Painted in 2016—the year after Stanley Whitney’s seminal exhibition at the Studio Museum, Harlem—Light a New Wilderness is a vivid large-scale work that demonstrates his lifelong preoccupation with colour. Spanning two and a half metres in height and width, it comprises stacked blocks of bright tonal fields, interspersed with horizontal strips of orange, red, green and pink. Painted freehand, the work’s grid-like structure dissolves into a shimmering interplay of hues, with traces of the artist’s hand visible in his loose brushwork and thinly-applied layers. Arriving in New York as a young artist in 1968, Whitney diverged from many of his contemporaries, finding inspiration in sources ranging from American quilt-making and experimental jazz to the Old Masters and the Fauves. His travels in Italy and Egypt during the 1990s brought about an important shift in his practice, with structures such as the Colosseum, the pyramids and the Palazzo Farnese inspiring his use of interlocking geometric blocks. By drawing widely from the world around him, Whitney creates an abstract language free from dogma and theory, guided instead by the natural friction, harmony and resonance between colours and forms.
I have to let the colour take me wherever it takes me … The idea is that colour cannot be controlled and that it has total freedom”
Until I went to Egypt, I had this idea that if I put the colours right next to one another there wouldn’t be any air. I wanted colour like Rothko, but I wanted air like Pollock. I didn’t realise that the space was in the colour”
The last five years, in particular, have witnessed a renewed surge of interest in Whitney’s practice: following his exhibition in Harlem, he mounted a major solo show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, in 2017, as well as participating in Documenta 14 that year. The fundamentals of his practice, however, remain unchanged, and are fuelled to a large extent by his musical sensibilities. Inspired by the work of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Parker and others, Whitney composes according to an improvisatory logic, thinking in terms of harmony, discord, rhythm and counterpoint. The results, for him, dictate their own destiny: ‘I follow the paintings—the paintings run to the door, through the door, around the corner, and I run after them’, he explains (S. Whitney, quoted in A. D’Souza, ‘“The Colour Makes the Structure”: Stanley Whitney Paints a Picture’, ARTnews, 30 May 2017). The present work’s square format represents another key element of his recent practice, born of a desire to move away from the horizontal ‘landscape’ connotations of his previous work and to embrace a more architectural aesthetic. For Whitney, who returns to his Italian studio every summer, the work flickers with the same tantalising promises as light filtering through ancient stone: a gateway to wildernesses new and old.
Lot Essay Header Image: The present lot illustrated (detail).