Stanley Whitney: In the Color
LISSON GALLERY | NOVEMBER 3 – DECEMBER 21, 2018
In Stanley Whitney’s magisterially unfolding show at Lisson Gallery’s dual spaces in Chelsea, the artist presents a cycle of paintings and drawings that resemble a calendar of the conscious, a notational form of painting that checks off time as a series of vividly experienced partitions. Compositions with such evocative titles as Bird Watching and Spring of Two Blues (both 2018) hold the walls of the gallery with their assured improvisations. The overriding format of these works is an expressively asymmetrical, rectilinear grid animated by high key and contrapuntal color. Think late Hans Hoffman on acid, absent the Abstract Expressionist histrionics. The loose geometric vitality of the Gee’s Bend quilts (in a 2013 interview with Lowery Sims, the artist mentions his admiration of the “offbeat, polyrhythmic” musicality of their vivid juxtapositions of color in skewed grids) also comes to mind.
Working alternatively thinly and opaquely with saturated and under saturated oils, the artist lays down his signature stroke within his signature, gridded structures. It is a rather desultory, recursive, thick squiggle that resembles absent-minded doodling and conveys a sense of the painter compulsively filling up his compartmentalized structure (Whitney himself has described his systemic approach to format as allowing him to “make paintings inside of paintings”) with sluggish yet insistent brushstrokes that slow down and modify the often jarring juxtapositions of complementary colors (complementary in hue, value, and saturation to varying degrees). Another recurring gesture seems arrived at by drizzling solvent over some areas which gives them a friable fringe. Often these drizzles and drips are much smaller in relation than the overall interior scale of a painting as can be seen in the lower band of Mingus (2018). In this way the painter makes the examination of such slight variations an intimate and lighthearted game of discovery, as one is not immediately made to connect the improvisatory part to the cohesive whole. This cohesiveness derives from a serial format that could potentially enervate Whitney’s colors and gestures by dominating these subtle variations with its overriding sameness.
However, the artist clearly refutes the cliché that familiarity breeds contempt by inverting that common conception with a generous range of improvisation in the structural repetition shared by these paintings. A kindred intent can be seen in the works of Sean Scully, with his variable “wall” format, or in Harriet Korman’s repetitive cruciform format paintings, which are currently on view at Thomas Erben, and the paintings of Whitney’s wife Marina Adams, whose geometric color variations often coalesce loosely into symbolic formats. This shared intent to thematize a format extends a friendly hand of decorum while subverting the idea of mastery of formal address: the instantly recognizable as familiarly egalitarian.1 In Whitney’s case, his format—his decorum—serves as an expansive stage on which he can direct an epic play of color and movement. That color and movement feels strongly influenced by the lyrical palette and fluid compositions of Mattise, as well as the rose and cerulean toned scumblings of Philip Guston, the latter artist who Whitney met in New York in the 1960’s.
A grouping of seven of Whitney’s drawings, each Untitled (2013), are featured at Lisson’s 10th Avenue space, along with a selection of paintings dating from 1996 – 98 that are composed in a graphic scribble that relate to the more recent drawings. In this portion of the show one can see how the artist treats the process of mark making in a different way than he does when painting. There is a strong resemblance to the ebullient, childlike scribblings of Jean Dubuffet. Whitney, however stands on his own here in these densely overwritten crayon grids. Their manic quality is imparted by the artist revving up his more typically slow stroke into a feverishly circulating overlay of linear color. While still maintained within an approximate grid format, these energetic bundles of crayon lines break the limits of their compartments and point to the energies subsumed within the more restrained gestures in the attendant paintings. They are less lightly composed than barely conducted.
The musician, experimental arranger, and conductor Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (1947 – 2013) was born a year after Stanley Whitney. Morris became famous for his “Conductions” in which he would direct ensembles of musicians through improvised sections of music. This process, despite its rather unorthodox character, involved a rigorous rehearsal regimen. In a way Morris’s “Conductions” are a fitting comparison to the way in which Stanley Whitney’s recurring compositional structures allow for an improvisatory “sounding” of color and gesture.
- The aesthetic theory of Jacques Rancière that posits the historical arrival of genre painting and the departure of importance of historical painting as the moment when “all subjects begin to share an equal status . . . the production of works without destination . . . the revocation of the form/matter model and Kant’s definition of universality without a concept of aesthetic judgement” might be illuminating here, in terms of Whitney’s repetitive habitation of format constituting an abstract genre unto its own universality (if historical painting, in contrast, and to follow Rancière’s logic, is limited to its need for a submissive, representational “subject” to form). Quotation from: “The Politics of Aesthetics: Jacques Ranciere Interviewed by Nicholas Viellescazes” in Naked Punch, Jan. 12, 2009
TOM MCGLYNN is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in the N.Y.C. area. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum of the Smithsonian. He is the director of Beautiful Fields, an organization dedicated to socially-engaged curatorial projects, and is also currently a visiting lecturer at Parsons/the New School.