Matthew Jeffrey Abrams is an essayist, critic, and art historian. In 2017 he received a PhD in art history from Yale University, where he was the A. Bartlett Giamatti Fellow at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, BOMB Magazine, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. He also publishes no/ta/be/ne: a newsletter-essay project.
At right about this time last spring, Stanley Whitney and I began meeting and conversing. I would describe our subsequent chats, which have spanned the interim period, as “casually intense.” By this I simply mean that we seem to share a desire to really talk about his work—to grapple with it, rather than simply label it—while also sharing a desire not to take ourselves too seriously.
What follows is an excerpt from a book, Stanley Whitney (Lund Humphries, 2020), that first took shape during those initial meetings. One could say that the story of Stanley’s career is also an argument for a certain way of looking at the world, which today feels more important than ever. All the more reason to highlight the painter’s years in Rome, which marked a crucial turning point in his practice. Indeed, there has been no greater watershed moment in Stanley’s career than his extended visit to the Eternal City in 1992. Consider what follows, then, as some brief notes on that era: an introduction to an artist in crisis and an artist in triumph.
Color Bar remains one of Whitney’s crucial paintings. Dating from 1997, it inhabits the rough midpoint in Whitney’s later maturation, between the breakout dots of the 1980s, such as Sixteen Songs (1984), and the monumental canvases of the 2010s, such as Night Café (2017). This was when those trademark horizontal registers finally appeared, a maneuver that stabilized the picture plane while avoiding anything like the grid and its enforced precision. Whitney also honed his already energetic brushwork: a daub and streak here, a flick and slash there. Now his colors became so thinned out that they blend and smear, like the rose-pink and speckled yellow blocks near the top of Color Bar, or the azure and malachite-green blocks near the bottom. This feels less like painting oil than spreading water. Whitney’s gestures create shapes within the shapes, although in a manner that diverges from his earlier, stained fields. We should, in turn, remember how Whitney himself describes this shift: “connections, not layers.”1
Paintings like this mark the late-1990s moment when Whitney’s circular forms vanished. The sweet little color dumplings of Sixteen Songs, which persisted throughout the early 1990s, were squared off. The formal arrangements for which Whitney is best known today—seas of right angles—would soon dominate the painter’s practice. If nothing else, this ongoing project demonstrates a real fastidiousness, and an eagerness for labor. Whitney, a child of Baptists, may have escaped his parents’ faith, but he couldn’t escape their Protestant work ethic, and there is an almost scientific spirit in this practice—something rigorous and disciplined. Consider the sheer endurance required to investigate a single compositional arrangement for thirty-five years and counting (the geometries may have changed, but the geography, as it were, remains the same). There are precedents for such dedication, of course, perhaps most notably the old Bauhaus Meister Josef Albers, who produced an almost unimaginable archive of color relations with his epic series Homage to the Square (1950–76). The critic Robert Storr expertly flushes out the two men’s connection in his essay “The Sound He Sees”:
It may be helpful to mention that Whitney studied at the Yale University School of Art, where, after his stint teaching at Black Mountain College, Josef Albers served as overall director of the program. In that capacity Albers empirically tested and revamped Bauhaus pedagogy most importantly perhaps in the way artists were taught about color. The key to his method was to stress that a given hue was never absolute and immutable, but rather always something to see in relation to other hues, and that the visual interaction amongst any combination of colors alters them—a dim patch of red becomes radiant when surrounded by darker shades, or a bright patch of yellow becomes muted when embedded in a still more saturated yellow.2
Storr is right. Like Albers before him, Whitney does not play favorites. Both artists are equal-opportunity color lovers. In terms of palette, each is a chromophiliac—a genuinely polyamorous painter. And in both cases, one simple format—trios of nested squares for the German, stacks of connected blocks for the American—provided enough source material for a lifetime of inquiry. But while Albers meditated on the interaction of color, Whitney, we shall see, became more concerned with the space of color, if not its mass. And in this way it is the intense seriality of Giorgio Morandi, not that of Albers, that most closely rhymes with Whitney’s later project. This Italian modernist plumbed the aesthetic and philosophical depths of a weighty or dense kind of painting. The very idea sustained him for decades. Always more phenomenal than optical, Whitney’s work was about to make its own, decidedly architectural turn.
