Stanley Whitney’s two recent shows of lyrical abstract paintings and drawings stepped with springy confidence into an art world where, for the last decade or so, abstraction has been increasingly visible. Whitney has been around New York’s art world since 1968, long enough to have been cold-shouldered at parties by Clement Greenberg. But his paintings hit their sweet stride in the mid-’90s, when their free-floating shapes settled into a consistent format: three or four rows of rectangles, divided by bands of horizontal stripes.
Whitney’s show at Karma covered this key period with five paintings (about 7 by 9 feet each, dating from 1992 to 1996), and a salon-style wall display of 84 works on paper and smaller canvases (from 1991 to 1999). The loose brushwork of My Whatever Means Necessary (1992), one of the earliest large paintings, lets various layers of colors of underpainting show through. Near the center of the gridded composition are three large circles in a row, seeming to have landed there like multicolored pinballs.
The softer brushwork of In Our Songs (1996) suggests the influence of Giorgio Morandi, whose work Whitney studied while living in Italy during the ’90s. A wobbly brown shape near the center seems squeezed between a cerulean stripe and a squat black square, giving it a heft of its own, like a leather saddle pressed into shape by a rider. The choice to hang the painting in front of a wall of windows was audacious; the placement proved the robustness and solidity of the jostling colors and reinforced the urban metaphor of windows and grids that’s always present as a subtext in Whitney’s compositions.
The seeming contradiction in the artist’s work—that shapes defined by their relationship to neighboring forms can still present such forceful individuality—is an animating tension in his practice. His ability to keep that duality taut while working with eye-leaping color is what makes the recent work featured in the Studio Museum show seem as rigorous as it is radiant. Most of the paintings, which date from 2008 to 2015, deploy about 25 or 30 colors, some repeated, or constituting close variations, but often with wide differences in hue, saturation and value.
An acid green stripe near the top of Elephant Memory (2014) abuts a central rectangle of the same color, and they join into an upside-down “T” shape that, after a few seconds, starts to appear as a background to two bright red rectangles. One of these red shapes seems to float forward from the green, while a brushier purple square nearby seems to drop back. The other red rectangle is cut off to the right by a thin stripe of nearly black greenish-blue paint, lightly scraped to reveal tiny bumps of the white ground.
Drawings were placed in a separate room in the show. Particularly fascinating were the works in pencil, which, like those of Bonnard and van Gogh, show a colorist inventing idiosyncratic combinations of value and mark as a kind of training exercise to see if a picture can hold up without hue.
Whitney’s early years as a painter coincided with the upending of the modernist notion of abstraction’s Platonic purity and autonomy. More recently, much abstract painting has sought its raison d’être not in visual engagement, but in pointing to meanings outside the paintings themselves—through neat-o processes, odd materials or relationships to distribution networks.
It’s a sign of Whitney’s long maturation as an artist that his paintings have it both ways. Like Cézanne, whom he cites as an influence, Whitney is after a set of internal relationships that “works,” but he’s perfectly open about his embrace of influences from music to Gee’s Bend quilts to the cityscape and Egyptian architecture. The titles often point to singers and songs, as with My Tina Turner (2013), where the two most central rectangles are Pepto-Bismol-pink and pale butter-yellow.
It’s telling that Whitney cites Miles Davis and other jazz experimentalists as inspirations. Like him, they were African-Americans working in an abstract idiom, creating radical new forms that nonetheless manifest a strong appreciation for the musical tradition. At a moment when new abstract painting is highly visible, Whitney’s work sets an example of how meaningful such a dance can be.