Stanley Whitney - Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches Hong Kong Thursday, May 25, 2023 | Phillips

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  • What distinguishes a space from a field? Can it be said that fields facilitate the idea of colour, while space enables colour to manifest as a tangible entity? These are the kinds of artistic inquiries that Stanley Whitney often poses, both to those who appreciate his artwork and to those who drop by his atelier. It is in fact, these innovative perspectives of space-within-colour — the opposite of colour-within-space — which have driven his creations for over three decades.


    Whitney’s oeuvre emanates an exquisite symbiosis of chromatic harmony and spatial dynamism, suffusing the canvas with a vivacious energy that captivates the perceptive observer. A master of tonal juxtaposition, Whitney's compositions are imbued with an evocative warmth that is simultaneously alluring and intellectually stimulating. His work is an eloquent testimony to the transcendent nature of colour and form, an artistic exploration that deftly transcends the boundaries of traditional aesthetics.


    For a life dedicated to interrogating what we see before us, Whitney's relentless pursuit of spatial innovation has culminated in a unique artistic language, one that eloquently synthesises abstraction, rhythm, and emotion, thereby elevating the very essence of his craft to uncharted realms.



    Detail of the present work



    The Abstract Disruptor


    While his artistic production is as multifarious as the fibres of a rainbow, his process holds a singular track. Like a bricklayer, Whitney lays a band across the roof of the canvas, before placing blocks of pure colour horizontally, repeating this process again and again before he creates a painterly acropolis. ‘It’s like call and response — the paintings tell me what to do,’ explains the artist. i In true mid-century fashion, he turns to the High Priest of Cool to whip him into an artistic fervour; the dulcet tones Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew streams through studio space each time he paints: ‘It gets me in the zone,’ Whitney determines. ‘You kind of become the music.’ ii


    Being an abstractionist, a painter, and a Black man in the art world in the 1960s curried little favour. Arriving in New York in 1968 to break into the closed doors, he was shunned by the establishment but found close and quick friends with some of the city’s creative titans. He would become the favourite of teacher Philip Guston at a summer program at Skidmore College before being taken under Robert Rauschenberg’s wing during the 1970s, though he describes this time as being more of a ‘witness’: ‘Race was always a factor,’ Whitney said. ‘They wanted you to be their hip Black guy and I wasn’t an entertainer.’ He came along with other Black artists working downtown, including Jack Whitten and Al Loving. ‘But we were really on our own. Everybody was struggling so much.’ iii 


    Though his breakthrough as an artist – in essential terms – would come while completing a MFA at Yale in 1972, as the critic Robert Storr explains: ‘It may be helpful to mention that Whitney studied at the Yale University School of Art, where, after his stint teaching at Black Mountain College, Josef Albers served as overall director of the program. In that capacity Albers empirically tested and revamped Bauhaus pedagogy most importantly perhaps in the way artists were taught about colour. The key to his method was to stress that a given hue was never absolute and immutable, but rather always something to see in relation to other hues, and that the visual interaction amongst any combination of colours alters them—a dim patch of red becomes radiant when surrounded by darker shades, or a bright patch of yellow becomes muted when embedded in a still more saturated yellow.’ iv


    It doesn’t take close analysis to realise the striking connection between the Bauhaus statesman Josef Albers and Stanley Whitney. Both artists share an unbridled passion for colour, making them true chromophiliacs - painters who love and embrace a diverse range of colours. A simple format consisting of trios of nested squares for the German (see: Homage to the Square (1950–76)) and stacks of interconnected blocks for the American served as a rich source of inspiration for their lifelong artistic exploration. However, while Albers focused on the interplay of colours, Whitney's fascination lies in the space created by colours rather than their mass.




    Josef Albers, Study for Homage to the Square: Hard, Softer, Soft Edge, 1964
    Sold by Phillips London, 15 April 2021 for £327,600 (premium)
    Artwork: © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    Yet perhaps what brings these two in perfect (geometric) harmony is their sheer commitment to their series – the unimaginable monogamy to a single compositional arrangement and the same pattern of shapes over and over again. 



    A Bridge Across Time and Space


    Compositional elements that tend towards the architectural are nothing new in painting – just ask Piet Mondrian or Frank Stella. Yet thinking of colour alone as architecture presents a novel field with novel challenges.