Can color be architectural? Which is to say, is there room in our conception of color for, well, room? What would it mean if we could find “space in color, instead of color in space,” as Whitney so cannily puts it?3
Sixteen Songs set an important precedent for later works of Whitney’s such as Untitled of 1992. The whirling dervishes of color, which seemed to float and drift at will through Sixteen Songs, are now ordered into loose rows (more like stacks). Note the drips. Note the rills of oil running down the linen, some even dripping off the bottom stretcher. Get closer to the canvas and you’ll see tributaries of washed-out paint, thinned to its very limits. The palette here is dark and muddied with fluorescent snatches peering through, which is atypical but also not unheard of for Whitney, who interests himself in all manner of color arrangements. Within each color stack are loose shapes filled with gorgeous strokes of paint that create a loose hatching or a wandering line. Like these two paintings, their two years, 1984 and 1992, form a continuum in Whitney’s career. The first brought him to the American West; the second brought him to Rome; both brought him to space. In retrospect, Whitney sees the connection:
But Sixteen Songs, that was a big year because I was traveling across the country a lot, and going through landscapes, and sitting up on great spots. . . . Yes, the southwest, the Four Corners, Canyon De Chelly, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley . . . all the sacred places of the West . . . the Badlands . . . North Dakota. We went to all these places with Marina [Adams, Stanley’s wife and fellow painter]. I was teaching at Berkeley and Stanford for a few semesters. We enjoyed it a lot. And that kind of landscape really influenced me. That kind of openness in space, that kind of light. . . . I really think of it as an American kind of space. A big open space. But it was all about landscape and I didn’t want it to be landscapes, I wanted it to be space. So I was still looking for my paintings, asking, like . . . “What are my paintings?,” looking at everything I could wondering “Where am I in this mix?” And then I went to Rome, and that’s when architecture came in.4
It is no coincidence that Untitled was painted the same year Whitney relocated to Italy. First, to move from the American West to the Eternal City is to go from inhabiting a region defined by awesome landscapes to inhabiting a land defined by awesome landscape paintings. While the painters of the Northern Renaissance arguably got there first, the origins of the entire Western tradition of landscape painting are no less rooted in Italy. And what better place to think about space, fresh from a place like Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona, than by the Pantheon and the Forum, surrounded by all those lovely Cinquecento portraits of seated courtiers, always with a window over their shoulder opening out onto a larger world—a new conceit that allowed more space into the picture plane five centuries ago. Such works did not go unnoticed by Whitney, but it was really Rome’s buildings—recalling the geologic formations of the American West in their rootedness and scale—that held his fascination. “Looking at all the architecture in Rome,” he recalls, “and really being knocked out by the Colosseum and those great monuments, it was really starting to affect my work.”5
Indeed it was. In Naples’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale, an unmatched repository for ancient art, Whitney encountered the famed Boscoreale frescoes. Consider for a moment what these frescoes would have meant to an artist then obsessed with ancient Roman space and architecture. Perhaps the finest surviving examples of Roman Second Style wall paintings, panels like those from the Villa Boscoreale are treasures of human culture. In one of these frescoes, a pair of fluted columns flanks an interior, smoother pair adorned with ionic capitals. The rich red of the fresco wall has since faded, but imagine this very room filling up with ash from an erupting Mount Vesuvius, burying and preserving the works from 79 AD until their discovery, in 1977. Note carefully the narrow bands or registers that divide the illusory space, itself filled with all kinds of trompe l’oeil devices, like the columns, the chandelier with its winged, putto-esque god, and the row of statuettes holding up an illusory shelf like miniature caryatids. The Pompeiian artist smartly balanced color, restricting himself to some muted gray blues, a luscious pastel red, and a warm dirty yellow.
Encountering Boscoreale is different from encountering, say, the Colosseum: Whitney was looking at a surviving element of ancient Roman architecture, itself composed of trompe l’oeil paintings of ancient Roman architecture—a sort of mise en abyme of antique space. And as it had for so many scholars, writers, and artists before him, Boscoreale entered Whitney’s mind and would not leave (Whitney’s mature format, comprising paintings within paintings, forms another mise en abyme). Moreover, Untitled of 1992, Whitney admits, became an astonishing translation of Boscoreale, in both its sophisticated conception of space and its brackish-beige palette.6 And by the by, weren’t these murals among the works that inspired Morandi, who also created his own architectural space in painting?
