Stanley Whitney in Venice: An Art Practice in Transition

Stanley Whitney’s Italian Paintings Reveal an Art Practice in Transition

Created in Italy and now on display as a side event of the 2022 Venice Biennale, the works of American abstract painter Stanley Whitney from the 1990s to mid-2000s show an evolution of form and color

American abstract painter Stanley Whitney came to Rome in the early 1990s. The city had a huge impact on his life and work as an artist, becoming a practice-changing source of inspiration and ultimately 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 at the same time as 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, providing a unique insight into his intuitive and dynamic practice.

‘It is wonderful to see the paintings back in Italy where they were made. Being in Italy, there was a shift in the colors I use – they got softer. It’s wonderful to see these paintings in the Venetian light,” said Whitney of the exhibition, which features his works alongside original cloth wallpaper and ornate carpets in Palazzo Tiepolo Passi.

The exhibition features the touchstone of three never-before-seen diptychs and completely unique in Whitney’s practice. They mark an important change of direction for the artist. Although the grid is visible, the lines are still defined in a way that fades from his painting as he moves into the 2000s.

‘Stanley Whitney: The Italian Paintings’, exhibition view. Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice, Italy. Until November 27, 2022. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

‘They are really transitional paintings,’ he says. ‘They were the first paintings I made when I moved to Italy from New York. I’ve never painted a diptych before, or never 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 of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. After selecting the works to include, they arranged some of them in an intuitive call and response, each selected work following the other. The format pays homage to Whitney’s spontaneous and immediate ‘afternoon paintings’, which were completed several hours later after being spent on the larger works.

“The afternoon paintings and the larger works are part of the same process,” Whitney says. ‘I do the afternoon paintings after I finish the larger paintings. It’s kind of a way to calm down at the end of a painting day. The sketchbooks are like a diary and it’s very special to see together the sketchbooks that record my time in Italy – notes from the birth of my son, things I thought about during the summers – very special.’

‘Stanley Whitney: The Italian Paintings’, exhibition view. Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice, Italy. Until November 27, 2022. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

‘Stanley Whitney: The Italian Paintings’, Exhibition View. Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice, Italy. Until November 27, 2022. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

These smaller, more spontaneous works and the notebooks were uniquely set in situ by the curators, who took inspiration from Whitney’s practice and alternately chose works in response to one another.

‘Stanley says, about this work, that’ [it is] painting as a call and response. What’s a musical kind of term, right? It’s improvisation’, says de Bellis. “We did it the same way. I chose one and Cathleen chose one and then the other responded – very logically.’

Whitney’s use of colour, bathed in Venetian light, is a feast for the eyes. As we spend time with these works, deeper layers and juxtapositions reveal themselves. Over the years we have seen a stricter use of form and a more defined use of color. We may assume that this has a calming effect on the artist as he ages, but that is not the case.

“I don’t think it’s about calmness, it’s about mature understanding,” Whitney reveals. ‘Because I better understood what color is and what drawing is for me, I was able to do more with less. It’s a bigger challenge for me to do more with less.’ I

‘Stanley Whitney: The Italian Paintings’, exhibition view. Palazzo Tiepolo Passi, Venice, Italy. Until November 27, 2022. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

stanley whitney, Eden (sun and shade)2008. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

stanley whitney, Pleasure or joy1994. ©Stanley Whitney. Thanks to Lisson Gallery

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