could happen is a fire in their studio?” Humphries asked me one morning last summer. “That was really true for me at the time. I was working on a bunch of stalled things. It was the best thing possible.”
After the fire, Humphries produced the first of her scintillating “black light” paintings, which radiate wild, ghostly neon colors in dark rooms under ultraviolet light—not a technique that one sees contemporary artists using very often. “Fluorescent colors are very powerful, yet they were so bounded by these typical associations—African princess sex goddess, marijuana and magic mushrooms, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, and that was kind of it,” Humphries said, sitting in a backroom at Greene Naftali, her longtime Chelsea gallery. “I grew up in the ’60s, so I was into it. Why not take something like that and see if you can make serious abstraction with it?”
Those works rank among the most beguiling and adventurous abstract paintings so far this century, and they started Humphries on a decade of quicksilver innovation. She has made paintings in which gestural strokes seem to be cut through with digital glitches, and many with shimmering metallic surfaces that are impossible to capture properly in photographs. They are tough, clever, and sensual, and they have established her as a leader in painting that responds to the particular aesthetic quandaries of the present moment.
A solo show of recent work—in black light and otherwise—recently ran at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and will travel now to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, where Humphries grew up. It is her first museum show since 2006, and it comes just after her inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.
Humphries’s work almost always feels like it could only be made right now, but her newest paintings are blanketed with especially contemporary signs: emoticons. (Another unusual sight in art.) She uses an industrial-grade cutting machine in her studio to punch the little guys into plastic stencils, which she uses to apply symbols onto canvas in dense grids. At a distance, you can’t quite make them out—they look like tiny dots, or maybe some sort of abstract map—but then you get closer and realize what you are looking at: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 or :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ :-/ flying across the picture plane over flat slashes of color.
Is she a texter? “Yes,” Humphries said, somewhat ruefully, holding her phone. “It’s great, and it’s horrible—it’s both. I really wanted to engage this aspect of our life with screens—how much time we spend looking at these little teeny things on our phones when there’s this big world out there. In the summer you notice almost-naked 18-year-olds in the street passing other almost-naked 18-year-olds looking at this”—shaking her phone—“when they should be looking at that—that’s flesh!”
The history of painting is filled with attempts at capturing the big moment, unleashing the grand gesture, using the canvas as a window out onto the world. Humphries work in some ways reverses that project while maintaining its intensity. “You have to boomerang the other way and start thinking about not just the ideas of the sublime and the infinitely large but you have to think about the infinitely small,” Humphries said excitedly. She described today’s phones as “this world that you’re looking into that gets infinitely small. It’s like this Mandelbrot set—it keeps opening up.”
Her work champions intimate details and complex fractures. When she hit her stride making her newest pieces, she said, “I had this feeling that I wasn’t painting. The feeling was that I was breeding something. It was this petri-dish-like feeling. Different stencils and different-sized dots felt like DNA that I could combine in a painting. And then, at a certain point I didn’t have that feeling anymore. I feel more like I was playing Pong. It was like I was gaming, or playing with code.”
Her eighth one-person show at Greene Naftali, which was on view in the summer, included a number of these emoticon-laded paintings. Bubbling underneath the icons were her trademark fields of rough, swooshing color, which she makes by building up and scraping away paint. One senses wild improvisations—growths and destruction—taking place within certain fixed rules, as in nature. “I start with a vague sort of feeling of what I want to do,” Humphries said of her process, “and I can kind of stab around until I see the sort of economy and ecology of things that I want to see in a painting.”
In her black light paintings, that stabbing around is literal, since she and an assistant work in the dark, with the invisible black light switched on, in a spectrum in which color operates completely differently. “I have this spray gun that’s made to spray rubber—so much paint gushes out of it,” Humphries said, laughing. “It’s like painting with a fire extinguisher or something.”
“The more paint that goes on the canvas,” Humphries continued, “the more light there is in the room because the paintings actually create light. There’s a kind of thrilling feeling of creating light in the room.”
That is an idea that sounds at once psychedelic and almost religious, and, as it happens, when Humphries started making the pieces ten years ago, she was also thinking about the Rothko Chapel, the painter’s solemn suite of paintings in Houston. “How would I update this?” she said, thinking of that Houston landmark. “What if the Rothko Chapel were a disco or a nightclub? You obviously would have a black light abstraction.”
Flick on the lights or turn off the ultraviolet and the paintings disappear—the electric colors that Humphries has gingerly handled evanesce. That fact, I think, is part of the strength of those works. They evince a tenuous beauty—one that is just barely balanced and uncertain.
Asked about what art she had been looking at recently, Humphries said that she had been spending time with a catalogue of the flower paintings that Manet made in the last year of his life. He was a pivotal artist for her, and when she was 20 years old, living in Paris, she said, she was particularly taken with his portrait of Mallarmé, at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume. (The Musée d’Orsay now holds it.) It has the poet lounging quietly atop a bed, lost in thought, one hand in his jacket pocket, the other touching an open book.
“I would just go look at that painting at least once a week,” she said. “I couldn’t get my mind around it.” What was so special about the piece? She thought for a second. “I don’t know,” she said. “It’s barely there, but it’s so there, you know?”
“Art of the City” is a weekly column by ARTnews co-executive editor Andrew Russeth.