In Conversation

Stanley Whitney with John Yau

On the eve of his three-person exhibition (January 8th–February 14th, 2009) at Team Gallery, Rail Art Editor John Yau paid a visit to Stanley Whitney’s Cooper Square studio to talk about his life and work.

John Yau (Rail): Because you’re such a well-kept secret, I want to start with your background.

Stanley Whitney: I grew up in Philadelphia and went to the Kansas City Art Institute—East Coast to Midwest. It was strange, but I needed to get away. You know: The Vietnam War. But, before going to Kansas, I went to the Columbus School of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio. That’s how little I knew about art. Kansas City was recruiting people in those days. I looked at Chicago, but Kansas gave me a great deal, so I went there from ’66 to ’68, then came to New York to go to the Studio School.

Stanley Whitney's studio in Cooper Square, Manhattan. September 18, 2008.

Rail: How old were you when you came to New York?

Whitney: I must have been about twenty-two.

Rail: Didn’t Guston help you get here?

Whitney: Yeah. I met Guston at a summer program in ’67. And he loved the work. I was going through a lot of changes—I had changed from being a figurative painter to an abstract painter. I was drawing a lot, and not painting much. He wasn’t painting much either. He liked the drawings, and recruited me to go to the Studio School. I ended up going there, but I didn’t like it. I wanted to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, so I dropped out. But Guston was very good about it. At the time I worked at the Strand bookstore, and he bought supplies at a nearby art store; he would come by and talk to me at the Strand. I was going through a lot, being in New York, and he was very supportive of what I was dealing with. He said, “Do what you gotta do.”

Rail: And you ended up going to Yale.

Whitney: Yeah, I ended up going to Yale. Around the time I met Guston I met Bob Reid, an African-American painter who studied at Yale. He was teaching at Skidmore, before that at a summer program. While I was in New York, I wanted to go up there to work in the summer, so I wrote Bob about that, and he wrote back and told me he was at Yale, and that I should go there for graduate school. He sort of recruited me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. I had been in New York a year and a half and I was trying to keep my foot in the door. I thought, why go back to school? But I did. And people encouraged me. Al Held was a teacher of mine at Yale. He was a great teacher.

Rail: Al was also changing his paintings.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Whitney: At the time he was making black and white paintings, which were lines, and no color. I liked those paintings a lot. There was a lot of great artwork in New York in ’68 and ’69. I saw a lot that I didn’t quite know what to do with. Everything was new. Looking at a Newman, a Pollock, a Rothko. I mean, what can you do with that? You saw a painting and you liked it, but there was no room for you to say, Well, I’ll do this. And you had all these Color Field painters that were doing process stuff. I kind of did that, but I found that work structurally weak. I liked the color. I was always a colorist, but I didn’t know what to do with that kind of color and lack of structure. It was a difficult time in terms of figuring out how to re-invent painting. I mean, now I kind of get it. Now you go to Newman, you go to Judd. And then from that you get back to painting. For me, in my work, you can sort of say “Newman, Judd, then Me.” Because Judd helped me reinvent painting. With those people, there weren’t any drawings.

Rail: Drawing is central to you, even though you’ve barely ever shown them.

Whitney: You know, 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.

Rail: Are you still drawing a lot?

Whitney: The last two or three years I’ve been doing little paintings instead of drawing. It took me a long time to move out of drawing. Once drawing allowed me to figure out the space, I stopped except for some color drawings. I do a little drawing, but haven’t done any major drawings for the past six years. But drawing helped me to get here. I showed drawings last year for the first time in a long time. I have a sketchbook that I draw in all the time. But I don’t really show them.

Rail: One person that you knew when you came from Kansas was Don Christensen, Dan’s brother.

Whitney: Yes. Don was also painter. He left Kansas for New York in ’67, earlier than the rest of us, and didn’t come back. We all lived on Bowery because David Stratford and Don had a place there. All the galleries were uptown and everyone lived downtown.

Rail: And there was this whole group of Color Field painters, like Dan Christensen, and it included a number of African Americans. Did you meet them when you got to New York?

Whitney: I did. I met Jack Whitten and Peter Bradley when I was twenty-two. They were hanging out in the scene. With the whole music thing and color, there is something there with African-American color. They were in that Color Field scene, which was really open, because it was a party scene. They had a lot of great parties. We didn’t sit around and talk about art too much. Greenberg would be in the corner with his “people” who you couldn’t talk to. If you went over there, they’d stop and look at you and not talk. I was in that scene for a while but dropped out of it because I could see that I didn’t fit in.

