The Bright Vitality of the Paintings of Stanley Whitney

The veteran artist's work delights at a Harlem exhibition

Stanley Whitney in NY, courtesy

Why should I get a sense of huge railroad tracks and/or piles of suitcases marching across the paintings from Stanley Whitney’s imagery? I can’t say, but it’s so. Perhaps it’s because the artist’s colors and composition are the opposite of static–because the works have so much vitality and life.

The painter, a native of Philadelphia, was born in 1946, and took a BFA at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1968 before receiving an MFA from Yale in 1972.

Since then he has participated in myriads of group exhibitions, and had solo shows in Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium and Canada as well as the U.S. At present he divides his time between New York City and Parma, Italy.

Now he’s being showcased, well, at a New York museum. “Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange,” a show at the Studio Museum in Harlem through Oct. 28, consists of 28 paintings and works on paper created in the last seven years. It Is mounted in two spaces, the large entry gallery & the smaller one to the left of it.

The better part of the show is in the entry gallery. Here are displayed nine of the most perfect paintings in the show, all square and ranging in size from 20 x 20 inches to 8 x 8 feet.

All are similar, consisting of 2½ to 4½ rows of many differently-colored vertical rectangles, with the rows set off from each other by narrow horizontal bands of yet more contrasting shades. They are regular and geometrical, but not the more aggressive sort of starker hard-edged abstraction that one sees, for example, in Thomas Nozkowski or Ellsworth Kelly.

Stanley Whitney's Dance the Orange, 2013, Courtesy Frederick and Merle Fish
Stanley Whitney’s Dance the Orange, 2013, (Courtesy Frederick and Merle Fish)

Whitney’s way of applying paint instead leaves a softness and gentleness in his surfaces that gives them (and the observer) room to breathe. All are oil on linen, and their colors, if not always that unusual, go with each other very nicely and are warm and luscious themselves.

The highlight of this main gallery is the long wall on the right-hand side of that large entry gallery (if you’re standing at the entrance). Here are arrayed the three largest and most spectacular paintings, all 8 feet square. They are iHearts and Brains (2012), Elephant Memory (2014), and My Name is Peaches (2015).

Elephant Memory has this very sporting way that a maroon rectangle near the center up top progresses to another maroon rectangle in the second row over to the left, and then to a third maroon rectangle down in the third row, off to the right. This maroon is complemented by a lime rectangle up top and a band of lime between the top and second rows up – great combination.

Stanley Whitney My Name is Peaches, 2015 Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York
Stanley Whitney’s My Name is Peaches, 2015.
(Courtesy the artist and team (gallery, inc.), New York)

Rounding off that wall is the smallest painting in this gallery, The Blue, (2012), which – as its name suggests – is dominated by cool colors. Its brushwork is free, but I saw nothing of the deliberately accidental about it.

The second gallery in this exhibition, in addition to displaying the painting that gives the show its name, has a group of smaller works, often on paper and sometimes black and white or gouache, but all with similar imagery.

The luxurious catalog at The Studio Museum has essays by many distinguished contributors, but reproductions only of recent work, although Whitney has been active, and inventive, for decades.

The Bright Vitality of the Paintings of Stanley Whitney