New York

Stanley Whitney

Esso Gallery

Someone’s always ready to lay down the law for abstract painting—to let it know what it’s not allowed to do. Most recently, I’ve noticed art historian Eric de Chassey refusing it the one possibility that used to be considered its very essence: Abstraction is alive and well, he claims, but what’s now taboo is “restricting oneself to purportedly ‘pure painting’ or ‘painting-as-painting.’” Yet what’s “restricting” for many artists may be perfect freedom for others. Such would seem to be the case with Stanley Whitney and his exuberantly unadulterated abstraction.

I’ve always admired Whitney’s paintings taken one by one. What I’ve never been able to quite wrap my head around is his persistence in using the same format in each canvas for so many years—his apparent refusal of any overt development. Each of his paintings is landscape format or square, and the overwhelming majority are composed of four horizontal rows of colored rectangles. These rows are separated from one another and from the top and bottom edges of the canvas by one or more thin horizontal bands that form a sort of cushion between levels. The top two rows of rectangles are always taller than the lower two rows, which therefore seem to have something of the supporting function of the predella in an altarpiece—they give the painting a lift.

Yet the immediate association is more quotidian: Each painting is like a brick wall, with rows of different-size, distinctively handled blocks of color cemented together by lines of still more color. Of his contemporaries, only Mary Heilmann handles color as real, concrete stuff in quite the same way. Whitney is a workman, but one whose raw material is the stuff of sensuality. As with any brick wall, the mason wants his units to stay in place. Whitney’s do. Each one, for all its idiosyncrasies of shape and texture—they are overtly handmade, not machined; that is, painterly rather than hard-edge—feels definitive in its function and identity. If painting is a wall, it is one that can stand only if constructed in a way that takes into account the inherent irregularity of its components. It bows and bends the better to support itself.

What finally, in this show, reconciled me to Whitney’s use of a single recurrent structure was not the fact that his bracing chords of color have now been urged to even richer, more complicated harmonies than before, though that is the case; it was the alternation of differently scaled works, ranging from the massed choirs of Red Highrise, 2004, and The Underside of the Sky, 2005, which carry a lot more weight than even their six-foot squares would imply, to several one-foot square canvases. The fact that each one held its own proved to me that what I had seen as the “same” structure was no such thing—each painting was conceived individually, since the same composition could never work in the same way on both very large and very small scales. When color is the structural basis, shape alone can never be decisive. Contrary to first impressions, Whitney never repeats himself; the steady, joyous pulse of his paintings is simply an indication that he never lets himself get distracted.

Barry Schwabsky