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How Stanley Whitney Became an Icon of Contemporary Abstraction in His Seventies

If it’s a truism that paintings are windows into different worlds, Stanley Whitney’s abstract canvases are some of contemporary art’s best portals into color. His trademark compositions comprise off-kilter grids, with horizontal lines separating rows of brightly hued squares. Edges are soft and flowing, creating a sense of rhythm throughout the works. Whitney’s work is easy to look at, but more difficult to figure out: How are these colors coalescing, and to what effect?

Whitney’s practice finds infinite permutations within a simple formal conceit—rows of squares, separated by thin lines. In this way, his canvases respond to the idea of the grid, which has served as an organizing structure for painters across centuries. Like Peter Halley, Donald Judd, and countless others, Whitney offers a fresh twist on the motif. It’s easy, upon a cursory glance, to dismiss such work as repetitive. Instead, Whitney’s paintings reward long, repeated lookings, giving viewers the chance to notice subtle differences, brushstrokes, patterns, and color interactions. Paint drips, layers, and transitional borders become monumental...

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