MAHÓN, Menorca — I usually don’t go around ranking artists but I was enormously impressed by the Albert Oehlen retrospective in Venice this past January. I thought, who do we have as good as this guy? Seeing Stanley Whitney’s most recent work this summer gave me my answer. While not departing from his known program, his newest seems to demonstrate more abundantly than ever what painting can and must do, and how simply and forthrightly it can be manifested.
Oelhlen and Whitney have an eight-year age difference. While each Oehlen painting is a product of negations of what he has previously done on the canvas, Whitney negated all his early work until he arrived at what he wanted: he once said in an interview that for his first 20 years or so he hated what he came up with. His candor, incidentally, is a very generous gesture, especially toward younger artists.
Whitney worked steadily and self-critically until he owned what he had, storing his knowledge of painting in his body. Each successive work now nails down his approach while moving it along. The individual canvases can be comprehended alone or in groups. They do not necessarily add or subtract from one another.
Like Oehlen, Whitney converses with painting’s past, but it’s not directly indicated. Their respective styles are completely contemporary, though, categorically, Oehlen is a postmodern painter, relying on ironic precedents such as found in the work of Sigmar Polke and his peer, Martin Kippenberger, while Whitney is nominally a modernist, coming from the abstract canon of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, as well as from standard-bearers outside of painting — jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, et al. — who were also major influences on American abstraction. That Oehlen and Whitney would draw on different idioms while remaining especially relevant to our time demonstrates that progress in painting is no longer measurable historically, but is instead contingent. Witness the newly important Martha Jungwirth or Etel Adnan.
Whitney’s new works are on display at Galería Cayón in the city of Mahón on the Mediterranean Spanish island of Menorca, in a gallery space that has taken over a 19th-century former theater with a ceiling 40 feet high and a balcony. The theater has been largely gutted, but its distressed, pockmarked, discolored walls have been retained. Whitney’s five paintings surround a long, wide, shallow trough filled to the rim with the crumbled pigment of Yves Klein International Blue. It is an attractive juxtaposition, and the anything-but-neutral repurposed exhibition space fully becomes a third participant.
This bewitching company makes apparent that Whitney’s color choices are yes, quite vibrant, but also, I think, deliberately familiar. He sticks close to fully saturated greens, reds, and blues to support lighter, slightly off variations of pink, apricot, and lime, to take one example.
These are balanced with a brushiness or an arrested liquidity that is equally structural. Whitney’s choices, revealed in his many works on paper, are about working out the weights of various tonalities as realized in gestural marks. So, coloristically, he seems to prefer the immediately available to the far reaches of the possible, and this is another strength.
Whitney said in another interview that at one time he wanted to paint all the colors in the world. Each of his paintings has a metaphoric message of color inclusivity, but in this exhibition it becomes apparent that, formally, he has always been more about achieving precision within a full but limited range. His constant fine-tuning results in color we can look at uninterruptedly; it has presence. It is not gratuitous. It has achieved a place where it can be itself.
Lee Friedlander said that he had to learn how the camera sees. This observation is particularly appropriate when it is applied to painting, thanks to its long history. Questions of form are of the utmost importance in painting as they are in life. A painter still needs to learn how a painting communicates. Every inch of it has to have a function and every flick of the wrist, mannered or involuntary, counts. But there is also the matter of degree: a painting can be nuanced to death.
Whitney’s work relies on the generalness that can be derived from using a few medium-sized brushes including some rounds — there are always stubby corners in his painted matrix. Crisp, straight edges, when they appear, are a byproduct of one band of paint intersecting another.
One painting here, “Dream Keeper” has almost no underpainting except on the upper left, where Whitney painted a black over a red and got a brown. He sometimes smears a thick dash of line over a wet field that seems to function visually like that of a pause in a musical score. Rivulets of thinner often secrete through the painted squares. Bottom areas are often left unresolved, with thinner paint contrasting with overall completion–a trope from Matisse, whose influence looms large.
In But Beautiful, his 1991 book about jazz, Geoff Dyer describes the music of Thelonious Monk as if he had built a bridge, but then, after removing the supporting spars, left only the ornamentation — it’s as if the structure is built around what isn’t there.
Similarly, in Whitney’s paintings the structure is congruent with his color. There are stacks of rectangles seemingly supported by horizontal, shelf-like stripes, but there is no feeling of compression. The downward pull of gravity, which was sometimes present in earlier work, has disappeared; a conceit discarded. This renders the internal architecture weightless.
As the paintings move toward the present, they increasingly press against their surface like a wall, holding on to the front plane. The entire ensemble of stripes and boxes often sways towards the upper left corner. The idiosyncrasies here are those of his body.
It is a very difficult accomplishment to problematize frontality in this way. Whitney says in an interview published in the exhibition catalog that he looked at a lot of ancient pottery while living in Rome. Perhaps Whitney, like Mary Heilmann, saw a way to approach the painting as if it were pottery, which, through its decorative indifference, avoids corresponding directly with the viewer’s gaze. Whatever his reason, he has been able to remove painting’s default mode of confronting the viewer with a singular, autonomous, totalizing experience.
In other words, Whitney has found a way to avoid European-style easel painting’s obnoxious sovereignty without resorting to either the excessive irony of the recent past or the excessive sincerity that seems widespread at present. To borrow Peter Schjeldahl’s definition of art, he is a painter who uses his energy intelligently.
For the past 15 years I considered Mary Heilmann to be more successful at this problem than anybody else. She placed handmade, brightly colored lawn chairs or pieces of pottery near her paintings to relieve the pressure on the individual artwork, but the whole thing still functioned as painting; it didn’t turn into installation or window dressing, while being only mildly ironic. The recent Josh Smith show was also pretty good at unpacking the historical baggage of the painting as an all-encompassing philosophical unit, but if you start out thinking of 100 paintings as a single work, I am not sure whether there is the same tension in each piece. Then again, Claude Viallat sees his entire output as one painting. A thought to be pursued elsewhere, but relevant here, too.
Whitney’s new paintings are much freer and only coincidentally comprise seriality. His color compositions are like a liquid Rubik’s cube or a wet abacus, or to use a better comparison, they function the way George and Ira Gershwin’s tune “I Got Rhythm” (1930) did for jazz musicians. Its chord progression functioned as the basis for many other jazz compositions and continues to do so.
Whitney’s “I Got Rhythm” is the façade of the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, whose “one tier, another tier, another tier” architectural style he credits with influencing his format, which became his machine for painting — a machine the he is constantly reworking.
I am borrowing the term “machine” from the painter Christian Bonnefoi, who calls it:
[…] a type of object that is halfway between rough sketch and the work itself […] it reveals the hidden surfaces, the facets are exposed under different lights: didactic, experimental, theoretical, practical or — and this last is significant — playful.
I think Whitney’s work at this point outperforms all else while continuing to achieve more, as it never strays from the condition of one person standing in front of one canvas with brush in hand.
But in each work, he manages to disperse the historical singularity that is so often accompanied by a direct address to the viewer. The paintings at this point seem to embody the transitory. They also draw on a wide range of known events within the history of painting, but still return maximum playful pleasure to the viewer.
Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors continues at Galería Cayón (Carrer de Sant Roc 24 07701 Mahón, Menorca, Islas Baleares, Spain) through September 5.