Structured by Color: Stanley Whitney, Works from the 1990s and Now
Stanley Whitney at Karma Books and Gallery and Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange at the Studio Museum in Harlem
Karma: June 15 to August 30, 2015
39 Great Jones Street, between Lafayette Street and Bowery
New York City, 917-675- 7508
Harlem: July 16 to October 25, 2015
144 West 125th Street between Lenox Avenue (Malcolm X Boulevard) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard (7th Avenue
New York City, 646-242-2142
Two exhibitions, running concurrently, afford an exciting opportunity to think about Stanley Whitney. A selection of works from the 1990s are on view at Karma Books and Gallery while more recent works, from 2008 to 2015, can be seen at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The downtown exhibition, marking the publication of a sizable book on Whitney’s work by Karma Books (reviewed earlier this summer at artcritical) is comprised of five large paintings in the main gallery and 84 small paintings and works on paper salon hung in the entrance space. At the Studio Museum, 29 paintings, six color gouaches and five black gouaches afford ample indication of where Whitney is right now.
In their rows of rounded shapes and loosely brushed compartments Whitney’s earlier paintings resemble shelves or cavities, reading like sections of a catacomb or stacked fruit. Stacking is significant as the paintings are evidently constructed to accommodate color building with units or blocks of color; this has, indeed, become foundational to all his painting since the1990s. The artist spent five years living in Rome during the 1990s when he also visited Egypt and it seems clear that the nature of those built environments, including the Pyramids, were important constructive ideas for his subsequent development. The structure in the earliest of the large oil paintings at Karma, Radical Openness, (1991) evinces an already begun absorption in image making that combines drawing and painting through repetition and difference. By this I mean that, rather than change a basic structure from one painting to the next, the basic structure remains the same: graphic invention and shifts in color space become the painting’s subject. Though continued right through to the present day, there is no sign of this structure inhibiting or reducing the possibilities of emotional or intellectual expression, of inquiry through color and line. In fact, it becomes indexical of changes along the way. It is color that made this format necessary—emerging slowly, as can be seen in the 84 small works at Karma. Drawings indicate a range of possible directions, but it is color that definitively led to this particular structure.
The smaller paintings and drawings are like episodic, graphic narratives. Picasso’s The Dream and Lie of Franco, (1937) comes to mind, as might the way Bonnard uses drawing and mark making to define spatial elements in his paintings. In each new iteration, enough is carried from the last painting to the next to make the playoff between repetition and difference central to his effort. The sectional frontality and scale changes act like amplifications or diminutions of sound. The analogy with music is an obvious one, but no less relevant for that. The main difference, from the point of view of Whitney’s work, is that music occurs in a prescribed temporal sequence whereas in painting time only passes for the viewer: colors change as you look at them depending on where the eye is resting or moving.
Drawing is implicit in the way Whitney wields his brush: the degree to which he leaves traces of the latter visible indicates its role in the placement and organization of color. In the recent paintings this drawing element remains crucial although with the reduction of one color placed over another it is the individual color blocks that carry the energy. The color blocks are kinetic. It can be argued that nothing we see is static for our means of perception, but color complicates this, as it is already a fugitive phenomenon that operates between the phenomenological and the conceptual. There is nothing neutral when it comes to color, no known definitive form, and it is this that is so decisively at play in Whitney’s paintings. As Walter Benjamin put it, “Color does not relate to optics the way line relates to geometry.” In Lightnin, (2009), for instance, a 40 x 40 inch painting, one constellation of color supersedes another in even a few moments of looking. The vertical narrow rectangles of each side and the bottom edge pulsate, sending the eye on a rotating journey; adjacent colors pair up, blue and red on one side, green and yellow on the other. Similar animation happens everywhere across the painting: recombinations of color and pictorial space are endless. This transforms painting into something like a time-based medium in which time runs in every direction and at a constantly varying speed.
Whitney’s working method constitutes what could be described as lyrical pragmatism. The way the paintings look to have been made, from top left to bottom right, is analogous to reading script, or painting a wall methodically. He typically completes a picture over two sessions, with three to four drying days between. This speed of execution allows for surprises and time to absorb what is happening in the painting. Rather than the painting being the fulfillment of a set plan, therefore, it is a result of allowing any number of sources from life to inform and influence its outcome. The vitality of the paintings attests to the success of this strategy, leaving the viewer with a desire to see more, however much each completed painting refuses to be still and known. Repeated viewing appears to be a requirement, one that can sustain thought and pleasure in equal amounts.