IN THE 1990s, Stanley Whitney spent five years in Rome. He says he arrived in 1992 or 1993 and that living and working in Rome was a turning point, the beginning of his “mature” work.
Whitney speaks in a language of color, working within a grid structure mindful of rhythm, density, and space.
Visually, the work references Piet Mondrian and American quilt-making. Methodically, his square compositions are realized in the manner of a jazz performance—through improvisation and call-and-response.
“When I get to Rome, I’m sort of painting these kind of landscape spaces (in terms of the orientation of his canvas). There’s space and then on that space or in that space is color,” he says in a recent video interview.
“That’s how I’m thinking. And I start thinking, wait a minute, maybe space is in the color. I’m thinking to myself, I want space like Pollock, but I want color and depth like Rothko, which seems so opposite of each other. How could I have that kind of idea?”
Nearly three decades later, his first exhibition with Gagosian and first major exhibition in Rome was scheduled for April 4-June 26, but it has yet to open because the gallery is closed due to the COVID-19 virus.
At Gagosian Rome, he planned to present new paintings made in the United States and Italy, instead the gallery is showcasing his work online. Gagosian’s website currently features an Artist Spotlight (April 15-21) focused on Whitney; “Stanley Whitney: The Ruins,” an article about the artist in the spring 2020 edition of the gallery’s quarterly publication; and a video interview with the artist conducted in his New York studio by Louise Neri, a director at Gagosian.
“I just followed the painting process and it told me what to do. And little by little, the mark-making, the hand gesture, started to turn into shape. Which I was quite surprised about. But then I realized: the color is in the space.”
— Stanley Whitney
In the conversation, Whitney reveals that the format of his paintings was inspired by a visit to the Etruscan Museum in Rome. There, he saw sarcophagi stacked one on top of the other. He suddenly thought: “I’ll stack the color in my paintings.”
Whitney talks about the influence of Mondrian and Giorgio Morandi, as well as Pollock, Rothko, and Robert Rauschenberg. He also recalls the early, foundational role of jazz in his practice.
“By the time I was in high school, around 1964, I was listening to Ornette Coleman’s Shape of Jazz to Come, John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus, and others; these musicians were great revelations to me,” Whitney says. “Before that, I was thinking about joining the army! [laughs] But when I discovered jazz, I realized that there was a whole other world. So when I first went to art school, I thought of Cézanne in terms of Charlie Parker and the rhythm.”
The interview begins with Morandi:
- Whitney: When I was in Italy, I started looking at Giorgio Morandi. Morandi was key to my being in Italy: the way he put things together, how quiet they were, how things touch.
Neri: He rarely used outlines.
Whitney: Yes, exactly, it was more about shape and mass. So I started getting rid of some of my own gestures. I was freaking out, wondering what it was going to turn into. But I just followed the painting process and it told me what to do. And little by little, the mark-making, the hand gesture, started to turn into shape. Which I was quite surprised about. But then I realized: the color is in the space.
Born in Philadelphia, Whitney splits his time between New York and Parma, Italy, about five hours north of Rome. Gagosian does not represent Whitney, but looks forward to future projects with him beyond the Rome exhibition, a gallery spokesperson told Culture Type.
Toward the end of the conversation, Whitney explains his painting process. He says: “I just start painting. I don’t plan it out. Since I know what the form is, I can start anywhere, get there immediately, and just keep working. I don’t make color studies in advance. I put a color down and then I respond to it. Once you have something on the canvas, it’s the beginning of a relationship and I start to deal with it.” CT
“Stanley Whitney” is on view at Gagosian Rome, April 4-Jun2 26, 2020. In order to contain the spread of COVID-19, the gallery is temporarily closed. Check directly with Gagosian for scheduling updates
TOP IMAGE: At left, June 18, 2019: Stanley Whitney poses in front of one of his artworks on display during the opening the exhibition “Stanley Whitney/Yves Klein: This Array of Colors” at the Cayon Gallery in Mahon, Mallorca island, Spain. | Photo by EFE/ David Arquimbau Sintes, Courtesy Gagosian
READ MORE of the interview with Stanley Whitney conducted by Louise Neri
STANLEY WHITNEY, “Untitled,” 2018 (oil on linen, 12 x 12 inches). | © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian
STANLEY WHITNEY, “Roma 20,” 2020 (oil on linen, 24 x 24 inches). | © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian
STANLEY WHITNEY, “Stay Song 60,” 2019 (oil on linen, 40 x 40 inches). | © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian
STANLEY WHITNEY, “Bertacca 4,” 2019 (oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches). | © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Giorgio Benni. Courtesy Gagosian
STANLEY WHITNEY, “In Memory of Tomorrow,” 2020 (oil on linen, 96 x 96 inches). | © Stanley Whitney. Photo: Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian
Several recent volumes explore the work of Stanley Whitney, including “Stanley Whitney: In the Color” authored by Adrianna Campbell; “Stanley Whitney: Sketchbook,” and “Stanley Whitney,” published by Lisson Gallery. “Stanley Whitney: Afternoon Paintings,” a slipcased volume, is forthcoming next month. Authored by Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, who wrote about the artist for Gagosian Quarterly, “Stanley Whitney (Contemporary Painters Series)” is expected in August.
SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.