Years ago I saw a drawing in a modest exhibition at the Centre Pompidou that Picasso made on a sheet of stiff cardboard while he was on a picnic with his friends, Michel and Louise Leiris. Not one to waste space, Picasso divided the surface into a grid, and in each small square he made a quick contour drawing of his longtime friends. Here was Picasso, a person who loved making art so much that he had to be doing it all the time, including while relaxing in the French countryside. I recalled that drawing the other day when I saw the exhibition, Stanley Whitney, at Karma (June 15–July 26, 2015).
There are eighty-one works displayed on one wall in the front room of this bookstore/gallery. They range from around seven by nine inches to twenty-two by twenty-eight inches. They include small oils done on prepared canvas, crayon on paper, and graphite on paper. Whitney made them between 1990 and ’99, and I suspect this selection is just a glimpse.
And there are five large paintings from the ‘90s in the gallery’s spacious back room.
Drawing and mark making are what all of the artist’s works, whatever their size, share. In an interview that I did with Whitney in The Brooklyn Rail (October 2008), he talked about the importance of drawing to his work:
You know, I began working in this studio in ’72. The paintings were going nowhere. I remember that I always liked Van Gogh’s drawings, and there were always some at the Guggenheim. So I made these big black-and-white landscape drawings that were reminiscent of the works of Van Gogh. The drawings were very important to me; they were key to figuring out the space. Even now with the paintings, no matter how structured they are, the lucid stuff really belongs to drawing.
Van Gogh freed line from description, which appealed to Whitney for a number of reasons, including his love of abstraction. In the small oils and works on paper, he uses a coiling energetic line and quick daubs to define shapes that evoke masonry or heads. The shapes are arranged on shelf-like bands that span the length of the composition. Sometimes they are close together, like morning commuters on the subway, other times there is a substantial space between them.
Working within the self-imposed restraint of a loosely defined structure, Whitney draws different colored lines within a rounded abstract shape. In the two earliest paintings in the exhibition — “Radical Openness” (1992) and “My Whatever Means Necessary” (1992) — Whitney insets a series of rounded shapes on shelf-like bands against a uniformly colored ground. Within each shape he drew an energetic line in paint, a flurry, that wants to burst beyond the shape’s boundaries, but doesn’t. Sometimes he draws another line over the first. He places one color on top of, as well as beside another. There is a dissonance within the structure, but there is also air and space. The paintings are gritty, urban and brisk. They evoke graffiti, but don’t cite it.
In the three later paintings, which Whitney did after he went to Egypt in 1994, he begins emptying the air and space out of the paintings. As he told me in the interview:
[…] it was in Egypt that I discovered density. That’s what Egypt was about. In Rome, you have all this great architecture. That was the big thing: architecture. But then I went to Egypt — the pyramids and all the tombs. I realized that I could stack all the colors together, and not move the air. I realized in Egypt — it just came to me — that I could get the kind of density I wanted in the work. Egypt was the last key to the puzzle.
It is in 1996, after traveling to Egypt, that Whitney began bringing the planes of color closer together. In the large horizontal paintings “The Trials of Misfortune” (1996) and “In Our Songs” (1996), you see Whitney moving towards the kind of density that he eventually arrived at in his work, and for which he has become known since the turn of the century.
By the ‘90s Whitney has pretty much established his palette, which consists of variations of primary and secondary colors, along with brown, black and white. What he had to give up was linear mark making, the line. Only by jettisoning the line, something he loved making, could he achieve the density of color and solidity that he long desired. Whitney belongs to that select group of artists who are willing to give up what they know how to do well, in order to move on
In the small canvases and works on paper, which were done throughout the ‘90s, Whitney’s restlessness and single-mindedness are evident. It is this combination — and the evident pleasure that he got from making these works — that brought Picasso’s drawing on cardboard to mind. I don’t imagine Whitney thought that he would one day exhibit paintings done on inexpensive prepared canvases measuring seven by nine inches, and he didn’t do them for that purpose.
Genius, a word that is handed out like candy on Halloween, especially when it comes to monetarily successful artists in our lucre-obsessed world, is beside the point. Picasso and Whitney both need and love to draw, to make something out of whatever materials are at hand. And for Whitney, whose first New York solo museum exhibition, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, is about to open at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 16–October 25, 2015), this exhibition of work from the 1990s at Karma, along with its beautifully designed book, which spans the years 1978–2015, serve as both an introduction to what the artist has been up to, often while few people were looking, and, more importantly, as a reminder that beauty can come from hard work, especially when you love doing it.
Stanley Whitney continues at Karma gallery (39 Great Jones, Noho, Manhattan) until July 26, 2015.