Where Color Takes Shape: Stanley Whitney at Lisson Gallery
Stanley Whitney: In the Color at Lisson Gallery
November 3 to December 21, 2018
504 West 24th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
138 Tenth Avenue, between 19th and 20th streets
New York City, lissongallery.com
People sometimes bemoan the state of formal abstraction.The critique is as follows: It’s repetitive, stale, too often attached to the grid. Yet, this is not a new critique. The grid remains, so long as the convention of a rectangular support remains. Even the most sophisticated High Renaissance painting responds to the grid – breaks with it, negates it or conforms to it. Rosalind E. Krauss bankrolled her early career attacking it. Without offering an apology for the modernist preoccupation with the grid, however, I would argue that sometimes exploring formal conventions can expand the language of once well-worn trajectories. Such is the case with Stanley Whitney’s solo exhibition, “In the Color,”at Lisson Gallery.
Whitney came of age, as an artist, with peers such as David Reed, the late Jack Whitten and the slightly older Ed Clarke. The late 1970s were a time when some didn’t believe that any kind of painting was possible; others still rejected color as too tied to a cultural moment, deemed it superficial or lacking in seriousness. The art world periodically likes to relive this hangover, usually after binging on candy-coated color that’s all too easy to like. Color is most interesting when it is incredibly specific—otherwise it can become generic.
In the show’s title work, In the Color, (2018) Whitney uses a perfect square measuring 8 x 8 feet, and employs a loose lattice, vibrant grid structure, with three horizontal bands unevenly spaced to create spatial dimension. Cadmium yellow on the left side of the canvas, cadmium red on the right, a few cobalts, teals and viridians closer to the middle, and a few pastel pinks and yellows dead center create a patchwork motif. It’s in the placement of rectangles and their sameness or relative proximity to other hues where color begins to take shape, to create space. Color becomes subject and object.
Whitney’s grids aren’t dogmatic. He allows a few drips on the right side of the canvas; a deep, cadmium red bleeds into a peach-pink, a blue-grey rectangle bleeds down the bottom left corner of the painting allowing for transparency. It’s in moments like these where Whitney seems to harken back to his earlier paintings of the 1980s and ‘90s. Using a loose geometry and a range of natural color, Whitney has found a way around the static grid that neither negates it or simply repeats it. It is a playful response, a cartooning of the grid.
And cartooning is most evident in the drawings. In Untitled (2013), Whitney scribbles, scrawls, draws sharp verticals or horizontals and even swirling curlie-cues all in crayon.They all conform to the grid like structure, the bands, and vignettes, but the language of his line is buoyant and playful and nearly collapses a sense of structure at all. The drawings elicit a whimsical quality not often seen in abstract painting.
I first encountered Whitney’s early work in Raphael Rubinstein’s survey, “Reinventing Abstraction” at Cheim and Read in 2013. In the early ‘80s, David Reed and Jack Whitten famously found new technologies and employed theoretical or synthetic color to definitive aims, resulting in new discoveries. Meanwhile, Whitney was forming out of color field painting and gestural abstraction. With loosely scrawled or drawn gestures painted wet into wet and in partial grid-like formations, the frenetic energy of these early works burst with individual intensity, as if pulsating from within. A change of focus subsequently saw color begin to dominate the language and gesture to take a more secondary role. The show at Lisson Gallery has bothtendencies on display. Nearly a survey, it spans some 22 years of paintings and drawings. A good example of his mid-career work is Untitled, (1996) in which Whitney employs the same basic compositional structures that would come to form his mature work but including distinctly colored grounds to form the underpainting for each rectangle. Flatly painted opaque layers of light blues, white, pale yellows, bright reds and deep blacks all act as placeholders for painterly activity. Inside these self-contained vignettes, Whitney’s hand is incredibly evident, deft, and robust. His brushwork is gestural, at other times drips or stains in a variety of bright oranges, creamy yellows, and grass greens to punctuate the intensity of the darker grounds. Alternatively, crimson reds, Pthalo greens and cobalt blues contrast the lighter grounds. It is one of themost lively paintings in this show.
Whitney’s paintings indicate a deep lineage back to Philip Guston and other giants of the New York School, while also pivoting in a new direction, towards territory uniquely his own, one that collapses subject and object, color and form and mesh into inseparable space.