Stanley Whitney makes painting look so easy. He covers his canvases in loose grids of stacked colors. Simple recipe, no?
Yes, it is simple, but difficult to finesse. He free-hands the rows of colors. No pencil lines or perfectly taped boundaries are used, so his courses often slant down as he works from left to right, top to bottom. Some of the color blocks are transparent; others over-painted several times to get the desired color. Some are thickly layered so that the brushwork shows; other times, turpentine has been scrubbed on so that the transparent color drips down the face of the canvas.
These are Whitney’s mature works. The artist was born in Philadelphia and will be 71 this year. He received his master of arts degree from the Kansas City Art Institute and his bachelor of fine arts degree from Yale University. He works in Parma, Italy, and New York. It was just in the past two years that his biography began to list solo shows that include the word “museum” in the location.
He’s finally made the jump from gallery exhibits. This Focus show will be his first museum exhibit in Texas.
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Even though he moved through academia in the ’60s and ’70s, he was a latecomer to abstract painting. It wasn’t until a trip to Italy and Egypt in the early ’90s that the strength of the architecture pulled him away from landscapes. He was entranced by the order of things, from the buildings such as the Coliseum and the pyramids, to the ways funerary urns were stacked in the catacombs. However, he was unable to abandon color; he began using color as his building blocks, and each block of color owes some allegiance to the history of painting.
In a sense, the history of painting is there on Whitney’s canvas, from the first transparent veils of color to the heavy impastos of a finished surface.
“I want all the things about painting in one painting,” he says.
So even though people engage him in discussions about the grid, or the structure of his work, it’s really about the noise the color makes. And this is what dictates the way he paints — each color and how it transitions to the next is carefully considered.
Sometimes clear hues of complementary colors line up side by side, a strong cobalt blue next to cadmium orange. Other rectangles are layers of many colors, so that result is an ill-defined color that requires many sort-ofs — sort of gray that is kind of green with a sort of reddish tinge. How these strong hues and wishy-washy tints live next to each other on their canvas neighborhood is the trick.
“The transition is the hardest thing,” Whitney says.
Finding the balance of dark and light, transparency and opaque, and color next to color is tricky. “If it feels right and feels good and makes sense in the painting, I leave it,” says Whitney, who mixes his oil paints in small faux-wood salad bowls. Often it takes days to get a painting right; occasionally it pulls together in a single sitting.
Whitney’s works have subtlety that is lost in reproduction. There are blocks of color that are so thinly painted, the medium breaks apart on the surface of the canvas, which gives it the appearance of wrinkled skin — or it is applied so thickly, you can see the hand of the artist as he layered colors one over another.
His painting Cool Breeze was one that took a day, and there are several panels of color that were thinly applied and seemed perfect. He admits he was surprised it came together so quickly.
The painting is named for his brother, whom Whitney says had the remarkable ability to disappear from a room or the family dinner table unnoticed. “They called him ‘Cool Breeze’ because he’d blow in and blow out. I liked how thin the paint was so I named it after him.”
The titles of his work are intentionally open to interpretation. He brought seven to the Modern: Love in the Time of War, Blue for You, Bird Calls, One Day, Kongo, Cool Breeze and, inexplicably, Untitled.
He explained his method of titling to curator Alison Hearst: “There are clues to who I am, what I read, what I see, where I travel, which are parts of the painting. Paintings are to be lived with, pondered and wandered through, and the titles have that aspect to them, too. In the end you want paintings you can live with every day.”
Focus: Stanley Whitney
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
- Through April 2
- 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
- 817-738-9215, www.themodern.org