Stanley Whitney, “Dance the Orange”

Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music.
— Nina Simone

A common misconception about jazz is that it is pure, unbridled expression. This isn’t necessarily true. Much jazz actually riffs and improvises within the bounds of a relatively rhythmic meter, creating a sort of syncopation against classical structure. Of course, there are many approaches to jazz, but this seems the most apt comparison for Stanley Whitney.

“Dance the Orange” at the Studio Museum in Harlem presents new paintings by Whitney, which are mostly large in scale, and are without exception variations of color blocks within the same four-row staff. How quickly we associate Whitney’s work with jazz music has probably more than a little to do with our seeming need to place the African American artist—who actively avoided politicizing his work—nonetheless within a grand narrative of African American art history. (He, along with McArthur Binion, who had a concurrent show at Galerie Lelong, largely resisted the realistic, figurative approach of Basquiat and later black artists who sought pictorial expression of the African American experience in response to the predominately white male aesthetics of abstraction.) And yet, it’s a reading Whitney invites, particularly by titling many of his works after jazz classics.

One such painting is My Name Is Peaches, which takes its name from a Nina Simone song, “Four Women.” And indeed, the 96-inch square grid of oranges and pinks and blues seems rigid and composed from afar, but closer inspection reveals an impressionistic staccato of the brush on canvas. The sky blue panel in the upper left has a sort of zig-zag texture, like Armstrong scat. Whitney creates his paintings left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and as we move in this way through My Name Is Peaches, the light application of the first panel starts us off nice and easy. Smooth and chalky both at once, like a jazz rake building tempo across the hi-hat. In the second panel—navy blue with twangy splotches—comes the bass, before the canary yellow trill of the trumpet capped with a Harmon mute.

My Name is Peaches, 2015, oil on linen, 96 × 96 inches, Stanley Whitney 

But this analogy can only take us so far. In Whitney’s most successful paintings, the disparate colors resolve into a dissonant harmony. However, to insist that this jazzy syncopation occurs only because the work overtly bases itself on a bluesy aesthetic is to delegitimize the work by denying its participation in the sort of formalistic art production generally reserved for white (typically male) artists. Indeed, the title of the show itself takes its name not from a jazz lyric, but a Rilke poem.

Even within a single painting, the same color might function in several different ways. The pastel blue might suggest a percussion lead-in, sure, but it also depicts a different sort of space as the same blue that peeks from the bottom of the frame. This lower rectangle is marked by a dark streak which runs horizontally but appears to bleed downward, like a water-stain. The deliberate application of the blue in the upper left, which is made up of many visible layers of paint, creates a sort of open depth that contrasts the flatness of the same blue in the lower middle, which appears like an oxidized sheet. I’d presume that this first panel was painted methodically, because the brushstrokes consistently run parallel to the frame, whereas the second panel appears to have formed somewhat of its own volition, as the paint was allowed to run under its own weight.

“To insist that jazzy syncopation occurs because the work bases itself on a bluesy aesthetic is to delegitimize it by denying its participation in the sort of formalistic art production generally reserved for white male artists.”

“The gesture is in the paint itself,” Whitney said in an interview printed in the exhibition catalog. “Like laying the paint down—whether it’s thick or thin. The color changes because of the touch.” Whitney constantly returns to this idea of interaction between human and color. “The colors are so endless that I can just keep going,” he says, meaning that he can produce these gridded works until he runs out of color. In contrast to drawing (“a way to understand where things are in space,” he says), Whitney says his works explore ways in which he was able to make “space within the color.” He realized he “could put forms, colors and marks together and still have a lot of air. The space was still there… The space is in the color, not around the color.”

The subtle gestures within the color blocks activate different kinds of spaces. That is, space in Whitney’s paintings is a function of texture rather than atmosphere. In this way he shows that life is more complex than color alone.