David Humphrey in the studio.
by David Humphrey
Blind Handshake is a collection of painter David Humphrey's art writing published by Periscope in 2009. We present an excerpt from Alexi Worth's introduction to the book, followed by "Describable Beauty," an essay included in the collection.
Favorite Things: David Humphrey
by Alexi Worth
To stand next to David Humphrey at an opening is to hear an accelerating fusillade of choice anecdotes, movies tie-ins, literary allusions, and sly judgments, often prefaced with a laughing, personalized invitation: “Wait—you are going to love this.” Humphrey’s art talk, in other words, is special—in being more ambitious, excitable, funny, and unapologetically book-fed than other artists’.
When Humphrey began writing, around 1990, Theory was king. In New York, young artists either parroted the righteous pedantic ideas they had skimmed in October magazine, or felt truculent and cowed. In the regular column he began writing for LA’s Art issues, Humphrey set out to write the kind of criticism he wanted to read. He would pick three shows, not necessarily the ones he liked best, but ones from which he thought he could tease “a little thematic arc.” Each column, in other words, would be both an idea talk and a gallery walk. Above all, Humphrey wanted to keep in mind the way artists speak in one another’s studios. During studio visits, pronouncements come last, if at all. Typically, the visitor talks as he looks, cataloguing impressions, making distinctions, parsing tone. The aim is to offer the host artist a kind of constructive, synthesizing attentiveness.
That’s the essence of Humphrey’s writing. His voice has the animated, collegial spirit of a studio visitor. He has a great, greedy, omnivorous eye, and he loves registering what it sees. He moves eagerly from general observations back to description. He quotes readily from whatever he’s reading. His allusions feel impulsive—they are offered, not insisted upon. A major hallmark of periodical criticism—the dutiful mapping out of influence, debts, and stylistic affiliation—Humphrey largely avoids. An even bigger omission: Humphrey doesn’t give grades. He simply drops the whole PR apparatus of artworld status. You will never read him say that X is among the greatest artists of his generation. Censure, the mainstay of nervous and cocksure critics alike, is likewise absent. Only a few stray words, delivered with no special emphasis, hint at what the writer might say if he were asked to buy, say an Odd Nerdrum painting. In Humphrey’s patience and flexibility, you can feel his freedom—the permission given by the fact that reviewing was always a sideline. “This wasn’t writing,” Humphrey remembers telling himself. “This was just studio practice put into words.”
David Humphrey, Blind Handshake (2009). Book Cover.
by David Humphrey
One of the inglorious reasons I became an artist was to avoid writing, which, thanks to my parents and public school, I associated with odious authoritarian demands. I found the language of painting, in spite of all its accumulated historical and institutional status, happily able to speak outside those constraints. Of course language and writing shade even mute acts of looking. The longer and more developed my involvement with painting became, the more reading and writing freed themselves from a stupid superego. Writing about art could be an extension of making it. But there persists in me a lingering desire to make paintings that resist description, that play with what has trouble being named.
I was recently asked to speak on a panel about beauty in contemporary art and found myself in the analogous position of speaking about something that I would prefer resisted description. Describing beauty is like the humorlessness of explaining a joke. It kills the intensity and surprise intrinsic to the experience. I found, however, that descriptions can have more importance than I originally thought. The rhetorical demands of defining beauty often lead to ingenious contradictions or sly paradoxes. It's amazing how adaptable the word is to whatever adjective you put before it: radiant, narcotic, poisonous, tasteless, scandalous; shameless, fortuitous, necessary, forgetful, or stupid beauty. I think artists have the power to make those proliferating adjectives convincing based on what Henry James called the viewer’s “conscious and cultivated credulity.” A description can have the power to prospectively modify experience. To describe or name a previously unacknowledged beauty can amplify its possibility in the future for others; it can dilate the horizon of beauty and hopefully of the imaginable. To assume that experience is shaped by the evolution of our ingenious and unlikely metaphors is also helpful to artists; it can enhance our motivation and cultivate enabling operational fictions, like freedom and power. We are provided another reason to thicken the dark privacy of feeling into art.
Loving claims are frequently made for beauty’s irreducibility, its untranslatability, its radical incoherence. André Breton rhapsodized that “convulsive beauty will be veiled erotic, fixed explosive, magical circumstantial or will not be.” Henry James defined the beautiful less ardently as “the close, the curious, the deep.” I think that to consider beauty as the history of its descriptions is to infuse it with a dynamic plastic life; it is to understand beauty as something that is reinvented over and over, that needs to be invented within each person and group.
Beauty’s problem is usually the uses to which it is put. Conservatives use beauty as a club to beat contemporary art with. Its so-called indescribability and position at a hierarchical zenith makes beauty an unassailable standard to which nothing ever measures up. This indescribability, however, is underwritten by a rich tangle of ambiguities and paradoxes. For critics more to the left, beauty is a word deemed wet with the salesman's saliva. They see it used to flatter complacency and reinforce the existing order of things. Beauty is here described as distracting people from their alienated and exploited condition and encouraging a withdrawal from engagement. This account ignores the disturbing potential of beauty. Even familiar forms of beauty can remind us of the fallen existence we have come to accept. When beauty stops us in our tracks, the aftershock triggers reevaluations of everything we have labored to attain. Finding beauty where one didn't expect it, as if it had been waiting to be discovered, is another common description. Beauty’s sense of otherness demands, for some, that it be understood as universal or transcendent; something more than subjective. Periodic attempts are made to isolate a deep structural component of beauty; articulated by representations of golden sections, Fibonacci series, and other images of proportion, harmony and measure; a boiled-down beauty.
Even in the most unexpected encounters with the beautiful, however, there coexists some component of déjà vu or strange familiarity. To call that experience universal or transcendent performs a ritual act of devotion. It protects the preciousness of one’s beauty experience in a shell of coherence. I think there are strong arguments for beauty’s historical and cultural breadth based in our neural and biologically evolved relation to the world, but arguments for artistic practices built on that foundation often flatten the peculiar and specific details that give artworks their life. The universalizing description also overlooks the work’s character as a rhetorical object, subject to unanticipated uses within the culture. It draws people toward clichés and reductive stereotypes that are then rationalized as truths and archetypes.
If I have any use for the idea of beauty, it would be in its troubling aspect. I was describing to a friend my mother’s occasional fits of oceanic rage during my childhood, and she told me I should approach beauty from that angle. Like mothers, I suppose, beauty can be both a promise and a threat. All roads eventually lead back to family matters. Perhaps this path to beauty begins to slant toward the sublime; to that earliest state of relatively blurred boundaries between one's barely constituted self and the tenuously attentive environment. Attendant experiences of misrecognition, identification, alienation, and aggressivity during early ego development become components of the beauty experience. The dissolving of identity, the discovery of unconscious material in the real, a thralldom of the senses underwritten by anxiety, are a few of my favorite things. If there is a useful rehabilitation of beauty in contemporary art, I think it would be to understand it as an activity, a making and unmaking according to associative or inventive processes. Beauty would reflect the marvelous plasticity and adaptability of the brain.
I'm tempted to go against the artist in me that argues against words and throw a definition into the black hole of beauty definitions; that beauty is psychedelic, a derangement of recognition, a flash of insight or pulse of laughter out of a tangle of sensation; analogic or magical thinking embedded in the ranging iconography of desire. But any definition of beauty risks killing the thing it loves.
David Humphrey, Blue Hand (2009), acrylic on canvas.
David Humphrey is a New York artist represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York and Solomon Projects, Atlanta.