How do we differentiate between a space and a field? Is it not true that fields allow for color to exist as a concept, while space allows for color to exist as an object? These are the sorts of aesthetic questions that Stanley likes to ask, to the viewers of his paintings as to the visitors to his studio. Indeed, his unique conception of space-in-color—as something antipodal to color-in-space—has propelled his work for more than thirty years. And for what it’s worth, it seems to magnify whenever he works out of his Italian studio, where he summers every year, and where he can dwell both upon and within domestic Italian architecture.
The move to Rome was crucial for Whitney, but his life abroad held one more surprise. “The last piece of the puzzle wasn’t Rome,” Whitney says. “It was Egypt.”7 The space between Rome and Giza is the space between Untitled of 1992 and Color Bar five years later. The shift is visually apparent, to be sure: the same verve that Whitney had applied to his lines of ink on Mylar he now applied to swatches of color. Those earlier works, which span from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, represent another radical aesthetic break for the even-younger artist: partly under the influence of Philip Guston, Whitney swung deep into line, and drawing, in these years. The Mylars consisted of energetic ink-wash lines and fields applied to a synthetic, transparent medium. Two decades later, those sweeping, unflinching lines reappear, only now they articulate much neater geometries (as in Color Bar). Note as well how the interstitial spaces between the discrete forms that we find in Untitled have been squeezed out of Color Bar. These new forms, all loosely rectangular, stand cheek by jowl, and in rows no less neat than the trompe l’oeil registers of Boscoreale. This shift involved a gradual filling out, an understanding that putting color all over a canvas in greater and greater densities wouldn’t necessarily stifle the painting.
By the time we reach the later works, such as Night Café or the deliriously beautiful Homa Roma from the same year (or, for that matter, Home Rome of 2018), this densifying has advanced. Yet the works still don’t feel choked or glutted, but rather bathed in powerful colors. All of this, in turn, goes back not to Naples but to Giza, where, in 1994, Whitney and his partner Adams made a trip to see the pyramids. That, Whitney claims, is where he found the confidence to make this final step:
I started telling myself I had to go to Egypt, because in front of the Pantheon, I was amazed by the size of the pillars, and in Egypt, I knew the scale would be even more impressive. . . . I really felt I had to go there. . . . When I went there, I realized I could put all the color together and not lose the air: I realized the space was in the color. That’s when I started making my mature paintings. 1993, 1994. I went there, and I was like “Got it!” Density was the last piece of the puzzle.8
I can see how Whitney could have stood at the base of the Great Pyramid, beheld this veritable mountain of stacked blocks, and got to thinking about mass, density, and various stacking operations. There was no longer a need, he realized, to ventilate the canvas. The air, as he said, was already in the color. And besides, if this unimaginably heavy pile of stone could still have a sense of lightness about it—if it could almost float on the horizon, silhouetted by the Mediterranean sun—then surely his paintings could absorb a heavy load too. There is, then, in both the Great Pyramid and in a monumental work like Homa Roma, a sort of tender massiveness—a gentleness that manifests despite an object’s size and power. An “intimate immensity,” we might call it, to borrow Gaston Bachelard’s famous phrase.9 And is this not what it means to find space where none was thought to exist?
1Stanley Whitney, interview with the author, spring 2019.
2Robert Storr, “The Sound He Sees,” in Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, exh. cat. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2015), p. 44.
3Whitney, interview with the author. Whitney has used similar terms with others in the past.
4Whitney, in Grégoire Lubineau, “Interview Stanley Whitney,” transcript of unpublished interview, p. 30. Lubineau, then a graduate student, later translated the interview into French and included it in the appendix to his thesis. The original transcript cited here, therefore, is the more accurate of the two.
5Ibid., p. 33.
6Whitney, interview with the author.
7Whitney, in Lubineau, “Interview Stanley Whitney,” p. 32.
9See Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1957, Eng. trans. Maria Jolas (New York: Penguin, 2014).
Text © Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, adapted from Stanley Whitney (London: Lund Humphries, 2020); artwork © Stanley Whitney; photos: courtesy the artist