Stanley Whitney, “Untitled” (1990), crayon on paper, 9 1/2 x 12 5/8 inches (© Stanley Whitney, all images courtesy Lisson Gallery)

Stanley Whitney does more than take a line for a walk. His current exhibition, Stanley Whitney: Drawings at Lisson Gallery (September 8 – October 21, 2017), offers a survey of 75 works the artist made between 1989 and 2017, using mediums such as graphite, colored pencil, crayon, and acrylic marker, and working on different surfaces, from cardboard to rice paper. Lots of drawings were done on sheets of standard sketchbook paper that could be found in any art supply store. In addition to these works, the exhibition includes a vitrine by the front door with four of the artist’s notebooks.

Drawing has been central to Whitney’s practice since at least 1972. In an interview I did with him in The Brooklyn Rail (October 2008), he said:

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.

Working within the constraints he established in the earliest works in the exhibition, dated 1989, he coaxes and pushes his line through lots of different territory. It meanders across the surface with no destination in mind. It takes on the structure of an irregular grid. It coils and twists, like a snake about to strike, or loops over itself. Between the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it defines circular forms, either floating in an abstract space or set in a grid, like stones in a wall. It varies in density from thin to thick, and from delicate to blunt. Straight, round, or knotted — some lines were made in a flurry of movement, while others were drawn slowly and deliberately.

Installation view, “Stanley Whitney: Drawings” (2017), Lisson Gallery, New York

There is a feeling of determination and quiet insistence, as well as a recurring tension between loose, linear structures and quick, controlled eruptions of marks. Drawing is a way for Whitney to harness and structure his feelings, to develop a way for different states — from the structural to the chaotic, in quickly done sketches to densely worked surfaces — to overlap and coexist.

In a number of works, the lines become letters and words. In two untitled, structural drawings, both dated 2016, the artist has written “Speak Truth to Power” and “No To Prison Life,” making a connection between his loose grids and prison cells and walls. I don’t know if it was Whitney’s intention, but I felt that these drawings could have been studies for posters or protest signs.

But this aspect of Whitney’s drawings is just one among many strains he pursues. In an untitled crayon on paper, dated 1990, Whitney, embedding letters in blocks of color and colored scribbles, cites a postcard that the older poet Langston Hughes sent to the younger writer James Baldwin in 1962:

Hey Jimmy, Aint you heard, RACE and ART are far apart.

Hughes’ postcard might have been in response to Baldwin’s review of his “Selected Poems,” which began:

Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts — and depressed that he has done so little with them. . . .

Baldwin goes on to criticize Hughes for not forcing

[…] the beat of Negro speech and Negro music. Negro speech […] into the realm of art.

Hughes and Baldwin — two brilliant writers — have taken very different positions regarding the relationship between race and art. Whitney, an abstract artist, recognizes the link between race and art cannot be reduced to a formula, however much mainstream culture and its desire for a quick solution and painless absolution might wish for it. As the drawing makes evident, black culture is a complex, contentious, changing, ongoing, multilayered entity – at once open and hidden, like the skinny letters Whitney has inserted into the scribbled fields and blocks of color.

In the earliest works in this exhibition, from 1989, drawing and painting are linked, with both composed of colored lines contained within round shapes. In 1994, Whitney went to Egypt, where he had a revelation. As he said to me in the 2008 interview:

[…] 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.

In 1996, he began making planes of solid color, which are pressed together, as well as stacked, forming a wall of  paint. It is around this time, that his drawing and painting become distinct from  one another and follow different paths.

For those who saw the six untitled gouaches, and their popsicle colors, from 2014 and ’15 in his show, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as the many densely linear concatenations included in Stanley Whitney at Karma, both in 2015 (and both of which I reviewed), it is clear that his works on paper form a distinct body of work within his oeuvre. And within his works on paper, there are more distinctions to be made, depending on the instrument he is using — brush, graphite, colored pencil, or crayon

Stanley Whitney, “Untitled” (1995), graphite on Japanese rice paper, 16 7/8 x 20 1/4 inches (© Stanley Whitney)

In two drawings from 1994-95, one done in crayon and the other in graphite, the viewer gets a sense of what Whitney can achieve working with lines made by a particular kind of drawing tool. In the crayon drawing, he layers different densities of scribbled color both inside and outside the rounded forms. In this work, color calls to color. The density of the scribbles gives weight to the forms, as well as distinguishes them from each other. They are alike and different: each has its own particular marks and combinations of colors.

In the graphite drawing, lines divide the forms into sections. There is a loose grid in one circular form, and in another, there is a looping line that could have been lifted from Max Ernst’s painting “Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly” (1942–1947), but wasn’t. Sometimes Whitney made marks in the spaces of the grid, and at other times he shaded the surface lightly and evenly before adding a darker snaking line. Contained within the outlined forms, Whitney’s lines and grids become abstract hieroglyphics, a language that never becomes transparent.

By working with separate forms within a grid-like structure Whitney stretches the process of drawing out, as well as breaks it down into separate parts, as he works his way from one edge to the other. One can make an analog between Whitney’s drawing process and bebop, with its rapid chord changes and improvisational outbreaks rooted in harmonic structures.

Installation view, “Stanley Whitney: Drawings” (2017), Lisson Gallery, New York

It is fitting that Whitney, in an untitled graphite drawing dated 2016, writes in all caps the words, “HOOT & HOLLER.” And yet, as his citation of Hughes’s postcard to Baldwin suggests,  music is not the only avenue to approach this sumptuous body of work and the many places he explores with lines, grids, and color. This exhibition opens up a wider and deeper view of a major artist whose drawings underscore a central feature of his work: he has never retreated toward refining complexities or softening the dissonance.

Stanley Whitney: Drawings continues at Lisson Gallery (138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 21.

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 chapbook, Egyptian...