Stanley Whitney’s Italian paintings reveal an art practice in transition
American abstract painter Stanley Whitney’s works from the 1990s to mid-2000s, made in Italy and now on display as a collateral event of the Venice Biennale 2022, show an evolution of form and colour
American abstract painter Stanley Whitney came to Rome in the early 1990s. The city had a huge impact on his life and his work as an artist, becoming a practice-altering source of inspiration and eventually a second home. This entanglement is now the subject of a new exhibition ‘Stanley Whitney: The Italian Paintings’, at Palazzo Tiepolo Passi in Venice, which opened alongside the 59th Venice Biennale. The show looks at some of the paintings Whitney made in Italy from the 1990s to the mid-2000s alongside his scrapbooks, giving a unique insight into his intuitive and dynamic practice.
‘It’s wonderful to see the paintings back in Italy where they were made. Being in Italy caused a shift in the colours I use – they became softer. It’s great to see these paintings in the Venetian light,’ Whitney says of the exhibition, which features his works alongside original fabric wallpaper and ornate rugs at Palazzo Tiepolo Passi.
The exhibition has the touchstone of three diptychs that have never been exhibited before and are utterly unique in Whitney’s practice. They mark an important change of direction for the artist. While the grid is visible, the strokes are still defined in a way that fades out of his painting as he moves into the 2000s.
‘They’re really transitional paintings,’ he says. ‘They were the first paintings I did when I moved to Italy from New York. Also, I never painted a diptych before that, or ever again, so they’re very unique. To show them for the first time in a 16th-century palazzo during the Venice Biennale is an incredible opportunity.’
The exhibition is co-curated by Cathleen Chaffee, chief curator of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum and Vincenzo de Bellis, curator and associate director at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Once they had selected the works they wanted to include, they arranged some of these in an intuitive call and response, in which each selected work followed on from the other. The format is an homage to Whitney’s spontaneous and immediate ‘afternoon paintings’, completed over a few hours after time spent on the larger works.
‘The afternoon paintings and the larger works are part of the same process,’ says Whitney. ‘I do the afternoon paintings after I’ve finished the larger paintings. It’s sort of a way to calm down at the end of a painting day. The sketchbooks are like a diary, and seeing the sketchbooks that capture my time in Italy gathered together – notes from when my son was born, things I was thinking about during the summers – is very special.’
These smaller, more spontaneous works and the notebooks were set in situ in a unique way by the curators, who took inspiration from Whitney’s practice, alternately choosing works in response to each other.
‘Stanley says, about this work, that [it is] painting as a call and response. Which is a musical kind of term, right? It’s improvisation,’ says de Bellis. ‘We did it the same way. I picked one and Cathleen picked one and then the other one responded – it was very logical.’
Whitney’s use of colour, seen bathed in the Venetian light, is something to behold. As we spend time with these works, deeper layers and juxtapositions reveal themselves. We see a tighter use of form and more defined use of colour emerge over the years. We may assume that this shows a calming down for the artist as he gets older – but this is not the case.
‘I don’t think it’s about calmness, it’s about mature understanding,’ Whitney reveals. ‘As I got a better understanding of what colour is and what drawing is for me, I could do more with less. It’s a greater challenge for me to do more with less.’ §