New York

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, graphite on Japanese rice paper, 12 5/8 × 16 7/8".

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, graphite on Japanese rice paper, 12 5/8 × 16 7/8".

Stanley Whitney

Stanley Whitney, Untitled, 1996, graphite on Japanese rice paper, 12 5/8 × 16 7/8".

I’d been waiting for a show of Stanley Whitney’s drawings for a long time. Catching sight of them periodically in his studio, or in the back room of a gallery, I’d always been amazed. Whitney is, as should now be apparent, among the supreme colorists of contemporary painting, but what’s amazed me in his drawings has been his mysterious ability to communicate the variable weights and densities of color, as he does in his paintings—without actually using color at all, instead relying on pure line to express, as if through metaphor, chromatic differentiae.

Conjuring color through its absence turns out to be just one of Whitney’s tricks with drawing. This densely hung selection of seventy-five works on paper, all Untitled, included works in both black-and-white (mostly graphite) and color (acrylic marker, colored pencil, or crayon) and showed unexpected range. This diversity might have surprised many of the artist’s admirers, who have grown used to his rigorous adherence to the same basic structure for all of his paintings: rows of loosely rectangular color zones separated by a mortar of horizontal bands. Here, a pair of drawings using water-soluble crayon and dated 2009 hewed closest to the paintings’ recipe. When the artist maps out such structures using line in place of color, the drawings can read like abstract comics—though it’s the rare comics artist who can coordinate the dynamics of the individual frame in tandem with those of the page as a whole as adroitly as Whitney does.

Whitney has often spoken in interviews of how the ancient architecture he saw on a 1992 trip to Italy and Egypt gave him the idea that he could stack colors in this way, but here, works from 1989 through 1991 showed him already on the way to that realization. He was still teaching himself how to put that idea into practice in another group dating to about 1994–97. The forms he was using were not yet the irregular quasi rectangles he was later to settle on; the main shapes were more often roughly circular, meaning that there were in-between spaces to fill. These interstices are not exactly backgrounds—individually colored, they do not suggest a continuous space behind the primary spherical forms—but they create an alternation of major and minor elements, which later would occur only on the horizontal plane.

The drawings dating from the past few years, on the other hand, suggest that Whitney may now be questioning the blocky architectural structure that has served him so well for the past couple of decades. Some incorporate inscriptions: NO TO PRISON LIFE, RIMBAUD WENT TO AFRICA . . . , DANCE WITH ME HENRI, HOOT& HOLLER. Only one of the earlier drawings contains writing, a 1990 piece that illuminates the words HEY JIMMY / AIN'T YOU HEARD / RACE AND ART / ARE FAR APART / POSTCARD FROM LANSTON HUGHES TO JAMES / BALDWIN 1962; I’m not sure whether Hughes’s apothegm names a problem or its solution. In any case, the use in that drawing of letter shapes as the work’s main theme—not a captionlike addition as in the more recent drawings using text—highlights the way the sometimes insouciantly scrawled marks in many of the drawings early and late can vaguely suggest handwriting.

A couple of works from 2009 suggest the graphite outlines of the gridded blocks of color typical of Whitney’s paintings. But when he creates similar structures by means of variously colored acrylic markers in some works of 2013, we can no longer read them as outlining potential color areas—the lines themselves function as independent chromatic elements against the white ground of the paper. In another drawing from that year, the lines completely break with the grid to become wavy, overlapping meanders somewhat reminiscent of the gestures in Brice Marden’s paintings, and many of the most recent works follow suit. Whitney is broaching a lighter, airier approach to color. Does that portend an unexpected shift in his practice as a painter? Not one to jump into waters whose depths he hasn’t tested, Whitney won’t mind waiting as long as it takes before he’s ready to show us where his experiments are leading.

Barry Schwabsky