There's also a lot of suggestions about what can be done on a symbolic day like today that doesn't involve complete radio silence. Today could mean taking some time to educate yourself and others about anti-racism initiatives. It could also mean using your platform to highlight the work of black creators.
I'd like to use my small platform to share the work of Stanley Whitney, an artist who, now in his seventies, has finally begun to be recognized for his vibrant, colorful abstract paintings.
Whitney says his paintings are all about opening up space, giving people room to wander and think. I'll include some of his works here along with many links so that you can explore more of his work.
Stanley Whitney was born in Philadelphia in 1946 and has been conducting these large scale chromatic experiments for decades. His trademark style involves a loosely assembled grid of very vivid, bright colors that have been boxed in by smaller strips.
At first glance, Whitney's canvases appear simple, and maybe even repetitive. Whitney has distilled his work down to the bare essentials: there are few decisions to be made in terms of shape and composition, allowing him to focus and consider only color. As you could guess from looking at his work, color is the most important element to Whitney and occupies almost all of his thinking.
Stanley Whitney, In the Color, 2018, Oil on canvas, 96 x 96 in
Stanley Whitney, Two Birds, 2015, Oil on canvas, 72 x 72 in
Stanley Whitney, Rare Bird, 2014, Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in
Seeing these works on a small screen, you might be able to come up with some analogies or references that you can see within the painting. The bright pop art palette that Whitney uses might bring to mind a supermarket shop full of cereal boxes or cleaning products, each block of color reaching out and asking for your attention.
But the large scale at which Whitney works makes his paintings difficult to assess as anything other than large windows or spaces within which we can move about. Imagine stepping up to an 8 foot by 8 foot canvas. These are paintings made to invite the viewer in, and if you were to step up close you could completely lose yourself inside the colors.
Upon closer examination, you are able to detect the hand of the artist, applying the paint in swishy, loose brushstrokes. You can begin to unpack the creation of each piece, detecting which layer of color is applied over which. You can see some areas where the wet paint has dribbled down the canvas, you can see other areas that are solidly painted with no modulation in color or texture.
What is it that drives these decisions?
Whitney likens his approach to jazz musicians in many ways. He lays down a color, steps back to consider its effect on himself and on the overall composition, then returns to the canvas to make another move. Whitney uses this type of call-and-response process to improvise within a set of preconceived restraints.
Consider the process that occurs on either side of making a gigantic square painting. Whitney spends time on small studies and exercises that begin as unplanned "afternoon paintings" which the artist creates as an excuse to use up excess paint. Whitney takes the unneeded paint on his palette to further experiment with color combinations, calling this process his "wood-shedding" time. These small pieces are similar to a jazz musician practicing out back in the wood shed, improvising and experimenting and generally just messing about, but seeing what can come of it.
“I think my paintings are very political. People are surprised by who makes them and where they come from — they raise a lot of questions. That opens up a lot of doors.
Whitney spent his younger years attempting to evade politics. In his Artsy interview, he speaks of wanting to get into the studio, shut out the world, and just paint.
In an interview with NAP, Whitney remarked that: "When I was in my 20’s people would come to me and say “Hey brother, what are you doing for the race? You’re making luxury items!” All the while I felt compelled to paint, it felt important for me to do but I couldn’t defend the position."
Yet the artist has spent time considering the intersection of art, race, and politics, as demonstrated by some of the works he presented in a 2017 show at Lisson Gallery in NYC. Some of the drawn pieces echo the composition of Whitney's paintings, but the lines and stacks of shapes begin to resemble prison bars. Text accompanies the pieces saying "No to Prison Life" and "Speak Truth to Power"
Alongside, and at times in combination with his abstract works, Whitney presented a series of pieces portraying his experiences as a black man who grew up with ambitions to make huge paintings that could not be ignored. In the end, Whitney has come to the realization that that "Being an artist is a courageous act and it’s a loving act."
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One: From the Boston Globe, a story about artist Ellen Gallagher, the daughter of a professional black boxer and Irish-American mother. This article recalls the artist's upbringing in Rhode Island, growing up in "the shadow of centuries of racial strife which loomed over the civil rights era and beyond".
Three: From the artist Austin Kleon, a quote from Emerson: "Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity."
And so we reach the end of another Tuesday Night letter. Sharing some jazzy tunes with you in homage to Stanley Whitney and his wood-shedding. Please enjoy these tunes and keep the painting vibes going: