Stanley Whitney - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Thursday, October 14, 2021 | Phillips

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  • 'I couldn’t figure out what my subject matter was until I began to focus on color. I already knew that I could use color to carry my work. But then I realized that color was the subject in and of itself. That’s when things sort of gelled.' —Stanley Whitney 

    A vibrating pictorial field of chromatic energy, Iraqi Blues exemplifies Stanley Whitney’s understanding of colour as the primary subject of his artmaking. Whitney nestles blocks of flaming red and fleshy salmon pink against rectilinear forms filled with cool blues and neutralising lozenges of black, white, and grey. The tonal juxtapositions cultivate a harmonious balance that stabilises the riotous expression of colour laid down on the canvas in the grid formation that has become an idiosyncratic signature of the American artist.


    Evidencing the significance of music in Whitney’s practice, the present work is titled after a 2003 album by the American singer-songwriter Elvis L Carden. The painter recognises musical and artistic composition to be analogous, explaining that his paintings are driven by ‘the colour, the music. It’s a rhythm’.i Beginning at the top left corner of the canvas, Whitney applies his coloured blocks in rows, running from left to right, until he reaches the bottom right corner. The grid formation is understood, not as a proscriptive structure, but as a liberating compositional tool that facilitates improvisation through colour, texture, and chromatic intensity. Each brightly-hued lozenge gives rise to the next in a rhythmic syncopation of colour, mimicking the call and response motif in jazz. Just as individual musical notes are composite parts of a melody, Whitney explains that the grid system allows him to isolate individual blocks of colour within wider compositions to ‘create paintings that are paintings inside of paintings’.ii The eye is consequently engaged in a dynamic process of observation as the focus of the gaze moves between the intimate scale of a singular rectangular block to the jostling rows of oblong forms contained within the square canvas. 

    'The music was always there because in my house, growing up in Philadelphia– it’s a big music town. You go to sleep with the radio on; you wake up with the radio on. Music was always playing- music, music, music.'
    —Stanley Whitney 

    Albers, Josef, Homage to the Square: Young. 1951-52, oil on masonite. George A.Hearn Fund, 1953. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. © 2021. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence
    Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Young, 1951-52, oil on masonite. George A.Hearn Fund, 1953. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. © 2021. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence © The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / DACS 2021

    Whitney’s affinity with colour positions him as a key successor of the Colour Field painting that dominated the New York art scene in the decades preceding the younger painter’s arrival from Kansas City in 1968. While similarly engaged in the abstract experimentations with colour that preoccupied artists associated with the movement such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Whitney’s emphasis on the spatial precision of his work, which he pursued by integrating drawing into his artmaking process, set his working practices apart from those employed by the Colour Field painters. He explains, ‘For me, drawing is a way to understand where things are in space. I felt that I needed to work on space because I didn’t want my colour to be decorative. I wanted colour to have a real intellect’.iii The resultant structural quality of his work resides in the gridded arrangement of colour which first emerged in response to the stacked stone slabs encountered by the artist in the architecture of ancient Egypt and Rome during his extensive travels in the 1990s. Whitney’s sustained painterly investigation of the grid aligns his work with the process-based gridded art of Josef Albers, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Carl Andre. Representing the distinctive visual language cultivated by the artist through the diverse visual references that inform his practice, Iraqi Blues demonstrates his innovative approach to the gridded motif that asserts his reputation as a vital figure at the forefront of contemporary American abstraction.


    Collector's Digest


    •    Earlier this year, Whitney had a solo exhibition, How Black is That Blue, online and at Matthew Marks Gallery, Los Angeles (13 February-8 May 2021). This was Whitney’s first full-scale exhibition in Los Angeles and included eleven new paintings and drawings.


    •    Whitney has an upcoming exhibition of new paintings at Lisson Gallery, New York (2 November – 18 December 2021). This follows a presentation of work from across the artist’s career which was shown at the gallery earlier this year.


    •    A major survey of Whitney’s work is planned for 2023 at the Allbright-Knox’s Buffalo AKG Art Museum in Buffalo, New York.


    i Stanley Whitney, quoted in Pimploy Phongsirivech, ‘How two offbeat artists made New York their own,’ Interview Magazine, 29 September 2017, online
    ii Stanley Whitney, quoted in Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange, exh. cat., The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, 2015, p. 59
    iii Stanley Whitney, quoted in Stanley Whitney: Radical Times, exh. cat., Lisson Gallery, London, 2016, p. 14

    • Provenance

      Christine König Galerie, Vienna
      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


Iraqi Blues

signed, titled and dated '2007 "IRAQI BLUES" Stanley Whitney' on the reverse
oil on linen
153 x 153 cm (60 1/4 x 60 1/4 in.)
Painted in 2007.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for £302,400

Contact Specialist

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20th Century & Contemporary Art

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 14 October 2021