Friday, August 7, 2015

Stanley Whitney @ Karma | Step by step


"That’s the way I want to move—step by step by step. My work changes very slowly……    
Taking every step—that’s something I stole from Mondrian."  
Stanley Whitney  (2014 interview with Alteronce Gumby, BOMB's Oral History Project)


The springboard for this post was a recent visit to Karma (in Manhattan's East Village) to see an exhibit of Stanley Whitney's paintings and studies from the 1990s (up through August 16).  In the spacious exhibition area in the back of the gallery are five large paintings lush with Whitney's vibrant palette, but also filled with very energized mark-making that contrasts with the clarity of his current work. In these paintings, the compositional foundation for the work that would follow is already in place. 

 
Stanley Whitney, In Our Songs, 1996     oil on linen,  77 x 103"
Stanley Whitney, The Trials of Misfortune, 1996     oil on linen,  80 x 103"


These large paintings are marvelous to see, but it is the wall of 84 small works in the front area of the gallery that I find particularly captivating.  Hung salon style are 31 oil on canvas studies (roughly 7 x 9.5") and 53 works on paper (either crayon or graphite on paper, various sizes ranging from 9 x 12"  up  to 17 x 20"). 



Installation detail of small works by Stanley Whitney @ Karma

I'd been thinking about the role of small studies (both drawn and painted) in the evolution of my own work, and seeing this wall of Whitney's work served as a prompt to write about it. For visual artists, studies are a way to refine and clarify ideas. Starting with a familiar vocabulary of marks, composition, and palette, and working through endless iterations, studies offer a path towards moving beyond what is already known. Not to be confused with preparatory sketches for larger works, studies are a form of visual brainstorming--done without editing or censorship. Relatively modest in size, they require little preparation and often can be executed fairly rapidly. While some artists use bound sketchbooks for their studies so that the sequence remains intact, others, myself included, often hang them up on the studio walls, always within sight. 

The array of small studies in this exhibit should serve to dispel the notion that creativity is driven by inspiration. Of course--we see things, we go places, we have conversations that may spark us to think in new ways. And Whitney has unequivocally stated in several interviews that a visit to Egypt in the mid-1990s transformed the way he thought about space. But inspiration must be cultivated. We have to ready ourselves to be open to the 'Aha moment'. And that happens through the daily habit of drawing; it happens because of  the willingness to engage with the familiar over and over and over again, moving in small steps, until we can take a leap.


Stanley Whitney in his Cooper Square studio, 1983. Photo by Marina Adams
From this 1983 photo, it is clear that Whitney's studies have been a constant presence in his studio.  Small drawings (whether with paint, graphite, or crayons) are central to his process.   ".... The drawings were very important to me: they were key to figuring out the space. Even now with the paintings, no matter how structured they are, the lucid stuff really belongs to drawing." (2008 interview with John Yau, Brooklyn Rail). 

Whitney's compositional vocabulary has long revolved around subverting the grid.  By the 1990s, he was working with a loosely defined structure that incorporated rows of repeated forms interspersed with often spindly horizontal elements. Unlike the airy and majestic paintings now on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, executed from 2008 to 2015 and dominated by color, in the works of the 1990s line and gesture vie for attention alongside the color. Whitney's graffiti-like, almost scribbled lines seem ready to burst out of the the irregular orbs and rectangles that parade across the rows. The thin, horizontal bands provide an overall structure to works that are densely packed and appear ready to burst from the edges.

These crayon on paper drawings date from the mid-1990s and are approximately 9 1/2 x 12 inches.

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, crayon on paper


By examining Whitney's studies, you see him explore how the rows communicate, how forms variously open up across a row or elbow tightly together.  You see him grappling with space, color, and with the tension between line and color.  Rapidly executed studies make visible the many permutations that are possible within a given framework and ultimately allow us to leap (or slowly step) to a new place.  The scope of Whitney's studies reveal the diligence and concentration of a mind and hand always at work, continuously exploring and questioning step-by-step, asking why this and not that?

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 12.5 x 17"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 16.75 x 20"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 16.5 x 20.5"   photo courtesy of Karma

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, Graphite lead on rice paper, 12.5 x 17"   photo courtesy of Karma
The 30 small oil on canvas paintings,  dating from 1991-1994  and approximately 7 x 9.5",  are in some instances more open with the forms afloat within each row, while in others the forms are jam-packed and more spatially confined. In these small paintings, Whitney has focused on color and composition, and there is little evidence of the frenzied mark-making that dominate the graphite and crayon drawings. From the changing placement of the repeated circular forms, he appears to be grappling with the construction of space. As time passes, we see the an occasional rectangular form and a change in how he is defining the space.

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1992   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1993   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma
STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1994   oil on canvas    7 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

STANLEY WHITNEY, Untitled, 1994   oil on canvas    7.125 x 9.5 inches    photo courtesy of Karma

From the 84 studies on exhibit (and I suspect there may have been many more) it is evident that Whitney was well prepared for that 'Aha moment' in Egypt in 1996. 

"And as I said, I always had the color. The color was never an issue. The issue was, how was I going to make the color subject matter. And I didn't really know that this was my big question all those years, but that's what I was asking. I was always working on how to put the color in the right space. So, Egypt was the last piece of the puzzle. Density. I realized that I could just pack the color together."  (2014 interview with Alteronce Gumby, BOMB's Oral History Project)

Karma has just published a book featuring Whitney's work from 1975 to 2015. Click here for more information.

To read the in-depth interview on BOMB, click here.   

4 comments:

  1. Very interesting blog with so beautiful art works !!!
    Have a nice summer day Tamar !!!

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  2. Wonderful post, it's a really great insight into another artists working methods. I love the graphite studies and the shot of his studio.

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