I follow the paintings wherever they take me. If the painting goes out the door, I follow it out the door; if it goes out the window, I follow it out the window.
“I start at the top and work down,” explains Stanley Whitney. “That gets into call-and-response. One color calls forth another. Color dictates the structure, not the other way round.” Whitney’s vibrant abstract paintings unlock the linear structure of the grid, imbuing it with new and unexpected cadences of color, rhythm, and space. Deriving inspiration from sources as diverse as Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Morandi, and American quilt-making, Whitney composes with blocks and bars that articulate a chromatic call-and-response in each canvas. He has spent many years experimenting with the seemingly limitless potential of a single compositional method, loosely dividing square canvases into multiple registers. The thinly applied oil paint retains his active brushwork and allows for a degree of transparency and tension at the overlapping borders between each rectilinear parcel of vivid color. In varying canvas sizes, he explores the shifting effects of his freehand geometries at both intimate and grand scales as he deftly lays down successive blocks of paint, heeding the call of each color. Experimental jazz—Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman—is Whitney’s soundtrack, its defining improvisational method yielding ever new energies to his process of painting.
Whitney was born in Philadelphia in 1946 and studied at the Kansas City Art Institute before moving to New York City in 1968. He graduated with an MFA from Yale School of Art in 1972, but found himself at odds with the politically and theoretically oriented contemporary scene of the 1970s and 1980s, confronting the expectation that an African American artist should contend directly with themes of racial and cultural identity. Whitney was more interested in honing an abstract visual language, his early works incorporating patches of color surrounded by areas of empty space. At this stage in his career he was also focused on the power of gesture and immersed in the daily practice of drawing.
Although Whitney has been deeply invested in chromatic experimentation throughout his career, he consolidated his distinctive approach during a period spent living and working in Rome in the 1990s, shifting his compositions from untethered amorphous forms to the denser stacked arrangements that characterize his mature style. It was Roman art and architecture—including the imposing façades of the Colosseum and the Palazzo Farnese and the stacked shelves of funerary urns on display at the Museo Nazionale Etrusco—that informed his nuanced understanding of the relationship between color and geometry. Italy remains a central and enduring source of inspiration for Whitney, who spends his summers painting at his studio near Parma.
Yet while the dynamics and characteristics of Whitney’s application make reference to basic architectural structures, his light, free, and rapid application subverts any implication of gravity. Reveling in the improvisational alchemy at play in his compositions, Whitney also skirts any claim to a personal theory of color: “I like to leave it as pure magic,” he states. “People say the color does this, or the color does that. And I say the color does what it does.”
Whitney lives and works in New York City and Parma, Italy, and is currently Professor Emeritus of Painting and Drawing at Tyler School of Art and Architecture, Temple University, Philadelphia. His work is included in public collections including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Philadelphia Museum of Art; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Dance the Orange, a retrospective of his work, opened at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, in 2015; he has also been the subject of solo exhibitions at institutions including A.A.M. Architettura Arte Moderna, Rome (2004), and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (2017). In 2017 he participated in Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel, Germany.
The Space Is in the Color: Stanley Whitney
Stanley Whitney reflects on the evolution of his work with Louise Neri, from his formative early days in New York to the pivotal period he spent living and working in Rome, arriving at the highly distinctive paintings for which he is now known. They explore the diverse and surprising influences of art and music on Whitney’s oeuvre, as well as his process and practice.
Stanley Whitney: Rhythm and Vision
While preparing his first exhibition with Gagosian, in Rome, Stanley Whitney speaks with Louise Neri in his New York studio about how he arrived at his unique and intuitive approach to color and space in painting, employing a dynamic fusion of preordained structure and improvisation.
Stanley Whitney: The Ruins
For American painter Stanley Whitney, Italy remains a central and enduring source of inspiration. Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, the author of a new monograph on the artist, reflects on the profound and far-reaching influence of Italian art and architecture on Whitney’s art.
April 15–21, 2020
Stanley Whitney has been deeply invested in chromatic experimentation throughout his career, but it was the experience of Italian art and architecture, both ancient and modern, that informed his unique understanding of the nuanced relationship between color and geometry. His highly dynamic abstract paintings unlock the grid, imbuing it with new and unexpected cadences of color, rhythm, and space. Deriving inspiration from sources as diverse as Sandro Botticelli and Piet Mondrian, free jazz and American quilt-making, Whitney composes in varying scales with vibrant blocks and bars that articulate a chromatic call-and-response within each canvas.
No to Prison Life
For his first public commission, Stanley Whitney used the H&R Block Artspace Project Wall at his alma mater, Kansas City Art Institute in Missouri, to display No to Prison Life (2019) from March 29, 2019 through January 31, 2020. Whitney’s Project Wall commission intentionally combined painting and handwritten text to register an urgent public protest against a US judicial system that promotes arrest, incarceration, and other forms of imprisonment that often further damage lives.
Stanley Whitney, No to Prison Life, 2019 © Stanley Whitney
American Academy of Arts and Letters
Stanley Whitney was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, in May 2017. Founded in 1898, the 250-person Academy is dedicated to the recognition of the country’s leading architects, artists, composers, and writers. It also administers over seventy awards and prizes, exhibits art and manuscripts, funds performances, and purchases artwork for donation to museums across the country.
Photo: Miranda Leighfield
Stanley Whitney in
Blue Is the Color of Your Eyes: On Materiality and Abstraction in the Moderna Museet Collection
February 2, 2019–March 1, 2020
Moderna Museet, Malmö, Sweden
Work by Stanley Whitney was included in Blue Is the Color of Your Eyes, where works by Louise Bourgeois were presented alongside key paintings and sculptures from the 1940s to the present by international artists in the Moderna Museet’s collection. Guiding the viewer through an examination of issues of materiality and abstraction, the exhibition highlighted a bodily approach to the creative process as well as social issues.
Stanley Whitney, Off Square, 2016, Moderna Museet, Stockholm © Stanley Whitney
April 8–September 17, 2017
Various locations in Kassel, Germany, and Athens
Sixteen paintings by Stanley Whitney were on display in Kassel, Germany, and in Athens as part of the fourteenth edition of Documenta, which takes place every five years. Documenta 14 included the presentation of works by more than 160 international artists, as well as concerts, screenings, readings, performances, and discussions.
Installation view, Documenta 14, Documenta Halle, Kassel, Germany, June 10–September 17, 2017. Artwork © Stanley Whitney
January 21–April 2, 2017
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas
This exhibition explored Stanley Whitney’s investigations into the intricate possibilities of color and form in the realm of abstract painting. Since the mid-1970s, Whitney has been known for his multicolored, irregular grids on square canvases. Taking the essentialist grid of Minimalism as his cue, his configurations are loose, uneven geometric lattices comprised of vibrant stacked color blocks that vary in hue, shape, and the handling of the paint.
Stanley Whitney, SunRa 2016, 2016 © Stanley Whitney
Dance the Orange
July 16–October 25, 2015
Studio Museum in Harlem, New York
Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange featured paintings and drawings created between 2008 and 2015. Following time spent in Italy and Egypt in the 1990s, Whitney developed the distinctive approach to color and space for which he is now known. Whitney’s paintings are rhythmic and lyrical, made according to a dynamic fusion of preordained structure and improvisation, with vibrant, irregular lozenges of color stacked loosely in square formats. The drawings, with their spontaneous, energetic lines, give insight into the parallel importance of this more intimate activity to his art practice.
Installation view, Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, July 16–October 25, 2015. Artwork © Stanley Whitney