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signed and dated 'Stanley Whitney 1999' (on the reverse)
oil on linen
72 ½ x 85 in. (184.2 x 215.9 cm.)
Painted in 1999.
The artist
Lisson Gallery, London/New York/Shanghai
Acquired from the above by the present owner
S. Whitney, Stanley Whitney, New York, 2015, n.p. (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

A staunch proponent of painted abstraction, Stanley Whitney is one of a handful of artists that critic Peter Schjeldahl referred to as “resiliently individualist American painters,” (P. Schjeldahl, “Shapes and Colors,” New Yorker, July 27, 2015). Among his like-minded colleagues are the likes of David Reed, Mary Heilmann, and Jack Whitten, all of whom have eschewed the mainstream trends in an effort to more fully realize their strongest work. Achieving a degree of success at a time when many Black American artists felt pressure to turn toward figuration in order to represent social struggles, Whitney dug in his heels and made a stand in the nonrepresentational mode. Moving to New York in the late 1960s, he was introduced to the work of Barnett Newman and the color field painters, and the realization that such power could come from the use of pure color and shape changed his working practice forever. Schjeldahl, reviewing Whitney’s first solo museum exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, noted, “The glamour of the work alerts you to an onset of beauty, pending the appropriate feeling and an endorsement in thought. But the juxtapositions and the compositional rhythms of the colors, jarring ever so slightly, won’t resolve into unity. What’s going on? Does the artist aim at order and miss, or does he try, and fail, to destroy it? It’s as if you can’t quite get started looking, but you can stop only by force of will” (Ibid.).

The delicate dance Whitney weaves between order and chaos in his heavily worked grids sets up a visual tension that entices and excites. Remaining vehemently focused on his own exploration of chromatic relationships and their place in abstract painting, the artist’s oeuvre is a testament to the power of a painter’s will. Stanley Whitney will be the subject of a major retrospective exhibition organized by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, opening in 2023.

“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.” Stanley Whitney

Delineated into four horizontal rows, Untitled is a canvas rife with expressive color and energetic brushwork within an orderly construct. The top row is made up of six blocks in overlapping jewel tones that glow with an internal light. Whitney paints over an initial layer with a secondary color and leaves just enough of the original that it peers from between the scumble of lines like a lantern through the occluding branches of a forest. The second and third rows continue this trend but are slowly given over to more dense applications of paint that begin to drip and merge into the subsequent register below. The last row is a more claustrophobic array of several smaller squares that are nearly solid in their pigment, only allowing a small amount of the buttery yellow background to glint forth. Pulling from sources as diverse as the works of Piet Mondrian, experimental jazz, and the legacy of American quilting, Whitney organizes his canvases around rectilinear forms and lines in various competing and complementary colors.

Speaking about his life and working methods with colleague David Reed, Whitney notes, “The only system I have really is top, middle, and bottom. Even if I wanted to make a red painting, I couldn’t do it. I have to let the color take me wherever it takes me. [...] The idea is that color cannot be controlled and that it has total freedom. One color can’t overpower another color, you know. It’s very democratic, very New York.” (S. Whitney, quoted in D. Reed, “Stanley Whitney by David Reed,” BOMB, April 1, 2013). Balancing a diversity of hues within the composition so that each reacts and contributes to the others and the overall work is no easy feat. Whitney pushes here and there with each application of paint in an effort to reconcile the canvas into a perfect chromatic amalgam.

“Painting is like music. When I first saw Cézanne, I thought, This is like Charlie Parker, only painting. It’s like polyrhythm, a beat and a beat and a beat and a beat, like call and response, you know—in the middle of the beat there’s another beat. Cézanne was key and a big source for me. Going back and forth—the music, the color, the rhythm, the beat.” Stanley Whitney

Whitney’s paintings often adhere to a grid structure that shifts and changes from canvas to canvas in ways that still acknowledge the formula but provide drastically different results. In works like Untitled, Whitney improvises within an established ground in order to create something new. The relationship this process has to jazz is not lost on the artist, and he talks readily about the connections he has made between the history of art and the history of American music. “Painting is like music. When I first saw Cézanne, I thought, ‘This is like Charlie Parker, only painting.’ It’s like polyrhythm, a beat and a beat and a beat and a beat, like call and response, you know— in the middle of the beat there’s another beat. Cézanne was key and a big source for me. Going back and forth—the music, the color, the rhythm, the beat” (Ibid.). Keeping both auditory and visual history in mind while painting, Whitney is able to coalesce the two artforms into dynamic compositions that jostle and breathe like an absorptive painting or a mind-altering riff.

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