Known as an abstract painter for his bold use of gridded color swatches, Stanley Whitney crowds his drawings with an abundance of line, as seen in his September-October exhibition of drawings at Lisson Gallery in Chelsea. The exhibition began with a vitrine of his sketchbooks. Some lay closed in the display case, and though some were open, the content of these books, privileged in their placement in the gallery space, remained largely unknowable.
In order to mitigate this lacuna, Lisson has published a facsimile of one of these sketchbooks. Mimicking the feel and texture of a sketchbook, the book is flimsy, with a black thread-bound soft cover bearing only the artist’s signature. Even the paper is thin enough to see through, and the markings look so much like pencil that I first worried the lines would smudge.
A flurry of graphite pencil markings and limited color dominate these pages, forming gridded outlines, lists of words and phrases, and sections of grids only partially filled in with color. The title page notes the years in which Whitney worked on these drawings (2013, 2016, 2017), and the opening pages that follow are filled mostly by text. Several versions of the phrase, “To Be Down,” some instances crossed out and some rewritten, scroll down the page. Below, it reads “Whobody by Clark Coolidge dedicated to P. Guston,” referencing the collaborative pair of poet Clark Coolidge and painter Philip Guston. Whitney’s handwriting is large and sloppy, hurried and crossed out, rather than erased. It’s hard not to think of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s writings here, similarly scratched onto the page in lists of repeated phrases.
Whitney’s allusion to Coolidge, associated with jazz and literary-minded painters like Guston, connects Whitney to an interdisciplinary mode of thinking steeped in improvisation and exemplified by Basquiat. The Brooklyn Museum’s 2015 exhibition Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks coincided with the publication of facsimile notebooks that are also filled with hurried textual markings. But unlike Basquiat’s notebooks, which are readable as collected writings (which I argued in a review at the time), Whitney's use of text in his notebooks remains in the realm of drawing. Despite the repetition of written phrases throughout, and though sometimes written on pages free of any images, his texts read more like titles or captions—as inspirational background for his drawings and paintings, always in service to his visual thinking rather than operating parallel to it.
If we can read Basquiat’s writing as stand-alone poetry, Whitney’s writings are better understood as experiments with titles and themes, an observation we would miss if not for the sketchbook’s glimpse into his working methods. A few pages after the Coolidge list, a grid drawing, composed mostly in graphite, includes swaths of green marker that block off various squares in the uneven grid. Below it Whitney has written, “For Joy and Grief.” This line of text marks a distinct sentimentalism in a work otherwise formally driven, but if Whitney’s wordings are often lyrical, attesting to important literary influences in his work, they also compound his lyrical use of color and abstracted grid.
Whitney’s titles typically add narrative thrust to his blurry-edged color abstractions. The show of drawings at Lisson Gallery lacked this sense of narrative, since the drawings were untitled. However, the facsimile sketchbook restores this taste for narrative to the drawings, demonstrating that the influence of language remains even in the exploration of line and form. Other grids include captions like “Blue love song” and “Honey Hush.” Elsewhere, he returns to lists. “No to Prison Life” appears throughout the sketchbook as well as in a framed 2016 drawing of a vibrant orange, purple, and blue grid with black flowing circular lines that was included in the exhibition. Juxtaposed with his “finished” drawings, the sketchbook provides a glimpse into Whitney’s working methods that makes clear the relationship between formal design and text-based literary thinking, with text offering a background narrative to Whitney’s formal inventiveness.
I am wary, though, to suggest so clean a division between these sketchbooks as works in progress or studies for drawings and the paintings as final, fully realized artworks. In a 2008 interview with the Rail, Whitney noted that, “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.” So, if the sketchbooks are a place for thinking and drafting, why let us into this process? Why show them now?
This question turns on whether or not what happens in Whitney’s paintings—with their astute color pairings that cause a blurring, bleeding, and bending effect in form and geometry—happens with his words, as well. Kept, for the most part, visually distinct from his drawn forms (the notebook format of text inscribed below geometric pencil lines predominates in the framed drawings, as well), the text has its own visual register. So, where does the bleeding occur? The placement of the books at the entrance to the exhibition indicates that they are a start—the start of his thinking and the start of his making. Line, grid, structure, and poetic narrative are all parts of the drafting stage. His poetic narrative is drafted, too; the Sketchbook evidences Whitney’s play with form and poetic content combinations much like he is known for playing with color and structure.
Whitney, who has been working steadily since the 1970s, had his first New York City museum solo show at the Studio Museum in 2015, in an exhibition accompanied by a full-color catalogue. That same year, he had exhibitions at Lisson and Karma in New York, the latter supplemented by a 440-page publication. What better time for Whitney to add his own voice to the evolving history (and publication history) of his artistic output? And what better way to show us his own thinking than through this sketchbook? In making his private process public, Whitney highlights the narrative element of his work often overshadowed by his formal strength. Just as Whitney breaks down the grid central to his paintings, his drawings break the rules of abstract thinking and move beyond color studies and formal exercises to an integrated exploration of image and text, form and content, color and line.
ContributorMegan N. Liberty
MEGAN N. LIBERTY is the Art Books Editor at the Brooklyn Rail. Her interests include text and image, artists’ books and ephemera, and archive curatorial practices.