In 2015 Stanley Whitney had his first solo museum show in New York—“Dance the Orange,” at the Studio Museum in Harlem—after a long career, much of it spent under the radar. The exhibition was widely praised as a revelation of sorts, introducing to a wider audience an artist who has been admired for injecting new life into abstract art’s potential. Documenta 2017 gives us another chance to see a concentration of Whitney’s work. As he was preparing for Documenta, ARTnews spoke with the artist in his studio in the Ridgewood area of Queens, New York.
A few minutes into my visit, Stanley Whitney gave me a look that can only be described as side-eye. “You’re trying to get me to reveal all my trade secrets,” he said.
Whitney went on to talk animatedly and at length about his approach to painting, his technique, his art-historical loves, his opinions about today’s painting scene—but at the end of the conversation, I realized he’d never answered my first question, about his special alchemy of pigment and base, even though he’d asked and answered many others.
This seems entirely appropriate for a painter whose abstract canvases are at once almost unimaginably forthright in their formal qualities and maddeningly complicated in their optical effects. Like the artist, they don’t give up their secrets easily.
It was only after several minutes of standing in front of one large painting—eight feet square—that its effects started to become apparent to me. The composition is simple: rectangles of different dimensions (the largest in the middle tier), stacked four rows high, and divided by horizontal stripes. The palette is riotous, as if the artist’s goal were to get as many colors into the painting as he could: lemon yellow, Tiffany and robin’s-egg blues, ultramarine, indigo, various shades of red, orange, and coral, and an occasional green show up, along with a sparing amount of black. He does the colored blocks freehand, and some of their edges lean and overlap; you can see where he has taken his brush to their edges, adding an emphatic stroke of paint to keep them from overstepping their bounds. The paint application ranges from flat and brushless to gestural and transparent, but in all cases, the surface is both matte and luxurious. In some blocks you can see where thinned-down paint has dripped, creating a pattern on the surface. There is evidence that some blocks started out an entirely different color from what they ended up—green may have become red, in some patches—but it is more or less impossible to decipher the painting’s history from looking at its present state.
The total effect is mesmerizing: your eye refuses to settle at any one spot on the surface, but instead is drawn here, then there, then over there. Gentle, but insistent. You are fixed in place as the painting dances around you.
Whitney had just sent off a batch of canvases to Athens, for the first installment of this year’s Documenta, and was now deciding which to send to Kassel for the second installment of the exhibition, opening in June. He pointed to works arrayed around his studio: “I’m thinking I’ll take that one for one wall, that one for another, maybe those two for another—or maybe that one can hold the wall on its own. Or maybe I’ll put those two together.”
The morphing checklist was not so much owing to indecision as to a keen sensitivity to how the paintings would interact with one another in the space. Ultimately, he said, he’ll end up sending more than he’ll hang, because “even one can hold a wall.”
Whitney called his paintings “demanding,” and for all their sheer and almost untoward beauty, the word fits—they are not paintings that can be readily perceived in one eyeful, despite first appearances. But it’s not just the viewer on whom demands are made; it’s the painter, too.
“They aren’t hard to make,” he said, with a self-deprecating smile. “But they are hard to see. They’re hard for me to see.”
Whitney is a self-described process painter. While he may start with a standard structure, his shapes, colors, arrangement, and touch—really, every new painterly decision—are made in response to what came before. His approach is all about contingencies and improvisations, and he speaks in musical terms—rhythms, harmonies, and counterpoints.
The challenge of these works is rooted, in his telling, in the fact that he has staked so much on color.
“The color makes the structure,” he said. “I wanted a system that allowed me to lay color down when I felt like it—I wanted nothing to get in my way. When I start these paintings I have no idea what it’s going to be. I don’t start with a sketch or an idea. I start by laying as much color down as I possibly can. Once I’ve laid it all out and see what I have, then I start to mentally engage and figure out what I think is working and what I don’t.”