"James Brown Sacrifice to Apollo"
oil on linen 72" × 72" 2008

Rail: You didn’t seem to fit into any scene. You dropped out of the Studio School scene, and you didn’t feel like you belonged to the Color Field scene or with the African-American painters working that way.

Whitney: There were always aspects of the scene I liked, but I didn’t really feel comfortable. I didn’t see myself in any scene. That was even true when I came out of Yale and hung out with Bob Rauschenberg and Al Taylor, who I knew from Kansas. That scene was Pop to me. So I never belonged to any scene. I was just there in the Pop scene, witnessing things, mostly because I wasn’t very interested in the subject matter. I definitely related to the Color Field artists, but the work didn’t have enough structure for me. I watched all of it, but I wasn’t about to act on it. I was in the studio, struggling and struggling, from ’72 to the late ’80s, just trying to make work. People quite liked the work, but I had too much of it. I had drawings and paintings. I had work all over the place. Even Rauschenberg said to me, “You’re giving people too many choices, you can’t give people too many choices.”

Rail: And didn’t going to Egypt change all this?

Whitney: Yeah, that was really the place. I knew how to draw, so I was drawing a lot. And I was teaching at Tyler in Rome. Now at this point I was really working with the kind of structural work I do now, but they were much looser. I was painting a lot of bold color into the field, a great deal of it. I knew I should go to Egypt. This was about ’94. And it was in Egypt that I discovered density. That’s what Egypt was about. In Rome, you have all this great architecture. That was the big thing: architecture. But then I went to Egypt—the pyramids and all the tombs. I realized that I could stack all the colors together, and not move the air. I realized in Egypt—it just came to me—that I could get the kind of density I wanted in the work. Egypt was the last key to the puzzle.

Rail: You got to New York in ’68, and for 25 years you struggled to figure out how to structure color, which you did around ’94.

Whitney: I think that’s about right.

Rail: When did you switch from acrylic to oil?

Whitney: That must have been in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I wasn’t loose enough in the painting because I couldn’t really draw in acrylic. Going to Italy was a big thing. I remember going to the Etruscan museum in Volterra, and seeing all the stuff stacked on shelves. And I thought, just stack the color. Before that I was trying to move the color around, and being baroque. Then I thought, just stack it, make it really simple. Let the color really be magic. Italy was a good thing, getting out of the States, out of New York.

Rail: For an abstract artist to be independent, particularly in the late ’60s, meant not following in the path of Frank Stella or the Color Field painters.

Whitney: Yeah, that’s true. Stella was always all over the place. I watched all that work but I was always very critical of it. The way he used color, the idea, “right out of the can,” I thought, touch is more important. I would say my work was somewhere between Pollock and Rothko. I liked how open Pollock was, but I liked how wide and still Rothko was. There was never any one thing I could say, “this is it.” I was sort of in between everything. I remember thinking, well, Stanley, you could change the work. The color threw people off. People would say, are you from the Caribbean? What’s this about?

Rail: They’d project on to you because of being African-American.

Whitney: Well, people thought the color should be more playful, and it wasn’t. If you use color, then color should be this. The color wasn’t that. The paintings were always a little too off, a little too tough. People wanted the color to be loose and playful.

Rail: And yet, at the same time, there are references in some of your paintings. There’s that painting you did after Katrina devastated New Orleans; I realized the purple and green were associated with the city. The references are never really obvious. Someone else said the color came from African blankets and textiles.

Whitney: Yeah, all that’s kind of true. Sometimes there are references, and sometimes there are events that hit you. Most of the time I can’t control the color, it just comes.

Rail: But it’s not set.

Whitney: No, I’m kind of all over the place. I think that’s why I was a slow developer. African textiles, any kind of textile, quilts, all those things influenced me. It’s like the difference between Matisse and Picasso. In the Matisse show at the Metropolitan, you saw some of his sources, a Romanian blouse, for example. Picasso would never use a Romanian blouse as a total source, like Matisse. Women’s work, or things made by people who are ex-slaves or field people, also influenced me.

Rail: But you don’t make it a thing about it in your work either. You don’t want to be closed into any one thing. The Matisse show, the colors of New Orleans, and African textiles—all of them are useful. How do you start?

Whitney: I start at the top and work down. That gets into call and response. One color calls forth another. Color dictates the structure, not the other way around. I wanted something very simple that would allow the color to have a life. I start at the top and put down a color and then another. I just want it to be whatever the painting needs.

Rail: Do you go back into it?

Whitney: Usually there are two or three sessions and I go over every color. If there’s a yellow, it probably takes two or three different layers of yellows to make it looks the way it does. I kind of feel the color. 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. If I repeat a color—I work hard at repeating, so a lot of times I’m reducing the painting. I usually have a lot more color and take some out.

