Joy is an uncommon aspiration in contemporary abstraction. The easy gratification found in art exclusively intent on formal pleasure leads many artists to pursue other approaches, such as irony or the suggestion of narrative. At a minimum, a countervailing formal dissonance is usually present—think of the peculiarities of a Charline von Heyl or a Raoul De Keyser. Stanley Whitney’s paintings, however, are unusual in their candor and plainness. They are bold declarations that name color as their principal subject. To his credit, Whitney evades the soppy trap inherent in such an ordinary commitment; a lesser artist would likely falter into cliché.
Whitney avoids empty formula by seeking, in his own words, “a space in color”—to paint “intelligent color, not decorative color.” One can question what this means, but these directives give vitality to Whitney’s art. All the works in this exhibition showcase this uncertain aim. For instance, Love in the Time of War, 2016, features stacks of colorful shapes, curiously bent like flexible Lego bricks. The canvas contains a landscape of mark-making; one section brushed vigorously, another flat, undisturbed, and opaque. This variation of touch and the wobbly line that delineates these gravity-bound slabs of color breathes life into the paintings. For all their structural repetition, the works have an unpredictable looseness; in Kongo, 2014, one is confronted by a turpentine-brown slush, pitted like a cratered moon and offset by an adjacent pink and a nearby resonant black. The impact of diverse paint applications demonstrates that, despite any sentimentalities of Whitney’s project, a Morandi-like directness remains an effective connection to the human facture of painting.