The painting can happen in one sitting or over the course of several. Often, Whitney doesn’t know what he has until the paint—he works in oils on oil-primed linen—has dried. He showed me one canvas that he finished on a Friday and worried about all weekend, because he wasn’t entirely sure that a patch of ultramarine was going to end up “sitting” where he put it, optically speaking. It was only when he looked at the painting on Monday that he realized it worked.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said, pointing at a passage in one of the large paintings leaned against his studio wall. “It’s all about the transitions between the colors—the blue shouldn’t get away from the orange. That has a lot to do with drawing and scale as much as it does with color. The difficulty for me in making these paintings is, if you fall in love with this red, can you get out of that red so that everything equals out and there’s no beginning or no end to it all?”
In describing the process, Whitney makes the paintings sound comically animate—they don’t just tell him what to do, they boss him around. “I’ve always been one to follow the paintings—not that I’ve always liked where the paintings go. When they started getting less gestural, I tried to take them in a different direction, to take them back to something more gestural, but it didn’t work. I follow the paintings—the paintings run to the door, through the door, around the corner, and I run after them. The paintings start doing something, and I think, ‘What the hell are these paintings doing now?’ ”
For all his joking about the paintings’ dictatorial attitudes, it’s clear that Whitney’s method results from a long and intense study of color, and that mastery over his medium brings new challenges. “It’s hard to believe that, all of a sudden, you can do certain things. It’s shocking, in a way, that things get done before you think they will.”
But it’s in the continuing contingencies of his medium that he finds the greatest pleasure, and he works hard to figure out how to keep those accidents happening. “I’ve been painting for a long time. If you put an orange down and then you put a blue down next to it, you can think you know what it’s going to do, but you don’t actually know what it’s going to do until you see it. In a way you want them to behave, but you don’t want them to behave too. Because otherwise it’s boring.”
Depending so much on the process—rather than on a predetermined system—makes the question of when a painting is finished that much more fraught. “I can keep painting them because they don’t end—I could have made that line a little straighter, I could have made this bigger, I could have done this, I could have done that, I could move that,” he explained, pointing out specific passages in a dark-toned, somber work.
“What keeps you from just endlessly reworking a canvas?” I asked. For one thing, he said, it’s a huge risk to keep going: “If I change one part of a painting, the whole thing falls apart. So making a decision to add something means risking everything. I have to decide, because you can’t fix it. You have to either tear things down and build [them] up again or leave it alone.”
Because of that, he often stops himself even if he has an urge to go on, an act of supreme self-control (sometimes aided by his wife, the painter Marina Adams). “It is what it is,” he said. “It’s done. The thought’s not done, but the painting’s done.”
The move to square canvases—whose dimensions range from 40 by 40 inches to 96 by 96—was driven by his desire to challenge himself in new ways. “I used to always work horizontally, and I decided to go to the square because it was harder to get the rhythm in the square—it’s sort of a non-shape. So to get the rhythm with the square takes me out of the landscape space I had with the horizontal shape and into a more architectural space.”
The walls of his studio are lined with gouache-on-paper works, but these aren’t sketches—they’re instances of working out the problems of painting in a different register, he said, with different constraints and pleasures, adding, “the paper I use is so beautiful, I didn’t want to cover it all, the way I do with the paintings. So they breathe differently.”
Indeed, in their use of white, the works on paper seem entirely antithetical to the paintings, which refuse any notion of figure and ground. No trace of canvas appears between the colored blocks in his paintings—they are all surface.
“It’s easy for white to carry the color—but I really want the color not to rely on white that way,” Whitney explained. “I fought the color field for a long time. When I first came to New York and saw what the Color Field painters were doing, I’d put down a gray ground and then put the color on the field. But eventually I just wanted the color—I didn’t want the field,” he added.
“Until I went to Egypt, I had this idea that if I put the colors right next to one another there wouldn’t be any air. I wanted color like Rothko, but I wanted air like Pollock. I didn’t realize that the space was in the color. But the architecture of Rome and Egypt taught me that space was in the color, not the color in the space.”
The leap from color to architecture puzzled me—it took me some time to figure out that Whitney was talking about the way in which the pyramids and the Coliseum were built out of massive blocks with no interstitial spaces. They were stacked—and recognizing this prompted him, after the mid-1990s, to simply stack his colors rather than array them on an open ground.
“That was the last piece of the puzzle for me. Once I did that I had it,” he said.
