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How Two Offbeat Artists Made New York Their Own

Stanley Whitney likes to sing at the top of his lungs—an unsurprising fact, perhaps, for those familiar with his work. Music (in particular jazz) seems to not only inspire, but also emanate from Whitney’s paintings: shapes swim, colors swarm, and lines tremble in improvised harmony. Known for freehand geometry, irregular grids, and fierce hues that flitter on canvas, the 70-year-old abstractionist spent over four decades delving into color as the subject of his work.

Born in Philadelphia, Whitney was the only member of his family in the arts (“No one knows what happened,” he explains. “I fell on my head—I don’t know.”). Whitney drew on walls, in elementary school, for local newspapers; he attended a small art school in his neighborhood at 10, earned a B.F.A from Kansas City Art Institute, an M.F.A. from Yale, and moved to New York in the late 1960’s...

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