For long time I have been particularly interested in drawing, and I have written about a number of artists’ drawings and works on paper, which some people might consider of less interest or importance than so-called major works. The artists I have paid particular attention to, as well as written about a range from such well-known figures as Joan Mitchell, Jasper Johns, and Brice Marden, to the lesser-known Arpita Singh, Josh Marsh, and Angela Dufresne.
This interest in drawing started years ago, in the early 1980s, when I used to travel around town with Paul Cummings (1933 – 1997), who was the adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1975-1987), to look at drawings by artists as different as Paul Cadmus, Jim Nutt, David Smith, and A. R. Penck. He taught me a lot about looking. One thing he said has stuck in my mind all these years: “You can’t lie in a drawing.” I never got around to asking him what he meant that afternoon, while we were eating lunch in a midtown French restaurant, and I wish I did.
Drawing is certainly one of the avenues I took into Stanley Whitney’s work, which I first saw in his studio in the mid-1980s. In an interview I did with him in 2008, he said:
[…] 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.
In 2015, Whitney had a show of five paintings and 81 works on paper at Karma (June 15 – July 26) titled: Stanley Whitney in the 1990s. Shortly afterward, he had his first museum exhibition in New York, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, at the Studio Museum in Harlem (July 16–October 25, 2015), which contained a selection of 29 paintings and works on paper he made between 2008 and 2015. I reviewed both exhibitions as well as Stanley Whitney: Drawings at Lisson Gallery (September 8 – October 21, 2017).
The one constant running through all of my writing on Whitney is his works on paper, which I am thinking about in the broadest sense — from the densely linear graphite concatenations he made in the late 1980s to the gouaches in fruity Popsicle colors from the past few years. It is clear to me that Whitney’s works on paper form a distinct body within his oeuvre, and that within this group he has gone down a number of different paths in his exploration of lines, grids, colors.
The reason I mention this is because I went to Whitney’s studio twice this summer to look at some of the monotypes he did at Two Palms between 2016 and 2018. For these monotypes, which range in size from 8 ¼ by 10 ¾ inches to 48 by 72 inches, Whitney used either watercolor or watercolor and crayon. The monotypes were transferred from a wood surface, which Whitney had used to make the drawing, to moistened handmade or Lanaquarelle paper. Run through the press, the pattern of the wood grain is visible to varying degrees in the prints.
Something that Whitney said in our 2008 interview came back to me:
Color for me is all about touch. Whether it’s thicker or thinner — how you touch the canvas is different. If I put it on at a different weight, it’s a different color. The question for me is whether to repeat a color. I want to paint every color in the world.
The paintings Whitney is known for — which he started working on in 1996, shortly after he visited Egypt — are composed of stacked rectangles of color within a square format. The swirling, meandering, twisting lines in his paintings of the late 1980s and early ‘90s vanished, replaced by planes of solid color tightly fitted together. In these paintings, Whitney usually divides the square horizontally into four uneven bands of quirky rectangles, with the second band usually the widest and the fourth, which runs along the bottom edge of the canvas, always the narrowest. The clearly defined border between the bands is marked by one or more horizontal lines, each a single color, generally the width of the brush he chose to make the line.
By dividing the square into uneven bands, Whitney structures color in a way that is open to unexpected changes from one tonality to another without establishing an overall rhythm or grid. We see a field of clearly delineated rectangles of color holding each other tightly in place.
By rejecting monochrome and the grid’s guarantee of homogeneity, Whitney transformed aspects of Minimalism and Color Field painting into something all his own. He found a way forward at a time when the art world’s attention was predictably directed elsewhere. He did so by establishing a different set of constraints than the ones utilized by a previous generation of abstract artists. The other thing that strikes me about Whitney’s paintings is their evocation of architecture. The top bands evoke a frieze running along a wall, while the painting’s square format resists being incorporated into that narrative. Looking back on the change that took place in Whitney’s art in the mid-1990s, it is clear that only after he jettisoned the restlessness of his previous marks, could he attain the density of color and solidity that he had long desired.
In the monotypes, he does something, actually two things, different. One is deliberate and the other arises from the materials he is working with – watercolor and crayon on paper, a print rather than direct action.
First, he incorporates the white paper with the luminosity of the watercolor, as opposed to covering a canvas with the density of oil paint. Second, he uses colors that he cannot obtain in his paintings — watermelon red, magenta, and grape, just to name three. However, Whitney does more than recognize material differences. He establishes different compositions as well as works on formats that are not square, but horizontal, recalling in scale an entablature running along the front of a Greek temple.
The other thing that struck me about the monotypes is Whitney’s commitment to playfulness, to getting out of his comfort zone, to avoid mimicking in one medium what he does in another: these are not high-end copies of his paintings. They are not about branding. Rather, they are about testing limits and experimenting with form.
In one of the small monotypes I saw at the studio, Whitney painted a loosely brushed ground of watermelon red in which he set three horizontal rows of unpainted, irregularly shaped rectangles, squares, and trapezoids, four in the top row and five in the middle and bottom rows. Within all but one of the rectangles Whitney laid a brushstroke or two of color, like a fingerprint, ranging from yellow to greenish-yellow to turquoise blue and magenta. Sometimes the color sits inside the confines of rectangle, other times it extends beyond. The wood grain pattern is visible in the watermelon-colored ground. There is no predetermined pattern to the colors he places within the irregular white rectangles. Structure and improvisation have become inseparable. Whitney, who has long stated that he is a process painter, has never settled into a mechanical approach: the hand is always involved, even if that is not immediately evident. In these works, which are slight in scale, the artist’s touch is evident without calling attention to its presence. Whitney has never been a theatrical artist.
In the large, horizontal monotypes, which measure 48 x 72 inches, Whitney divides the surface into four horizontal bands, as he does in his square-format paintings. He uses watercolor and crayon to carve the horizontal bands into a succession of rectangles. When he applies a color inside the rectangle, he doesn’t completely fill the white space. There are places where the color bleeds, and others where he has gone back into one color with a darker version of the same color. He also uses the crayon to draw lines over the rectangle. The horizontal format compels us to read these elements differently than we do in the square formats encountered in his paintings, while the looping, scribbled lines evoke his work from the 80s and early 90s.
What bears sustained attention is the way Whitney treats each rectangle differently, again without calling attention to his approach. This is true in his paintings, of course, but it is more evident in the monotypes. The density of the color shifts more markedly from rectangle to rectangle. There are places where the paper isn’t painted at all, and others where the rectangles are covered with a rapid welter of lines. The rectangles of color bump against each other, jostle for attention, yet remain separate and distinct. No matter how small, Whitney’s works establish a tension between the overall structure and the individual elements that never plays out in a predictable way.
As I pointed out earlier, the horizontal format and the division of its surface recall entablatures. While the divisions loosely acknowledge architecture, Whitney’s incessantly varied use of color and line within them asserts their individuality. Nothing he does seems programmatic; he literally finds his way across the surface. These airy, luminous monotypes are visual paradoxes, simultaneously structured and open. Watching him work in these formats, in which he has incorporated colors unavailable to him in oil paint and attained a luminosity that we associate with watercolor, not to mention his decision to bring drawing and line back into the mix, I cannot help but think that Whitney will eventually absorb some of what he has done here into his paintings. In the meantime, in his monotypes and other works on paper, Whitney has found new ways to expand the domain of pleasure his work offers us.