Whitney is keenly aware of history, including his own. “The great thing about being older is, now you have a history, so now you can go back and revisit your own history,” he laughed. He recalled his early years as a painter in New York, where he arrived from Philadelphia in 1968 when he was 22, and the pressure he felt to find his voice as a painter in an art world that he describes as competitive, dogmatic, and intense.
For him, finding his voice would mean grappling with color, but without adopting the puritanism he saw around him.
“When I first came to New York there were a lot of people working with color—[Frank] Stella was working with color, [Kenneth] Noland was doing his stuff,” he said, “but I felt they were all giving too much up. They gave the hand up, they were focused on being flat against the wall, what you see is what you get—I didn’t like that idea. I didn’t want to give up Courbet, I didn’t want to give up Goya, I didn’t want to give up Velázquez—I didn’t want to give up anything. I wanted to paint where I could do anything.”
“All those people were one-dimensional—it’s like painting was a pie and they each took one piece of it, one thing that they made their own. I wanted the whole pie. Everyone was trying to figure out how to make a painting that wasn’t a painting—with a mop or a broom or not with a paintbrush or not with a de Kooning gesture. I found that very limiting. They’d take on one thing. But I wanted to take on many things.”
The voraciousness Whitney describes seems to apply, too, to his approach to art history—over the course of our conversation, it’s not just the immediate influences of the artists of the 1960s and 1970s that came up (Rauschenberg, Guston, Morris Louis, Mary Heilmann, Al Taylor, et al.), but historical examples like Cézanne, Munch, Morandi, Matisse, and countless others, as well.
When I raised my eyebrow at one of the books open on his worktable—a catalogue of paintings by Munch, a relatively angst-y choice for an artist whose work doesn’t wallow in emotion—he laughed. “I never think about anything but the paint. What you paint, your subject matter—you never have any choice about that, that’s just who you are. But the question is what you do with it, how you treat paint and color.”
Next to it was another book, this one on the subject of African tribal fashion, opened to a photograph of women with elaborate body decoration. “I’m not interested in the exoticism of these images,” he explained. “I’m interested in how the women must think about space and time and what things are. How does space and time feel to them, how does the world touch them? That’s the thing about the paintings—how does the world touch us? That’s what they’re about. It has to do with life itself.”
Blackness has always been at play in Whitney’s career, from his early alignment with Color Field painters, who were, to his mind, “more interested in black culture and jazz and great parties” than were the rest of the largely white New York School scene, to the spotlight in which he finds himself today.
He described his experience as an abstract painter in the mid-1960s as “painting through the war”: “I think about it like Matisse sitting in Nice making his paintings while the Nazis were marching down the street. Gorgeous little paintings of women with their clothes off while the war was going on—and you think, ‘What the fuck were you doing, man?’ But that was me. It was 1966, 1967, and I was painting—I didn’t even know what I was doing yet, I was just painting—and the black nationalists would be asking me, ‘What the fuck does that do for the race?’
“It was a radical time. I painted in my basement and when the Black Panthers came around I’d say, ‘Tell them I’m not here.’ [George] Wallace was running for president, the riots happened, things burned, and I was busy painting. Not that I knew what I was painting—I was still trying to figure it out—but I was busy painting. It didn’t seem like what you should be doing—I wasn’t sitting on the buses or going down South or anything. I was painting. I just felt I had to do it. I couldn’t defend my position at the time, but that was the only position I could take.”
When I asked whether curators or dealers tried to put him in the category of “black artist” over the years, he explained that his insistence on pursuing abstraction made him unreadable as such, to the extent that many people don’t even realize his background. (He tells of at least one collector, himself African-American, who refused to buy a painting when he found out Whitney was black.)
“They can’t deal with me as a black artist—they really can’t. I don’t fit. That’s why they got to me so late—they couldn’t deal with me. People are always expecting black artists to explain themselves, like I’m some totally different animal. I mean, I do dance better than they do”—he roared with laughter—“but really, it’s like [James] Baldwin said: I’m not your Negro. I’ve always refused that position.”
“Americans have a hard time figuring out where the blackness is in these paintings,” he continued, “but at the same time, when Africans see the work, they can see the blackness of it—they can see the rhythm, they can see the music, they can see the movement. Basically it’s just a dance—get the rhythm, get the rhythm, get the rhythm.”