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Stanley Whitney, “The Blue” (2012), oil on linen, 20 x 20 in. (courtesy the artist and Team gallery inc., New York)

A few weeks ago I wrote a review, Stanley Whitney in the 1990s, about an exhibition of five paintings and eighty-one works on paper at Karma (June 15–July 26, 2015). All the works were made between 1990 and ’99. To my mind the virtually unknown works on paper were revelatory of Whitney’s commitment to drawing. The book that Karma published, spanning the years 1975–2015, underscored this commitment. Whitney did not move fast, but neither did he stay still.

Stanley Whitney, “Untitled 13” (2014) (Courtesy the artist and Team gallery, inc., New York)

Happily, for those who are curious about what came next in Whitney’s evolution, they need only to go uptown and see the artist’s first museum exhibition in New York, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 16–October 25, 2015), which contains a selection of twenty-nine paintings and works on paper the artist made between 2008 and 2015. Together, these complementary exhibitions reveal that from the mid-’70s on, Whitney was single-minded and restless in pursuit of an idea that took him years to clarify, which is the improvisational structuring of color.

Whitney inverted Minimalism, particularly the rigid, paint-within-the-lines arrangements of Frank Stella and Agnes Martin. Instead of the grid containing the color, Whitney loosened its overall hold by painting blocks of color, one next to another, on square canvases, the largest of which is 96 x 96 inches (basically the full span a person can reach). Whitney’s inversions gained him an immense freedom to be playful and unpredictable, as well enabled him to re-introduce space into what had become airless surfaces. One way he did this was to bring touch back into painting without recalling Abstract Expressionism and mark making, which helps explain the slowness of his development. He had to become masterful in an understated, non-dramatic way.

The exhibition at the Studio Museum includes paintings done in the seven different sizes of squares that Whitney currently works on, starting with 12 x 12 inches and including terrific ones at every size along the way, from 20 x 20 inches to 72 x 72 inches. There are also six gouaches in black and seven  others done in yummy colors. A longtime reader of poetry, Whitney got the title of the exhibition from a sonnet by Rainer Maria Rilke.

By opening up the grid and  building its structure with block of color by block of color, Whitney pushed back against predetermined systems, which, as we should have all learned by now, calcify over time.

Stanley Whitney, “Elephant Memory” (2014), oil on linen, 96 x 96 in. (Collection of Debra L. Lee, Courtesy Kim Heirston Art Advisory)

No matter how many times you look at one of his paintings, you will never be able to determine why he places one color next to another. In different interviews, Whitney has compared his method to the musical term, call and response, in which the second musician comments on a phrase from another player. It is a form of democratic participation, an open-ended dialogue contained within the physical confines of the painting’s surfaces.

Whitney organizes his blocks of colors in what Walter Pater called “the condition of music,” the domain to which Pater believed all art aspired.

In all the work, he starts in the upper left hand corner and paints blocks of vibrant color from left to right – each color calling to the next — until he completes one row. Eventually, he ends up in the lower right hand corner. This process divides the square canvases into three or four rows, each a different height, which he demarcates with at least three and sometimes five horizontal bands that span the entire width of the square. Often there are narrow wedges and slivers of color at each end of the row. The band is generally the width of the brush he used, and sometimes he paints over the band with a narrower brush.

The band might act as a contrasting border between the rows, or it might echo the predominant color of the blocks situated above or below. The blocks can be flat and tight as they hug the surface, or they might be porous, with one color mixed into another. The horizontal bands further suggest infinitesimal differences in space. These differences, which are enhanced by optical shifts in the density and texture of the color, bring air into the painting. From work to work, it is clear that Whitney is always trying to keep his color options open as he moves across and down a painting.

