New York

Stanley Whitney, james brown sacrifice to apollo, 2008, oil on linen, 72 × 72".

Stanley Whitney, james brown sacrifice to apollo, 2008, oil on linen, 72 × 72".

Stanley Whitney

Studio Museum in Harlem/Karma

Stanley Whitney, james brown sacrifice to apollo, 2008, oil on linen, 72 × 72".

In a career going back to the early 1970s, Stanley Whitney is having a moment, with simultaneous uptown and downtown shows that drew excited responses in the press. This for abstract paintings that are structurally easy to describe as blocks of color set in stacks and rows, a grid format that Whitney has lately brought to a pitch of refinement but that has been present or foreshadowed in his work for a long time. You might think, What’s the fuss? There are many precedents for this kind of painting, and indeed it’s essentially familiar—which, though, doesn’t mean its position is comfortable. A full-length essay on Whitney would set up a context for him in the up-and-down fortunes of abstract painting in the United States since at least the 1930s, when abstraction played underdog to American Regionalism; would balance the triumph of the New York School in midcentury against that of figurative neo-expressionism in the 1980s; would mention the current popularity of what the critic Walter Robinson has called “zombie formalism”; would note particulars specific to the reception history of abstract art made by black artists like Whitney; would observe that for a lot of artists today, painting itself is old hat (intellectually old hat, at any rate, even while doing perfectly well, thank you, in the market); and finally would say that for an artist of integrity, like Whitney, none of this matters much except to the extent that he deserves credit for ignoring it, having followed his own lights despite all. And that Whitney certainly has done.

Our fictional essayist would then have to talk about the work itself. Writers on Whitney have a habit of pulling in music, a maneuver I’d be skeptical of if Whitney did not do it too, memorably conjoining Cézanne and Charlie Parker, amid other musical remarks, in an interview with Lowery Stokes Sims in the Studio Museum catalogue. (The Karma show too had a book, and a valuable one—a kind of printed retrospective without text.) The titles of such paintings as In Our Songs, 1996; james brown sacrifice to apollo, 2008; My Tina Turner, 2013; and My Name Is Peaches, 2015 (a quote from Nina Simone) also make reference to music. But even if these sounds are in Whitney’s mind, and even if it’s not just fun but worth it to think of music’s tonal and chordal changes in watching his colors chase and shift across the surfaces of his pictures, the real rewards here are in the sophisticated control of a visual vocabulary that is both delimited and broad.

In each of the paintings in the Studio Museum show—and this was also true of the earlier, more graphically expressive paintings at Karma and of many of the works on paper in both places—rows of abutting colored panes, one row above another, are separated by colored horizontal bars. The determinant of each painting is its palette, from the ringing contrasts of james brown sacrifice to apollo, for example, which ranges across and among the three primaries, to the complementaries of Loveroot, 2008, or The Blue, 2012, in which closer, darker chromatic combinations make for more muted and somber effects. These qualities buttonhole us up front, but we then move on to the works’ many complicating elements: the way the horizontal lines of the grid sometimes share colors with the panels they touch, softening the structure as they merge; the variety of shades of one color that may appear in a painting, in a game of cooler and warmer, recession and advance; the different ways of dealing with the canvases’ edges and corners; the brushy irregularities of the lines and surfaces, never quite straight, never quite flat, often with traces of earlier layers showing through; and the ultimate unpredictability of a structure that at first seems a formula but is never exactly repeated. All this is a delight for lovers of abstract painting, and even those who doubt the value of trying to move higher on its well-trodden slopes—Sisyphus, hero or schmuck? as a friend of mine puts it—may find in Whitney someone to convince them.

David Frankel