David Humphrey is a painter and sculptor living and working in New York. He is currently represented by Sikkema Jenkins and Co., and, prior to that, showed with the McKee Gallery for nearly two decades. Humphrey’s paintings are in several permanent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Carnegie Institute, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Humphrey is also a celebrated art critic. He wrote a column for Art Issues from 1989-2002 and has also contributed to Art in America and Flash. Blind Handshake, an anthology of his writing on art, was published by Periscope Press in 2009. He is a Senior Critic at the Yale University School of Art.
Humphrey has been honored with a great many awards for his work, including a 2008-2009 Rome Prize, a 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1995 Thomas B. Clarke Prize from the National Academy of Design, and two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (1985 and 1987).
There are currently two opportunities to see Humphrey in action. For East Coasters, check out “In a Violet Distance,” a group show that Humphrey curated which is up at Galerie Zürcher in New York through December 4th, 2010. But you West Coasters are truly in luck. Humphrey is a Resident Artist at the Lux Art Institute, in Encinitas, California, where a survey of his work is being exhibited through January 1, 2011. Humphrey himself is also on location at Lux until December 4th, 2010, where he is working on a new painting right in the middle of the gallery.
When did you first become interested in art?
The late sixties. I was younger than the hippies but was inspired by alternative culture and had this fantasy, maybe based on television, of riding a motorcycle and studying yoga and making art in tents or something. It was a total pre-teen, silly fantasy. But I somehow knew that for sure I wanted to do art.
Were you exposed to art early on?
I grew up in Pittsburgh, and my parents would take me to the Carnegie Museum of Art. So I kind of understood that there was this strange, exciting, slightly difficult to understand world that I wanted to be part of.
And my father was an amateur sculptor, a Sunday stone carver. He had materials around. I tried my hand and made a couple of stone carvings and a couple of plaster pile-ups— not that different from what is here in my studio now. I did just enough to get into art school.
You went to school to get your BFA, so you were certainly committed early on.
Yes. I was sufficiently and totally alienated from everything, so that art school seemed like an exciting novelty, even though I had no idea of what would happen there. When I got to the Maryland Institute College of Art, it was just exciting. I felt like I had found my tribe.
Was your tribe the professors, or your peers?
I think it was really a fantasy tribe that included Picasso, Beckmann, Guston and Matisse… it went all the way back into French painting, into Italian Renaissance art. It seemed madly modern and self-made.
When I was a kid, I had a subscription to the Time Life Great Artist Series, so every couple of weeks I would get one of their cheesy biographies, but the pictures irradiated me. Then, when I got to art school, I realized that those works were not floating in the distance. They became objects in the present, my present.
Did the romanticized idea of the artist on the motorcycle you had as a kid live on?
It fell away and evolved very quickly into a much more sensible idea of studio practice. Which, in a way, harmonized with my earlier alienation because it seemed like a really productive form of solitude in which I was engaged with others, but they were elsewhere. Working in the studio was like building an empire inside your head that resonated into the world; that could function like a lens to the outside.
What was the source of your alienation?
Probably something deeply metabolic and maybe just a product of the sixties counter-culture. The world of commerce, business, and conformity seemed just loathsome. I am making a cartoon of my earlier self. But there was something about making art that seemed both intellectual and passionately engaged and, weirdly, also connected to what mattered most, historically, within culture. I felt that. I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I thought you could be radical and critical while, at the same time, tapping into these abiding values.
What did your parents think about your choice to go to art school and pursue a life as an artist?
They were supportive because I had toyed with the possibility of being an absolute, total fuck-up.
I was a stoner for sure. And I dabbled in hallucinogenics, which lead to thrilling and transformational experiences. As a consequence of hallucinogenics, I saw consciousness as a very fragile thing, that experience is deeply tangled into consciousness, and that the way we understand and see the world can be registered by and also modified by artworks.
Art school was preferable to a potential dive into a hallucinogenic abyss, huh?
It was! Art was completely engaging. I got to school and worked like an animal. Suddenly work seemed transformational and magical. In fact, I haven’t stopped. I still feel that way.
