Stanley Whitney | How High the Moon

9 February – 26 May 2024

Stanley Whitney

How High the Moon

Buffalo, NY

Artist Profile
Stanley Whitney
Press Release

From early breakthroughs to mature formal experiments, How High the Moon is the first retrospective to trace the evolution of Stanley Whitney’s wholly unique and powerful abstractions over the course of his fifty-year career. The exhibition’s title is inspired by the 1940 song penned by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, which became a jazz standard that has conveyed enchantment, longing, and, in some interpretations, has reached for the sublime.

Since he began making them in 2002, Whitney’s square-format, loosely gridded abstract canvases have increasingly captured the imagination of viewers. Each contains four horizontal rows of alternately askant and ordered squares painted in varying degrees of opacity. While Whitney’s format has remained consistent over the past twenty years, no painting is the same as another. As he builds these immersive abstractions, Whitney holds space for his viewers to focus not on each painting’s subject, but rather on our own response to color.

Yet Whitney only began making these ever-shifting grids when he was in his mid-fifties. As has been the case with many great artists of color in the twentieth century, wider critical attention to his practice came later still. This is the first exhibition to contextualize Whitney’s best-known later paintings alongside a robust installation of the innovative works that preceded them. Between the early 1970s and the early 2000s, Whitney dedicated himself to wrestling with the spatial legacies of foreground and background, object and field in paintings such as Untitled (1979). The artist’s travels between the mid-1980s and early 1990s—first to the American West, then to Italy, and finally to Egypt—were transformational. If his works just before these travels, such as Sixteen Songs (1984), were characterized by a dynamic rhythm and interplay of colored forms suspended in space (what the artist at the time called “landscape air”), the paintings that followed were grounded by a loose framework of horizontal lines, such as By the Love of Those Unloved (1994).

From then on, this format became increasingly consistent. Planning each painting around a fluid grid allowed Whitney to focus on exploring color’s formal and evocative qualities: the way one pigment might recall an Italian Renaissance painting in one moment and in the next suggests the vibrant shirt of a passerby.

How High the Moon features extensive installations of the artist’s improvisatory small paintings; his drawings and prints, which constitute their own important practice for Whitney; and a chronological selection of the artist’s sketchbooks spanning from 1987 to 2021, which offer a view into Whitney’s engagement with the written word as well as politics. Throughout, his work is put in the context of his diverse sources of inspiration, which include music, poetry, American quilts, and the history of art and architecture, among many others.

Whitney’s powerful, color-saturated abstractions give viewers the space to feel what it means to be human, to mentally wander, and to gather the strength to survive. This touring retrospective, the first survey of Whitney’s work ever assembled, demonstrates the true height of his achievement.