Stanley Whitney - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I knew I wasn’t a storyteller. I felt that art should be something that encompassed more. I read a lot of poetry. I didn’t know any poets, but I knew that I wanted my work to be more than one single story.”
    — Stanley Whitney

    All-encompassing is an unusual way to describe a painting, given the limitation of dimension and subject matter, yet it precisely defines the canvas of Stanley Whitney. Drawing influences from Renaissance painting to jazz music, Whitney’s colour grid paintings are integral to the current discourse of abstract painting in contemporary art. He developed his signature style in the 1970s when he discovered the paintings of Morris Louis, which enlightened his intuitive sense of pure colour exploration. Since then, he has been an active proponent of colour field painting and highly regarded for his spontaneous approach.


    Integral to Whitney’s approach to painting is the process by which he is able to ‘lay two colours so close to each other and not trap them, but rather allow air for the canvas to breath’.i The present lot, The Last Cowboy Song painted in 2019 exemplifies Whitney’s distinctive approach to painting that gives complete autonomy to colours. A sense of composure is formed between the loosely structured grids and the rhythmic hues stacked against one another. To create his signature style, Whitney stacks irregular-shaped rectangles of colour within a square format canvas and works in a sequential manner, moving methodically from one square to the next, row after row, from left to right, top to bottom. In doing so, Whitney is able to let the colour form the structure rather than having a structure to fill in the colour.


    Deeply inspired by the improvisational nature of jazz music, the present painting is composed similarly to musical scores, with each colour denoting a note in sequence combined to form a unique visual melody. The spontaneous and intuitive composition of colour in Whitney’s paintings lends each of his canvas its own distinctive character and substance.



    Morris Louis, Alpha-Pi, 1960 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence,
    Artwork: © 2023 Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Rights Administered by Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York, All Rights Reserved

    "I want everything in the paintings—the complexity of the world."
    — Stanley Whitney


    Reinventing the Modernist Grid


    From the representation of reality to the abstract colour field canvas born at the beginning of the twentieth century, artists throughout history have attempted to represent certain aspects of the world through art, while pioneers like Kazimir Malevich and Marcel Duchamp introduced the non-representational and conceptual into the narrative of art history and proclaimed the end of painting. The subsequent rise of monochrome painting was a timely response to look beyond the confines of dimension, materiality, context and psychological associations. Reducing painting to its bare essentials as paint on canvas, whereby the colour is the subject matter itself, Whitney composes his canvas through spontaneous interactions between forms, colours and lines, giving a structured autonomy to his paintings. 

    Whitney managed to break away from the modernist concept of the grid as both a formal and ideological device representative of the urban cityscape that confines one’s physical space and system of thought. For Whitney, the structure of the grid provides the colours with a space to perform and allows him to reconcile two previously opposing poles in his practice or, as he described in one interview ‘something as open as Pollock but as structured as Mondrian’.ii With colour itself emerging as the organising principle in his works, Whitney unlocked the structural confines of the grid by focusing on the interaction between colours, and the visual dialogues formed in his compositions. Free from the constraints of colour theory and psychological associations, Whitney relies on what he terms the ‘magic’ of colour: ‘I lay a colour down and that colour calls another colour, and then it’s a balancing act. You don’t want to have something dominate something else, and you want to have good transitions’.iii



    Collector’s Digest

    • Born in Philadelphia in 1956, and drawing on a wealth of art historical references, Stanley Whitney has played a central role in the evolution of contemporary abstract painting. Examples of his works can be found in the prestigious public collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Madazzino d’Arte Moderna, Rome; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

    • Following recent solo exhibitions at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, Whitney is currently receiving widespread critical attention. Most recently, his work was on display at Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice, his solo exhibition The Italian Paintings running alongside the 59th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. 



    Stanley Whitney and Andrianna Campbell, ‘Stanley Whitney discusses painting and his show at the Studio Museum in Harlem’, Artforum, 14 July 2015, online

    ii Stanley Whitney quoted in Alteronce Gumby, ‘Oral History Project: Stanley Whitney by Alteronce Gumby’, BOMB Magazine, 21 April 2015, online

    iii ibid.

    • Provenance

      Lisson Gallery, London
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Stanley Whitney

      American • 1946

      Inspired by Renaissance painting, Minimalist sculpture and jazz music, Stanley Whitney’s oeuvre has become central to the current discourse of abstract painting in the contemporary era. Following recent solo exhibitions at the Modern Art Museum, Fort Worth and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, the 72-year-old artist has only just received the critical acclaim he deserves. After moving to New York from Philadelphia at the age of 22, Whitney aligned himself with the Color Field painters, often working in the shadows of his contemporaries including Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland. Throughout the decades that followed, however, the artist soon established himself as a key player in 20th century abstraction, traveling the world and gaining recognition not only in the studio, but also in the classroom, where he has taught Painting and Drawing at the Tyler School of Art for over 30 years. As such, Whitney’s influence extends to a generation of new artists exploring the formal tenants of painting today.

      As Lauren Haynes, curator of Whitney’s solo show at the Studio Museum in 2015, aptly wrote, “Whitney’s work interrogates the connections among colors, how they lead to and away from one another, what memories they are associated with…Whitney’s colors take on lives of their own. They evoke memory and nostalgia. This orange takes you back to your favorite childhood t-shirt; that blue reminds you of your grandmother’s kitchen. Whitney’s paintings remind us, on a universal scale, of the ability of color to trigger feelings and sensations.”

      View More Works



The Last Cowboy Song

signed, titled and dated '"The Last Cowboy Song" 2019 Stanley Whitney' on the reverse
oil on linen
183 x 183 cm. (72 x 72 in.)
Painted in 2019.

Full Cataloguing

HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000 

Sold for HK$5,080,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023