You got a masters degree right after you finished your B.F.A. Tell me about that.
Because I went to summer school, I finished undergrad early. But I felt that I needed to remediate my under-education in the humanities. So, I went to NYU for a Masters of the Arts in Liberal Studies. Which meant that I could take classes in all the different graduate schools and patch together a custom degree. I ended up nesting in the cinema studies department, which was awash in the first wave of continental theory, post-structuralism, semiotics etc… I was very excited by that.
I was sort of like a space traveler in other people’s worlds. I was passing as a cinema studies person or an English literature person… but all the while I was working away in the studio. I also felt, secretly and perhaps naively, that these humanities people didn’t really know what they were talking about because they were looking at their material from the outside, whereas, as an artist, I identified with the writers or filmmakers they were studying.
An anthology of your writing just came out last year. Did you start writing in graduate school?
Graduate school was helpful because I learned that I could write, that I actually had writing appetites and skills. I wrote various things for classes, one of which was a film class taught by a reviewer for The New York Times, who had us writing reviews of new movies: short, encapsulated things. That is when I realized that I could be proud of what I did. He told me I should publish, and it came as a shock to me.
You stayed in New York after you graduated from NYU?
What did you do to support yourself?
I became a house painter, a schlepper, a day-jobber. I had previous summer job experience house painting and doing light construction work with a friend’s father’s real estate company. I immediately turned to house painting because it was something I knew how to do. I ended up getting a job at the International Center for Photography, where there were a lot of artists. I formed a partnership with another painter and we would paint galleries and people’s apartments. We made it work. A few years in I got a nice grant, a New York State Council Grant, which was then called a CAPS grant. The grant gave me confidence and led me to show my work and seek representation with a gallery.
Where did you live during the days before the grants and shows started rolling in?
It was the late seventies, early eighties, and those were the glory days of really cheap real estate in overlooked areas. I had a studio and was living the downtown life. I always had a studio at home. The first one was on 11th street between A and B, which was a total ruin when I moved here in the late seventies. Cars burned once a week and buildings burned every month. At one point they tore up the street but never re-paved it, so it was a dirt road. On rainy days, I could hear cars stuck in the mud! I lived on Crosby Street in Soho briefly, and finally ended up in the Meat Market.
There were crack houses and shooting galleries… it was intense. But I loved it. I got broken into a couple times, and I didn’t love that so much. But I liked the whole possibility of derelict buildings having nightclubs and once-off events in them.
What were you eating?
Coffee! I was a single guy for not very long and started living with another artist. We got married and had a kid, so there was the domesticity of regular meals, alternating between eating in and eating out— a particularly New York routine. Take-out is always there. Chinese food.
Anything particularly memorable from back then?
Before I started showing my work, I was living in the triangle building that’s bounded by 9th avenue, Hudson Street and 13th, at 14th Street, in the Meat Market. It was a ruin of a building. The landlord was totally passive. We supplied our own heat; the electrical was irregular. We built everything ourselves.
The building was lousy with sex clubs. In the basement was a place called the Hellfire Club. Right across the hall was a place called Wally’s Attic, which was a gay S&M club that was the inner sanctum to a place in the neighborhood called the Mineshaft. He [Wally] managed the Mineshaft, and this [the Attic] was for his more exclusive parties, or special events. Pretty much anytime we’d come home late there’d be something interesting going on— meetings of the Golden Shower Association, military night, the Fall Poo Party. It was like some fictional idea of bohemia.
Did it lead to strange hallway encounters?
Yeah, we saw all kinds of things. Weirdly, the landlord eventually fell off a horse playing polo— really random— and he was suing everybody in sight. One basis for his lawsuit was that he was a really good landlord and ran a really good building, so he needed to prove that. I ended up giving a deposition describing my experience there… I got a printed out version of it later and was mildly shocked by my own descriptions of daisy-chained men in cages, glory holes, and fist-fucking slings that I would see because they left their door open and were friendly neighbors. You know, on my way home with the groceries and my milk for tomorrow’s coffee!
Wow. Quite different from today’s Meat Packing District.
Yeah. There was a place across the street called the Cozy Corner, which was a lunch place for all the meat market people. This was when actual butchers worked there. But it also had a topless dancer. I would go out and get my 25-cent coffee every once in a while, to be surrounded by guys in bloody coats — grabbing their food and checking out today’s performer.
That is a crazy image.
Yes. She would dance to music from the jukebox on her triangular stage mounted up in the corner. I guess that’s why they called it the Cozy Corner.
That makes me think of the way New York as a city has changed. The artist Tom Sanford advised young artists that you have to come to New York. But the idiosyncratic and in many ways vibrant, certainly cheaper, world that you are describing does not really exist anymore.
It’s true. It’s harder. I apologize to young artists trying to find their way. For sure, they have to work longer and harder to sustain themselves than we did. It’s terrible. I also think it’s terrible to emerge from graduate school with a debt burden. I think maybe it’s easier to be poor in Los Angles than in New York; Berlin also. London is more like New York; it is so expensive but also has a density of ambitious young people in flux after graduate schools, established artists, galleries, and patrons. All the ratios of vitality.
Tell me about your work habits then and now.
I think they are calming down a little bit, but they were maniacal in art school and for maybe twenty years afterwards. If I didn’t have a chance to work in the day, I would work late into the night, really pushing it hard. My particular way of working is associative and seems to require a lather of activity. I have drawings, paintings and sculptures going and they’re all feeding on each other in a generative turbulence. When I work I need to have music pumping as I charge away until I finally figure out what the abiding labor is, and then I have to DJ the energy down a little bit and stay on it. But even if I have to add one highlight, one little mark to a painting, I need the whole studio to be a storm of life. Then I can put that highlight in exactly the right spot.
I like to have a little bit of reading time in the morning. Under the influence of coffee my cognitive skills are a little bit better. For years the more challenging, heavy lifting reading has been done first, before my ADD kicks in and I need to start making things.
When were you able to quit your day jobs and just support yourself on your art?
I was 28, it was 1984, and I joined the McKee Gallery, which was a surprising turn. I had gotten to know David McKee because I painted the walls of his gallery and he would come around to the group shows that I was in. He was my hero because he showed Philip Guston during a time when Guston didn’t seem to matter to the art world as much as some of his peers. I thought, and still think, that he was one of the great American painters. So I got to know David a little bit.
At the time, I was having a career conundrum. Opportunities for me were emerging, I had three galleries that offered to give me a show. So I went to David and said, “I have these three galleries and I don’t know how to navigate. Should I try to keep them all, or just give it up for one of them?” He was very cryptic and just said, “You should act from a position of strength.” I thought, “OK, oh great Master…” I went home thinking, “I don’t have any strength, I don’t know what he’s talking about.” And then he calls me back the next day and says, “I have a thought for you.” So I go back to his gallery and he says, “I would like to work with you.” “Oh, what does that mean?” “Well I think it would be great to work with you.” I asked if that meant I should say no to the other galleries, and he said, “Yes, that’s what it means.” It seemed ambiguous, but it meant that I showed there. It was unbelievable. It was a mid-career gallery, and I was younger than everybody by a lot. But I ended up showing there for eighteen years.
Once I started to show, it made things a lot easier. Teaching and visiting artist gigs rolled in and I began to create a kind of ecology of art-related activities. That is also when I started to write for magazines.
Tell me about the trajectory of showing your work, before you were represented by the McKee Gallery.
I think it was easier to do this then, but I literally made slide packages that I took around and showed wherever I could. One of my earliest breaks was to be selected for a group exhibition at the Drawing Center. That led to other shows.
Do you recall the first time you were paid for your artwork?
It was amazing. A check came in the mail and made me a little dizzy. It still feels slightly magical to be paid. Even though the whole commodity aspect of art is a source of anxiety and can be so grotesque, I can still feel the emotional punch delivered by a sale. I have trouble, though, thinking about merchandising my work; when someone wants a piece and pays money for it I have to check my impulse to just give it to them.
