BERLIN — Very good art tends to be at once stirringly enigmatic, and familiar within a known language. This unsettling double nature results from an artist’s persistence at searching for unseen dimensions, facets, and cracks in their métier. For over four decades, Stanley Whitney has undertaken such a search, with uncommon patience and consistency. His paintings, drawings and prints — including his etchings and monotypes currently showing at Niels Borch Jensen Gallery in Berlin — corroborate a dusty but resilient modernist dictum – it is energized scrutiny of one’s own form that brings about novel experience.
Best known for arranging blocks of thrumming color into large rectangular canvases, Whitney’s major achievement has been to spark a slow burn of surprises, within the least esoteric medium around, large-scale oil painting. He has been working in New York since the mid 1970s, when he graduated from Yale. In 2015, his works were given their due in simultaneous exhibitions at Karma in the East Village and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Gushing praise followed those shows, casting an aura of mastery over Whitney’s paintings, and conditioning future experiences of them. Berliners are offered an alternate perspective on the painter’s work with this small show of prints. Like an X-ray, the works cut through Whitney’s carefully calibrated color schemes to the dialectic of structure and improvisation that lies beneath.
“Drawing,” Whitney remarked in a 2016 interview, “really is the key” to his work. This statement provides insight into the seven black and white etchings shown here. While some of these pictures are executed in thick brush strokes, others are jotted and dangled with slighter lines. The airier pictures often contain rectilinear washes, which surface under lingering attention. At first seeming repetitive, the more thickly drawn images also reveal subtle variations, in proportion to a viewer’s patience. “Untitled” (2016) and “Untitled” (2016), for example, are both lattices of thick brushwork. But while the former grid compartmentalizes many smaller skeins, the latter picture has a similar grid veiling a world of layered marks. In both, depth is opened by a range of hues, from coal black to shards of glinting white.
Whitney’s career has unquestionably been affected by race and racism. Being African American, he has been caught in an unenviable no man’s land: on one side is a systemically racist art establishment, which, when not excluding artists of color, often expects them to make work solely about their racial identity; on the other side is a radical black community with the expectation that black artists engage in social struggle with their work.
Because Whitney rejected both imperatives, the connection between his work and blackness is visually indiscernible. But when he starts speaking, questions of racial and cultural identity emerge in a tangle, mirroring his own scribbled strokes. While he was once “very confused about art and race [and] how to … negotiate them,” he reminds that his ardent blocks of color were inspired by the resonant and twinkling notes of jazz.
Whitney’s identification of painting with jazz was preceded by artists like Bob Thompson, who“developed a great combination of Western painting, and color as sound stemming from … the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman.”
A quick glance at his vital colors reveals Thompson’s influence melded with modern and classical European art. His chromatic squares recall stained glass, as well as Hans Hoffman’s influential abstractions, and the blocky forms that Philip Guston cultivated in Rome, echoing worn stone slabs.
Troublingly, interviews with Whitney suggest that he has worked in a woman-less world. In fact, his pictures resonate closely with Joan Mitchell’s floating rectangles — as in “Closed Territory” (1973) — and the acidic planes, grids, and drips of Mary Heilmann. The latter’s paintings and prints are close kin to the two color works in this show. Both monotypes, they are composed of quadrants of color wobbling between horizontal stripes. “Untitled” (2016) contains at least four reds, three blues, two yellows, as well as cotton candy pink and a brown that hovers between rust and mud. Varying in translucency, Whitney’s soft chromatic bricks glow in manifold tones. These dashed monotypes feel quick as napkin poems, but as with Heilmann’s work, Whitney’s swiftness is ordered and rehearsed.
These prints have a kind of static energy, derived from their gridded and rhizomatic compositions. From a distance, they seem like a cliche of abstraction, meshing inhuman structures with the capricious human mark. But in the right hands, commonplace forms become deceptively resonant.
Whitney makes the images work by creating tension between a recurrent structure, and feverishly varied moves within it. Unapologetically, these artworks are meant to be looked at. They show Whitney unearthing difference within superficial familiarity; engaged seriously on these terms, they operate as mechanisms for seeing sight itself. As his colors shift and melt, his lined patterns divulge complex idiosyncrasies. Our eyes are in turn kept on edge, and vision remains self-reflectively alive.
Stanley Whitney continues at Niels Borch Jensen Gallery and Editions (Lindenstrasse 34, Berlin, Germany) through July 29.