Rail: I didn’t know that. I feel like that’s one of your projects—how much color can you get into a single painting?

Whitney: With a painting what you see is not what you get. They’re to live with and not to look at. As you live with them you see more and more.

Rail: Do the titles come to you before or after?

Whitney: After. It’s like trying to name your kids. I read a lot. I write a lot in my sketchbook. I think about titles that make sense. This one’s called “James Brown: Sacrifice to Apollo.” which people will probably mistakenly call “James Brown at the Apollo”. This happened after Brown died. This is what I want to do. Who owns what? Who names what? Titles for me are clues. If someone wants to dig deeper in a literal way, they can get in there.

Rail: I would say that your palettes couldn’t be a higher key. It’s largely primary. Primary and secondary colors with some other colors mixed in.

Whitney: Yeah it is, but I have no control of that. Red is dominant. Red, yellow, blue, green. The palette just comes. I follow my work wherever it goes—out the door, around the corner. I gotta follow the work. It’s high key now because I’m focusing on intensity. It’s kind of a heavy beat—it comes from the West African drumbeat. Music in the African-American community is what saves people. I grew up and music was everything. That’s a big part of my painting.

Rail: You said you used to make moody, expressionist paintings in undergraduate school.

Whitney: Yeah, and the color got depressed; I was struggling with oil paint. I got involved with Spanish painting: Goya, moody, dark. In those days it was more about controlling paint—so I really couldn’t get the color. I think the way it ended was that it got too psychological. “This means this and this means that.” I realized I wasn’t a storyteller. Once I realized I wasn’t a storyteller, I asked, “what do I do?” That’s when I saw Morris Louis, his color, and realized there was another way.

Rail: As an African-American, you’re expected to tell certain stories.

Whitney: Yeah, who or what do you paint? Bob Thompson did a great job painting in colors. He figured that out. He had just died and I remember going to the New School to see some of his paintings. Painting in New York at that time was really big, so I got to see a lot. But I couldn’t find my piece of the puzzle.

Rail: We’ve also talked about Alma Thomas, and how little people know about the long history of abstraction among African-Americans.

Whitney: Thomas is a well kept secret. She is so difficult because she was so good and she got good after she retired, in her sixties or seventies, in Washington D.C. So you have [Kenneth] Noland and [Gene] Davis, and you have Alma Thomas, this older African-American woman painter. I think people had a hard time deciding what to do with her then and even now.

With African-Americans, race is always a big issue, and how the art answers the call to race. Everyone understands how to be a doctor or a lawyer—a social activist—to answer the call to race, but what does painting have to do with it? There is this need to see yourself, so you’ve got to pretend you don’t see yourself; you’re told you’re an outsider, but you’re not an outsider. You want images of yourself. You want to go to movies and museums and see yourself. And you’re there, just like women are there. When you go to the Met, you’re in the quilt section, not with the paintings. So that’s a big thing. Being an abstract painter, what does that do? Where does that fit in? People have a hard time with that. Take MoMA, and how they have it all lined up—where does abstract painting or Thomas fit in? They don’t. Hopefully in the 21st century, things will get rewritten, and you’ll see that work, or people will get interested in that work, which is really a secret.

Rail: And you know that there are many others in that position.

Whitney: Yeah, there are. David Hammons curated a show in Vienna at Christine Koenig Galerie, “Quiet as It’s Kept.” I wanted an Alma Thomas there, but I couldn’t get one. So there were three generations; I was in the middle. It was a whole history of abstract work that people don’t know how to deal with. In America, people want to simplify. With my work, I want people to ask difficult questions.

Rail: Wasn’t that something you were conscious of all along?

Whitney: When you’re painting, you’re fixing the painting you’re painting. When you’re on the street, you’re not. Outside the studio, it’s very complicated. When I’m not painting or when I’m looking at the paintings, I’m kind of aware of that. But when I’m painting, I’m just a painter. You do so much work outside the studio, going to look at work, reading, or discussing. I never like my work when I’m painting. It took me a long time to like them. I paint them, but then I hate them. I never get what I want. It takes me a long time to relax and see what I have, as opposed to what I wanted. It takes me a while to see it.

Rail: That’s an interesting split, because you can bring all that street stuff into your studio and have that determine what you paint. Or you can say, there is another way that isn’t beholden to an external agenda.

