Stanley Whitney’s Improvisatory Approach to Abstraction

Stanley Whitney, “Stay Song 78” (2020) (© Stanley Whitney, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery)

LOS ANGELES — “I can’t stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession,” Billie Holiday wrote in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. To her, performing the same song without variation drained the idiosyncratic magic out of music, reducing it to automation. I thought about Holiday while walking through Stanley Whitney’s solo exhibition, How Black is That Blue, at Matthew Marks Gallery. The artist’s first major show in Los Angeles, the exhibition features 11 new works, nine oil paintings, and two gouache works on paper, and provides a crash course on Whitney’s improvisatory approach to abstraction.

Since 1996, Whitney has returned to the same format for his paintings: stacks of colorful rectangles arranged within a large square of canvas. His colors are brilliant and expressive, with jolts of tangerine oranges, drippy reds, and meditative azures. Each canvas follows its own off-beat rhythm, with three or four horizontal bands dividing each square into quirky grids.

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