Stanley Whitney, “james brown sacrifice to apollo” (2008), oil on linen, 72 x 72 in. (Courtesy the artist and Team gallery, inc., New York)

A painting might be predominantly warm or cool colors. “The Blue” (2012) is mostly rectangles of different blues and greens, with one border of orange and another of red. The green border running between the penultimate and  bottom rows echoes the green rectangle sitting in the middle of the top row. Although the painting is only 20 x 20 inches, one feels as if the blocks of color exist on slightly different planes.

“James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo” (2008) is dominated by warm reds, yellows and oranges, with the cooler colors, mostly various tones of blue, situated along the left edge, as if trying to push their way into the center. A sliver of blue appears on the right edge in the second row. In an interview with Whitney that I did for the Brooklyn Rail (October 2008), he had this to say about the painting:

I think about titles that make sense. This one’s called “James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo,” which people will probably mistakenly call “James Brown at the Apollo.” This happened after Brown died. This is what I want to do. Who owns what? Who names what? Titles for me are clues. If someone wants to dig deeper in a literal way, they can get in there.

The invitation is there — the artist wants the viewer to dig deeper, to recognize that there is always more than what you see.

In all of Whitney’s paintings, each color demands to be seen in isolation, which is impossible to do. Starting in 1949, Josef Albers devoted himself to the study of how one color affected another in his series Homage to the Square. Whitney lets color decide the size of the blocks as he moves across the paining. There are no straight edges, and some of the blocks are lopsided. Musically speaking, he has melded dissonance and harmony, polyphony and antiphony.

Compositionally, they are all-over paintings made of blocks of distinct color — Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. And yet, you don’t feel as if he is looking back at Abstract Expressionism or more recent movements, such as Minimalism or Color Field painting. Whitney’s paintings are not beset with nostalgia nor driven by irony. This is his achievement. He has taken from the past without resorting to quotation. He has made it his own.

For those who have been following Whitney’s work, and have seen a number of these paintings before, the surprise of the show is the selection of six untitled gouaches from 2014 and ’15. Done on paper measuring 21 ¾ x 31 ¼ inches, the colors in these glowing works feel very different from the palette Whitney uses in the paintings. In fact, in a number of them I didn’t think of their violets, greens, pinks, and reds as colors, but as flavors: grape, limeade, strawberry, and cherry. Are these gouaches indicative of a new direction in Whitney’s use of color?

Whitney was born in Philadelphia in 1946 and first came to New York in 1968. For him the big realization was when he decided, as he tells Lowery Stokes Sims in a conversation included in the exhibition catalogue, “I didn’t want my gesture to be an Abstract-Expressionist gesture.” Whitney makes another statement that could serve as his manifesto:

What comes out of my growing up? What comes out of my blackness, my maleness, just being a human being?  When you’re facing a blank canvas, you need all of these things to make it something.

Years ago, at a gathering of art critics in Austin, Texas, I remember a well-known critic stating: “I don’t have a checklist when I look in the mirror.” Only someone who is white could have made this statement. Whitney understands that you don’t need a checklist, particularly if you are black, to understand how others have seen, categorized, designated or profiled you. The challenge is to bring more than these things into play without succumbing to any single one.  How do you keep your work open, and embrace being human, particularly in a society that doesn’t want to give you that option? It is a problem that even the art world — despite all its progressive thinking — has not dealt with. As Lowery Stokes Sims states at the beginning of the conversation:

I don’t think there’s anything more complicated than the subject of black artists and abstract art. There is always this idea that it’s not connected to the black experience.

Whitney challenges the prejudicial narrowness of that thinking with chromatically textured paintings that are rich in allusions. He may have taken longer than some of his peers to put it all together, but now that he has, his work has many things to tell us.

Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange continues at the Studio Museum in Harlem (144 West 125th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) until October 25, 2015.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...

3 replies on “Stanley Whitney Reclaims His History”

  1. I love how this review goes into the issue of race, especially after the recent controversy in conceptual poetry. As an exhibiting artist engaged in abstraction, the genre’s power comes from _withdrawing_ from race (so that it’s there and not-there). It seems to me that the history of abstract art is not accidentally internationalist.

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