Whitney: I think I was always difficult, even when I was young. I was getting into a lot of trouble in high school and college. I was a big troublemaker. In the ’60s there were the Panthers, Civil Rights, and Dr. King, and I wanted to paint. How could I justify that? I avoided the Panthers in Kansas City because I wanted to paint, and I thought, God, I can’t tell them that I’m a painter; it’s a bourgeois activity. When people were telling you that you were African-American, and you should be a voice of the race, and this is what you need to do, and you’re a painter.

Rail: And painting, as we’ve been told, is a white, European, decadent, bourgeois activity.

Whitney: Yeah, and you’re born as a painter, so what is that? So you had to hide out and protect yourself and go paint. And through painting, you discover why it’s important. I think that I was always that individual.

Rail: The other thing you said was that you felt like you were a witness, because others didn’t know what to do with you. Like with Rauschenberg.

Whitney: Well, I wasn’t an entertainer. I think people—if they walked into a room—wouldn’t listen to you as the artist. I was very quiet and not particularly aggressive. I was clear about what I was striving for in the studio, but I wasn’t clear about what I wanted from the art world. It’s two different things. It took me a long time to grow up and get real.

Rail: That takes patience. It’s figuring it out in the studio, rather than on the street.

Whitney: Yeah, I guess so. It’s funny because now I’m reading a lot of art criticism. Reading is a bigger thing now than going to museums to look at art, because I feel like I did my homework earlier. I’m looking at my path (when you get older you have a past, the present, and the future) and think what I did or why I did it. Why didn’t I hang on Guston’s coattails, and use that to better my career? But at the time I was so involved in my work. The studio was everything for me. I had a salary, I could teach, I could make work. I was willing to put the time in—that was a big decision, to realize I wanted to put the time in. The scary thing is to think as a young painter now, that if you put the time in, and make the work, and twenty years later people go, “I don’t like it or want it.” You’re gambling, because the world changes quickly. There’s also the money factor, which says you better show early. Because when you’re showing early and you’re building your career, it’s one brick at a time. So you really want to show the work, have it out there, have a conversation, and meet people. I wanted to be left alone, and paint. I think of myself still pretty much as a hermit.

The Rail: Who came to New York.

Whitney: I always loved New York. Even as a kid I remember coming to New York, and I wanted to be an artist. I remember coming with my mother and a friend of hers; we went down to the Village, and walked by a basketball court on 4th Street. There were street artists drawing portraits, and one guy said, “I’m the best artist in New York.” I thought, “Oh my God, I just got here, and I’m ten years old, and I’ve met the best artist in New York.”

Rail: In New York, you can go out every night and still feel like you missed something. Or you decide to stay home and do your work.

Whitney: It’s funny because Al Taylor and I used to try to hang out. There were lots of parties on 14th street, wild scenes, but after a while you realize if you want to paint, you can’t do that. You really can’t; you have to put the time in. And then you bounce back. So I got into this rhythm: teaching, painting, teaching, painting.

Rail: What about now?

Whitney: I retired. I realized that I didn’t want to teach. I taught for over thirty years. I also chaired, hired people, had graduate students, and undergraduate students. That was enough. There’s nothing else I would have accomplished, and I wanted to spend more time in the studio.

Rail: Do you have any theories about color?

Whitney: I wouldn’t want to go there. I want to leave it to itself. You know, color’s very magical, and I want to leave it magical. People in the West always want to have control and science, and they have a hard time, sometimes, with it being just what it is. Someone could ask why I put that blue next to that gray—because it feels good. That should be there, that amount, that density. It just feels right. Those kind of things—you know when you go to a movie in a theater, how do you pick a seat out? It just feels right. If you think about it, you get fucked up.

Rail: It’s about ownership.

Whitney: I remember going to see a show at the New York Public Library on 42nd street. It was a show on New York; there were no African-Americans, Asians, anybody of color. And, as a painter, it’s like what I should be drawing or who owns this or who owns that. I was always aware of ownership. I’m standing in front of this Cézanne in this museum in Ohio; it had a beat. I could see it as music. I’m sure the people who write about Cézanne wouldn’t write about Charlie Parker. You know what the great thing about art is, painting reinvents time and time doesn’t exist. Today or tomorrow doesn’t exist in a painting. You look at Caravaggio, and it’s really contemporary. Time doesn’t exist. That’s the good thing about painting. And also painting was where I could take responsibility. Painters are well-disciplined; they want the responsibility. You don’t rely on someone else—what do you think? Should we do this, should we do that? You do everything. I didn’t really want to work somewhere. I made myself up. People have mentioned Malevich, Carl Andre, and Matisse, this color and that. There’s lots of ways it can go if you really have the knowledge. Look at the title, figure things out from the title, James Brown: Sacrifice to Apollo. I guess with me, I really want that kind of depth.

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John Yau