Stanley Whitney: TwentyTwenty
On ViewLisson Gallery
November 2 – December 18, 2021
Stanley Whitney’s recent exhibit of new paintings presents his lifelong exploration of an endless oasis of color. We can both look and listen as the variations across each painting reveal rows of bold color rectangles or squares and lines compressing together to form abstract color compositions in this architectural structure unique to his vision. Whitney’s sensitivity to pure colors, their intensity, and their complexity of undertones is archived through thin applications and the simplicity of his brushwork. The installation of 19 new works is well-thought-out as visitors are greeted by two medium-scaled canvases before entering the main gallery, where each of the five walls holds a single large-scale painting. The space between each allows the paintings to breathe and stand on their own. Yet, as a collective they transport us into Whitney’s intuitive and visceral color rhythms, akin to different musical improvisations resonating in the gallery. The last room in the back includes two gouaches on paper, four smaller paintings, and a wall of four tiny drawings in crayon, opposite a single graphite and watercolor drawing with the written alliteration “Monk” and “Munch.”
In the main gallery, Orange Conversation (2021) recalls Whitney’s 2015 exhibit Dance the Orange at the Studio Museum in Harlem, his first museum solo show in New York (both titles are inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem about the taste of an orange.) In this painting, dark and light blues are in dialogue with the complementary multitudes of warm hues found in oranges for the chromatic of yellow and red. The waterfall moments of blue upon blue in the top right corner express depth and serenity while the bleed of the horizontal orange-red line pollinating the Indian yellow rectangle in the lower left corner foretells an orange metamorphosis. Though we are confronted with color, Whitney’s retinal color relationships extend to our other senses in taste and sound, beyond the visual. The green of a citrus tree accentuates the painting in different areas with lime green peeking through the brushwork of a blue-sky rectangle, as if a light is shining through a stained-glass window.
On a different wall, Miles, Keep on talkin’ blues, and Stay Song 98 (all 2021) touch on Whitney’s relationship to Black American jazz music: albums like Bitches Brew and The Shape of Jazz to Come are constantly buzzing in his studio. In Miles, we get a sense of the urban in this quilt of sound. The square canvas calibrates us to view the rows of color as architecture rather than landscape, and the scale of this piece evokes a monumentality on par with Egypt’s pyramids or a view of New York City. The triangular yellow glaze over the baby blue rectangle, joined by a stripe of yellow to its right atop an ultramarine block of color, evokes an urban artificial light that might sit well with a trumpet electrifying into the night sky. The rectangular blocks are longer, more vertical and stretched like the skyscrapers holding our dreams while the bold block of yellow to the right arouses the golden sound of brass. A brown square on the lower left and a long stripe of that same earthy brown traveling from left to right grounds us and brings us back to a languid human touch. It grazes slightly the top of a transparent red patch with a world of its own where we can see repetition through the ghostly linear traces of Whitney’s brush both filling with stacked horizontal strokes and outlining that shape’s rectangular contour before finishing in the middle with two more opaque and bleeding lines.
It is through his black-and-white drawings that Whitney has come to understand color, much like Van Gogh did via his monochrome landscape drawings. The pen and ink runs wild and builds an expressive vocabulary of dots, lines, curves, and scribbles—the staples of abstraction for 20th century Modern artists. In Stanley Whitney: TwentyTwenty, the last gallery exhibits four miniature drawings where the line moves in staccato movements, irregular and free. The connection to jazz is fully apparent in the Munch/Monk play on words in the drawing opposite to this quartet wall. Curiously, the gouache works retain a slower spatial movement compared to the line drawings where we can feel how colors change in temperature, evoking more solid or molten states. They also allow for the white of the paper to take its own space within the density and patchwork of colors. Cézanne’s obsessive dedication to watercolor comes to mind, particularly his depictions of Mont Sainte-Victoire : over time, it is as if he became the mountain. A similar obsession has taken hold of Whitney, who has been committed to abstract architectural rows of dense color blocks and lines for over 40 years. Whitney’s hand guides the grid without measurements, rulers, tape, and levels providing a structure for color. The resulting irregularity leaves room for warmth, humor, and freedom, and thus ultimately elevates a human presence and touch in the work.
It is in Whitney’s smaller paintings that we can most clearly see his relationship to experimental music. He gifts us with all kinds of wet on wet, dry on wet, linear or diagonal, up-down, and left-right brushwork, leaving visible the traces of his rhythm along with an impurity of colors such as in Monk & Munch 10 (2021), Monk & Munch 9 (2021). Whitney’s lively color stacks and off-beat lines are a “call and response” to what is already happening in the painting, and carry a lived personal experience and humanness of what has been previously associated with hard edge and optical system color paintings. Whitney’s vigor, tenacity, and vulnerability bring color to the forefront of painting full of depth, emotion and feeling.