There were some sales when I was a student, but I think the first painting that the McKee Gallery sold was in 1985 or so. I had been at the gallery for a little while before that happened. I remember going out and having a big fancy dinner, and spending it!
Do you mourn your artworks?
I am really happy when somebody buys my work. Especially if they pay a lot of money for it, they will take good care of it. They will take way better care of it than I do; I don’t treat my own artworks so well. I always assume that if I really wanted to see the work or show it I could borrow it back. Part of me never really believes that it’s properly theirs, even if they re-sell it and make money or dump it for a loss. I want to feel like it is being cared for and has a better chance of having an enduring independent life.
Does is ever happen that you stumble upon a painting of yours unexpectedly?
Yes, it’s spooky and pretty great. I do a double take. It’s a little bit like running into a high school friend. You half recognize them, but you don’t know them, and then all of a sudden it clicks.
I am about to have a small survey show of my work at an institution in Southern California and I am really interested to see the version of me that they’ve put together.
You teach. Does teaching feed your art?
I like thinking about it as part the ecology of a life in art. There are nutrients coming in, some things that are gestating while others are bearing fruit…
Graduate teaching is for me a conversation in which we, students and colleagues, try to sort out what matters, something that needs to be sorted out over and over. It is stimulating. One of the main challenges of making art is obtaining perspective: how can you be confident that what you have done is good, or alive, or could be better? I find this process of perspectivizing that happens in graduate school to be very useful.
You are an established art critic. How do you react to other people’s writing about your work?
It’s occasionally thrilling and wonderful to see writing that is a consequence of what you’ve done. But I would say that it’s 90% disappointing. But when someone really roles up his or her sleeves and engages with the work in ways that produces perspectives I hadn’t anticipated, it’s great. It’s like meeting someone you really like and feeling understood, even better if they cause you to see yourself differently.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
I agree with Tom Sanford. Find the city that suits you, out of the five or six top cities, and try to make something happen yourself. I love the self-organizing, guerilla exhibition strategy…I don’t even like to think of it as a strategy; it is a way to exercise yourself as an artist at all times. Find people who really care and are curious about what you are doing, who can help stir the waters.
Know that, somehow, a career and representation at a gallery isn’t the beginning, its just another turn in a continuous process of growth, and interaction, and testing limits.
And exercise yourself as an artist in different ways, in different areas. Writing was good for me, but not everybody has that impulse or those skills. But there are equivalent things you can do.
Then, on the other hand, I think there is a monastic model where you make a sanctuary, you pull back, like a kind of meditation practice. I think the great thing about this activity is that you can craft it your own way, you can shape it how you like it. That you don’t just follow in a pre-existing model.
Did you ever seriously consider any other profession?
No, I never did. Sadly, I am a deep lifer in this thing. Somehow endurance, staying around, staying in, is a huge part of it. I cannot wait to see what happens next— in my own practice! I am really curious about what is right around the corner.
There is one side that really bothers me about this life, and that is the necessity for a studio space. There is kind of a bourgeois responsibility that goes with having a room, enough square feet to make things. It is a great hungry monster that needs to be fed money.
Well, being an artist certainly isn’t a stable career path. Doesn’t that get scary sometimes?
Yes, you have to live with a certain amount of uncertainty and anxiety. There also is a special little disease that goes with it. No matter how much you have, there is someone else who has more— more critical attention, a more fancy gallery, more institutional support, whatever. It is really easy to feel like nothing is happening, no matter where you are in your career.
Is there an antidote to that?
The cure to that disease is the same as the cause of it: you go back into the studio and make more work to feel engaged and great. You restore the feeling that this activity is alive and profound! All those other anxieties drift away, they melt under the intense light of making new work.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist: Blue Handed, 2010, 60×72, acrylic on canvas; Amped, 2010, 72×60, acrylic on canvas; Plein Air, 2009, 60×72, acrylic on canvas; Watching kittie, 2010, 54×44; What steve saw, 2010, 72×60.