Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon at Buffalo AKG Art Museum, NY (Exhibition)

Installation view of Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon. Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

From initial breakthroughs to refined formal experiments, “How High the Moon” stands as the inaugural retrospective tracing Stanley Whitney’s distinctive and impactful abstractions across his five-decade career. The title draws inspiration from the 1940 song by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, a jazz standard conveying enchantment, longing, and, in some interpretations, reaching for the sublime.

Initiated in 2002, Whitney’s square-format, loosely gridded abstract canvases have increasingly captivated viewers, featuring four horizontal rows of alternately askant and ordered squares painted with varying degrees of opacity. Despite the consistency in format over the past two decades, each painting remains unique. Whitney’s immersive abstractions invite viewers to direct their focus not on the subject of each painting but on their personal response to color.

Installation view of Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon. Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

Surprisingly, Whitney embarked on creating these ever-shifting grids in his mid-fifties. Similar to many great artists of color in the 20th century, broader critical attention to his practice came later. This exhibition contextualizes Whitney’s renowned later paintings alongside a robust installation of the innovative works that preceded them, spanning from the early 1970s to the early 2000s.

Between the 1970s and 2000s, Whitney grappled with the spatial legacies of foreground and background, object and field, as seen in works like “Untitled, 1979.” His transformative travels in the mid-1980s to the American West, Italy, and Egypt shaped his later paintings, grounding them with a loose framework of horizontal lines, as seen in “By the Love of Those Unloved, 1994.”

The consistent format that emerged allowed Whitney to delve into color’s formal and evocative qualities, transitioning between recalling Italian Renaissance paintings to suggesting vibrant attire in the blink of an eye.

Installation view of Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon. Photo: Brenda Bieger, Buffalo AKG Art Museum.

“How High the Moon” showcases extensive installations of Whitney’s improvisatory small paintings, drawings, prints, and a chronological selection of sketchbooks spanning from 1987 to 2021. These provide insight into Whitney’s engagement with the written word and politics. The exhibition places his work in the context of diverse sources of inspiration, including music, poetry, American quilts, and the history of art and architecture.

Whitney’s potent, color-saturated abstractions offer viewers a space to experience the essence of humanity, to wander mentally, and to gather strength for survival. As the first comprehensive survey of Whitney’s work, this touring retrospective highlights the true pinnacle of his artistic achievement.

Following its presentation in Buffalo, the exhibition will travel to the Walker Art Center (11/14/24–03/16/25) and ICA/Boston (04/17/25–09/01/25).

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The press release and the photographs are courtesy of the gallery and the artists.

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