Stanley Whitney, “The Secret of Black Song & Laughter” (2018), oil on linen, 96 x 96 inches

Currently, within a few blocks of each other in Chelsea, there are exhibitions of three abstract artists born in the late 1940s, two of which I recently reviewed: Harriet Korman, Permeable|Resistant: Recent Paintings and Drawings at Thomas Erben Gallery and Melissa Meyer: New Paintings at Lennon, Weinberg. I want to focus on the third exhibition, Stanley Whitney: In the Color, which is at both spaces of Lisson Gallery (November 3–December 21, 2018).

Chronologically speaking, Korman began showing first, when she had a solo show in Germany in 1970 and was included in the group exhibition, Ten Young Artists: Theodoron Awards at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971. Meyer first gained attention in 1984 when she had a show at Exit Art. By his own account, Whitney made his first mature paintings in the 1990s. There is no timetable for when artists begin defining their own territory or when the art world begins paying attention. In many cases, the two do not coincide.

Committing themselves to abstraction in the 1970s — during a decade dominated by Conceptual Art and the belief that painting had reached its culmination in Minimalism and Color Field painting — these three artists were engaged in activities that had been marginalized by the rise of art as an expanded field. More importantly, they were not artists who used paint to make a product, but artists who painted and drew.

Stanley Whitney, “After Munch” (1997), oil on linen, 72 3/4 x 85 1/4 inches

In Lisson’s Tenth Avenue exhibition space, Whitney has four paintings, all slightly wider than tall, dated between 1996 and 1998, along with seven untitled crayon drawings that are just shy of 20 inches high and 30 inches wide, all dated 2013. These two bodies of work show Whitney moving towards the composition and format that have become central to his work: hand-made rectangles of color arranged as stacked rows within a square format, with the largest paintings measuring 96 by 96 inches.

Drawing has always been a central component of Whitney’s work. As he told me in an interview that I did with him in The Brooklyn Rail (October 2008): “The drawings were very important to me; they were the key to figuring out the space.” This remark got me thinking that I had overlooked something about Whitney’s work, which I thought I should be more attentive to.

In the four canvases from the late 1990s, Whitney paints rectangles in four stacked rows of varying heights, with the shortest running along the bottom edge and the tallest at the second tier from the top. In many of the rectangles, one color is loosely applied over another, a dense scribble over a solid plane. By loosely establishing a compositional structure (the four stacked rows, each separated by a brushy, horizontal line of color), Whitney found a way to break down the rigidity of the grid into individual units. Each one could be painted its own color and arrive at its own size.

By synthesizing geometric structure and painterly improvisation, Whitney found his way past Color Field Painting’s poured puddles and Minimalism’s tendency towards monochrome, strict geometry, hard edges, and the modular repetition favored by Donald Judd in his “stacks.” Rather than working within the parameters established by either of these two historically divergent, well-documented tendencies, Whitney reconfigured them into something all his own. I think his smart reconfiguration has nothing to do with strategy and everything to do with his insistence on painting and drawing in color: how do you keep doing these activities when they have been declared obsolete?

Stanley Whitney, “Spring of Two Blues” (2018), oil on linen, 96 x 96 inches

This is the challenge that Whitney and others of his generation took up, and they have never gotten credit for it, despite their solid achievements. They did not stop drawing or give up on the rectangle, nor did they start making “specific objects.” The reason that they have never gotten the acclaim they deserve is because they never accommodated themselves to the various, overlapping, institutional narratives and manifestoes proclaiming the death or culmination of painting, a story that the art world’s institutions and authorities continue to invest in, even as the 1970s recede in the rearview mirror. They did not try to fit into one of the slots that the art world and, in some cases, social pressure set up for them.

This is one reason why I have never tired of seeing what Whitney has been up to, from his drawings to his monotypes to his paintings, all of which I have written about. Within the loose parameters he has set up for himself, he is far more restless and adventuresome than I think he has been given credit for. I think a comprehensive survey would make this apparent.

My admiration for Whitney’s resoluteness has increased over the years, as well as my sense of his growing authority as a masterful colorist. He can stack a slightly off-center, vertical row of four blues in “Spring of Two Blues” (2018) without even remotely repeating that motif in any of the other works in the exhibition. The planes of color are never uniformly painted. He is not interested in looking mechanical or in showing off his hand, which gets him past the two dominant modes of applying paint to a surface.

Stanley Whitney, “Mingus” (2018), oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches

In “Mingus” (2018), depending how we turn our gaze, we focus on the way one color is peeking through another, or else on the matter-of-fact brushstrokes that lay in the color. In a number of works, Whitney paints a line/bar along the top edge or on the sides implying that the painting continues beyond the canvas’s physical square. The off-center stacks conveys Whitney’s process of always finding his way with each rectangle and color, always remembering what he has done and not repeating himself.

The other thing that strikes me about these painting is that all the color rectangles inhabit their own space. As tightly pressed together as they are, they are not all on the same picture plane. There is an earthiness to Whitney’s paintings – which I would set at the other end of the spectrum from Agnes Martin’s ethereal light. As much as I love painters like Martin or Joan Mitchell, I think it is also time for museums and other art world institutions to move on, to show abstract artists from a younger generation, starting with those born in the 1940s. Let me be clear here — I am talking about painters, not artists who use paint.

I also think that it is time for curators to do their work and start promoting painters who are not marketplace stars. Why not stick your neck out a little?

Doing so would be one way to respect what Whitney and others of his generation have been doing their whole adult lives.

Stanley Whitney: In the Color continues at Lisson Gallery (504 West 24th Street and 138 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 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...

One reply on “Refusing Painting’s Obsolescence”

  1. Have never seen Stanley Whitney’s work “in the flesh (or paint) as I live in New Zealand, but very much enjoy reading your reviews, John Yau, and looking further afield online for the paintings. As a painter myself, I feel thrilled and inspired to see what Whitney is up to each time a show is reviewed. Thanks Hyperallergic, and John Yau.

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