It seems, on the surface, that Stanley Whitney mostly paints grids, or else paints variations on the idea of the grid. Seen very often in hard-edge abstract painting, a grid is the simplest expansion of the simplest two-dimensional shape, and many artists have produced great things from that generously reductive template, but that’s not quite what Whitney is doing. I’ve never seen them in person but included an installation shot so you can get a sense of the size of some of these alleged grids (though some can also be quite small) but two things become clear, especially at a large size: 1) Whitney’s paintings actually operate near the idea of the grid rather than directly with it, and 2) Whitney’s work does something with the grid that most other grid-painters would never do, which is that he nudges the grid toward figurative status. Given that the grid is abstraction at its most serenely inert (which is often a good thing), it’s easy to lose sight that there are forms of grids around us everywhere in our daily lives, and that when they’re vertical they often clump together into a single category: they’re barriers. If you see a non-painting grid in the real world, you might think of brick walls or chain-link fences or even the bars of jail cells. Not only are the grids acting as barriers, they’re barriers that control the human body and human movement, and it might not be too far from the truth to say that Whitney’s career has been a wide-ranging exploration of the defeat of the grid.
This defeat, if it’s there, often takes on three immediately apparent forms, the first of which is the softness of Whitney’s approach. While the paintings might reference hard-edge abstraction, they studiously avoid it, opting for something more like an unfinished or unfinishable mosaic, or maybe some kind of soft Rubik’s cube––something that refuses to snap into place. Whitney does this with a great economy of means, in a variety of media, simply by settling near but in opposition to the perfection that a grid requires. This doesn’t mean they’re sloppy; instead they simply reintroduce painterly gesture into the “pure” field of the grid. They have both a warmth and a physicality that a more austere grid might lack. They are, if not necessarily always cheerful, generous to a viewer who might be compelled to linger in the corners and varying thicknesses of paint that stop the grid from portraying potential endlessness. The second factor in both embracing and resisting the grid is Whitney’s color palette. The bright, saturated soft blocks that comprise the paintings like Goya’s Lantern never seem out of place, but they never suggest any kind of pattern either, or imply that colors are included, excluded and/or repeated according to a plan. This isn’t to suggest that Whitney doesn’t have a plan, but rather that color in Whitney’s paintings is employed less in the service of clarity or precision than in the service of impact. In this way they also eschew the professionalism of a seemingly untouched grid painting because they all but demand to be seen not just as colors but as Whitney’s specific color choices, ones that weren’t planned at a desk or on a computer but that accused over time. Whitney, this way, takes ownership of the grid in a way that most grid paintings seek to deny or disavow; a huge retrospective simply of the colorful grids like Goya’s Lantern or Monk-ery would not feel redundant because Whitney’s “hand” (in several senses) ensures that while the basic structure may repeat, each individual work retains its own individual personality. What helps the most in this, besides color, is the sometimes irregular sizes of the squares, as if confident rectangles in the center have pushed others against the edge of the canvas.
The third and maybe most important way in which Whitney both owns and subverts the grid might be the simplest: there are horizontal lines of color that divide a grid into a row of squares. Because we’re so used to interpreting everything grid-like as a grid, it’s easy to miss the lines at first glance, as thick as they may be, but their inclusion is the major factor in the “barrier” effect I mentioned before, because the lines and rows of rectangles often compete with each other over which is foreground and which is background, which not only reintroduces depth into a depthless form but recalls the idea of the barrier, because, if you look at one of Whitney’s pieces long enough, what becomes clear is that it seems as if the lines could be either supporting the grid or else blocking it, putting it at a remove from the viewer, a barrier placed in front of a barrier. Even in works as simple as Untitled 13 (2014) for example, the steady black rows both lend structure to and dismantle the effort of the sometimes slanted vertical lines between them to form something like a grid (or fence or wall). And because they’re horizontal rather than vertical, they bar entrance into what we might suspect is a painting we can’t entirely see in a way that vertical lines might not, because we could, visually at least, slip between the bars.
The lines, and the barriers they suggest, curve back around to Whitney’s unerringly fascinating manipulations of the grid because they pull back, finally, to a question that their more austere hard-edge cousins also raise, which is the question of visibility. Namely, when you’re looking at a grid, what is it that you see? In austere grids that attempt to remove traces of the human hand, we might get the sense, at least in the 21st century, that we’re looking at a screen, a kind of manufactured but possibly arbitrary form of perfection. The resistance to “perfection” in Whitney’s work, though, moves away from the screen and back into a real world of real questions of who and what is or is not visible, as well as how and why. I’m not attempting to try to force narrative meaning onto abstract paintings, so you can read into this resistance whatever you want (or nothing at all), but, in the end, rather than moving close to an impossible perfection, they spill out into the real world and, possibly or possibly not, remind us of the visibility of the barriers that surround us in our daily lives, and further remind us that while, as an expertly decisive painting or drawing, a grid can bring forth a great deal of warmth, the analogs to Whitney’s paintings do everything that Whitney doesn’t do, and where Whitney is generous, the only thing the barriers around us really have to offer is control and denial.