Whitney’s Brick-Like Compositions Teamed With Glowing, Sunny Hues

The press release accompanying an exhibition of paintings by Stanley Whitney, on view at Esso Gallery in Chelsea, contains a lengthy excerpt from an essay by one Teresio Ottavio Camenzio. He describes Mr. Whitney’s abstractions thus: “Painting, from within the picture.”

This turn of phrase suggests that painting is a process within which the artist immerses himself. Mr. Camenzio goes on to relate that for Mr. Whitney, putting brush to canvas “reveal[s] his wishes differently from how he expected.” Surprise, then, is an integral component of Mr. Whitney’s art.

That an artist is a medium for forces beyond his control is a sentimental notion, but that’s not to say it can’t be true. Works of art-the good ones, anyway-share a startling inevitability, the sense that they sprung, fully formed, from the materials in which they were shaped. How many artists are willing to abdicate their egos to such a self-abnegating endeavor?

Mr. Whitney does, though not as much as one would like. Each of his squarish canvases is a brick-like accumulation of color separated by a series of horizontal striations. The paintings expand toward the center with a series of large rectangles aligned roughly along the midpoint of the canvas. These are topped off by a similar but smaller array of forms; a row of two horizontal rectangles is tucked underneath. All of it is fitted within the parameters of the canvas, like cardboard boxes inside a storage cabinet.

This standardized armature admits to discrepancies in scale, shape and rhythm-but just barely and begrudgingly. Unable to relinquish a reliance on all-over uniformity, Mr. Whitney’s attitude toward composition-the considered and balanced arrangement of dissimilar forms-is neither casual nor rigorous: It’s disregarded. The recurring superstructure, however much it may be tweaked here and there, isn’t an organic element of the work’s shaping; it’s an imposition that stifles the paintings. Flexibility is called for. The artist could ease up on the controls.

Then again, Mr. Whitney probably depends on paint-handling and color to enliven the regulated compositions. To his credit, he almost gets away with it. Possessed of a distinctive touch-offhand, a little cloddish, scruffy but never sloppy-Mr. Whitney is loath to overstate his case and, as such, discloses a modest and amiable nature. The variegated palette brimming with chalky purples, sharp yellows and bright aquamarines (to name just three hues) is, in its warmth and bumptiousness, of a piece. The layered surfaces and glowing tones would suggest the influence of Mark Rothko, though Mr. Whitney doesn’t partake of existentialist romance; color, for him, is a conduit to joy. The pictures are sunny in the best sense of the word.

The finest of them has been corralled into the back gallery, presumably because of its size (large) and its character: It’s the only picture that strays from the signature format. Admittedly, introducing an extra row of color may not seem like a big deal, but in an art of circumscribed form, an extra bit of not much can mean quite a lot-in this case, a more expansive sense of ease. In the end, you’ll thank Mr. Whitney for pointing out just how pleasurable pure color can be.

Stanley Whitney: New Paintings is at the Esso Gallery, 531 West 26th Street, until April 15.

Plain and Simple

What do you do with a one-trick pony who specializes in exercises in futility? If you’re the Museum of Modern Art, you honor him with a mid-career retrospective. “A survey of what, exactly?” is the question likely to be prompted by the exhibition Thomas Demand.

The young German artist uses a camera to take sizable pictures, but he’s not a photographer; the camera is employed solely as a means of documenting the meticulous constructions that Mr. Demand crafts from colored paper and cardboard. What does he construct? Orange peels, a forest, a field of grass, but mostly architectural interiors-typically, anonymous spaces redolent of bureaucracy and, here and there, more intimate environs (a bathtub filled with soapy water, for instance). Mr. Demand gleans most of his subjects from mass-media sources.

Getting things straight, then: Mr. Demand appropriates existing images and makes them into life-size maquettes, which he photographs before destroying; after which he makes a big print of the photo and encases it under a glossy sheet of plexiglass. What’s depressing about this process is how it so consistently thwarts our interest. The elaborate, handmade maquettes must be amazing to see-but Mr. Demand won’t let us see them. The photographs, conversely, aren’t anything to see. (There’s more to being a photographer, after all, than pushing a button.) In point of fact, Mr. Demand doesn’t do anything-he’s too busy divorcing himself from the art he’s ostensibly making.

What we are left with is a brand of nihilism so predigested and cute that you could sell it to Fischer Price at a profit. As for the attendant literature, with its weighty allusions to Nazi Germany, the 2000 American Presidential election and other “fables of democracy,” it’s bullshit, plain and simple, that you couldn’t sell to anyone-except, it appears, to our premier museum of modern art.

Thomas Demand is at MoMA, 11 West 53rd Street, until May 30.