    During the 1990s, the artist lived in Rome for a 5-year stretch, an experience that proved deeply influential to his practice. ‘Looking at all the architecture in Rome,’ he recalls, ‘and really being knocked out by the Colosseum and those great monuments, it was really starting to affect my work.’v Whitney's immersion in ancient Roman architecture and art is evident in his mature format, which comprises paintings within paintings, a structure that creates a sense of depth and illusionistic space that mirrors the trompe l'oeil devices found in ancient Roman art. Whitney's use of colour in this format is also inspired by the period, with a palette that includes the same muted grey blues and pastel reds found in the Boscoreale frescoes.


    His interest in ancient art and architecture is rooted in a fascination with the grandeur and rootedness of the geologic formations of the American West. In the 1980s while teaching at Berkeley, Whitney delved into the awesome topography of the country’s heartland: ‘[1984] was a big year because I was traveling across the country a lot, and going through landscapes, and sitting up on great spots… Yes, the southwest, the Four Corners, Canyon De Chelly, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley… all the sacred places of the West… the Badlands… North Dakota. That kind of landscape really influenced me. That kind of openness in space, that kind of light… I really think of it as an American kind of space. A big open space. But it was all about landscape and I didn’t want it to be landscapes, I wanted it to be space.’vi



    Bedroom from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, 50 – 40 BC
    The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund 1903


    Rome's buildings, with their monumental scale and rootedness, struck a chord with Whitney, as they represented a link to the ancient past and the geological formations of his homeland. The architecture of Rome provided Whitney with a means of exploring the relationship between the natural and the man-made, a theme that pervades his work.



    “The colour, the light, the ancient architecture—I never tire of contemplating Rome. Rome always clarifies and inspires my work. The current form of my painting started to take shape in the nineties when I was absorbed in the city and looking at ancient and Renaissance architecture. In Rome, there is an order, an ancient rhythm, that I want in my paintings.”
    — Stanley Whitney 


    Whitney's mature format is a testament to his deep understanding of the formal and conceptual properties of ancient Roman art and architecture. His paintings within paintings create a sense of layered space and depth, a complex structure that mirrors the sophisticated trompe l'oeil devices of ancient Roman art. While appearing solid and impenetrable at first, Stay Song 27 changes upon further inspection. Its interlocking bands begin to interact, creating effects such as afterimages, flicker, and shimmer as our retinas are granted windows of opportunity. The careful placement of blocks of colour creates a rhythmic and harmonious interplay of form that resembles the organisation of architectural elements such as walls, columns, and beams. Entranced, our eyes delve into the work’s musicality, transforming it into a dynamic, living field of colour.



    Collector’s Digest


    • Gagosian London is currently hosting a solo exhibition of his work, There Will Be Song.

    • Whitney has been included in many prominent group shows, such as 'Inherent Structure', Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus (2018); Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel (2017); ‘Nero su Bianco’ at the American Academy in Rome (2015); ‘Outside the Lines: Black in the Abstract’, Contemporary Art Museum of Houston (2014); ‘Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s’, Cheim & Read, New York (2013); and ‘Utopia Station’ at the 50th Venice Biennale (2003).

    • He has won prizes including the Robert De Niro Sr. Prize in Painting (2011), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Art Award (2010) and awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1996).

    • His work is held in various esteemed collections, including: Guggenheim Museum, New York; Smithsonian Museum, Washington DC; The Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; The Long Museum, Shanghai; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Palazzo Magnani, Reggio Emilia, amongst others.





    In the studio with Stanley Whitney, 2016 




    i Stanley Whitney quoted in Hilarie M. Sheets, ‘Stanley Whitney Dances With Matisse’, New York Times, 29 October 2021, online.

    ii ibid.

    iii ibid.

    iv Robert Storr quoted in ‘The Sound He Sees’ in Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, exh. cat., New York. Studio Museum in Harlem, 2015, p. 21.

    v Stanley Whitney quoted in Matthew Jeffrey Abrams, Stanley Whitney: The Ruins, Gagosian Quaterly, Spring 2020, online.

    vi ibid.

    • Provenance

      Courtesy of the Artist
      The 24th Annual ARTWALK NY Benefiting Coalition for the Homeless, New York, 28 November 2018, lot 13
      Acquired at the above sale 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



Stay Song 27

signed, titled and dated 'Stanley Whitney "Stay Song #27" 2018' on the reverse
oil on linen
101.6 x 101.6 cm. (40 x 40 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

HK$1,800,000 - 2,800,000 

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Disruptors: Evening Sale of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Design and Watches

Hong Kong Auction 25 May 2023