A SUMMER EXHIBITION in Mahon, Menorca, off the coast of Spain, brings together two artists deeply committed to color: Stanley Whitney and Yves Klein (1928-1962). “Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors” at Galería Cayón presents six recent paintings by Whitney with Klein’s “Pure Pigment.” A floor installation consisting solely of a bed of blue powdered pigment, the work was first shown in Paris in 1957. The exhibition considers each artist’s relationship with color and creates a dialogue between their work.

Whitney’s paintings are based on a standard composition, a grid of stacked squares in various colors, which is where the improvisation comes in. He never has a pre-planned strategy about what colors will be used or where on the canvas they will appear. The outcome, the method by which the colors are determined, has its roots in African American musical traditions—jazz improvisation and a sort of call-and-response, in which one color beckons the next. Whitney has said “color dictates the structure, not the other way around.”

Klein’s practice encompassed painting, sculpture and performance. The French Conceptual artist said: “The line travels through infinity, whereas color is infinity.” On this concept, the artists agree.

Dedicated to the monochrome, Klein worked with a number of individual colors, but employed a saturated blue as a dominant vehicle of expression, even developing his own brand of the color—International Klein Blue. His practice was short-lived. He died at age 34.

Regarding “Pure Pigment,” Klein said that the work “exhibited on the ground, became painting itself.” Cited in a 2007 collection of his writings, he said: “The possibility of leaving the grains of pigment entirely free, such as they are in powder form, mixed perhaps yet still independent in their semblance, seemed sufficiently auspicious to me. Art is total freedom; it is life; when there is imprisonment in whatever manner, liberty is restrained and life is diminished in relation to the degree of imprisonment.”

Klein further noted: “To leave the powdered pigment as free as I had it seen at the paint suppliers, while presenting them as a painting, it would simply be necessary to spread it on the ground. The invisible force of gravity would keep it down to the surface of the ground without altering it.”


STANLEY WHITNEY, Installation view of “Dream Keeper,” 2019 (oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches / 183 x 183 cm), Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


An illustrated catalog published to accompany the exhibition includes a conversation with Whitney conducted by Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director at Serpentine Galleries in London.

During the exchange, Obrist states that Klein “occupied blue.” Whereas his focus on a single color became a kind of “personified abstraction,” Whitney has said he could never focus on one color. He tells Obrist that he “wants to use all the colors in the universe” and that “he has no control over the color.”

Whitney is a process painter. “The color tells me what happens next, or where do I go,” he says. “When I come to the studio, I try to clear my head of any ideas. I have an idea of the structure and that’s all I have. Then the colors tell me where to go. The paintings sort of make themselves.” He has a system, which he says gives him a real freedom.

In the early 1990s, Whitney had an ephipany during a trip to Egypt: he could put color side-by-side. He suggests it may have been the Egyptian architecture that sparked the revelation, but concludes that there is no logical association. He just happened to be there when it happened. Whitney sought openness and airiness in his work, an impossibility he thought if colors were right next to each other. Then it came to him “that space is in the color.” Once he figured out the color, the format and composition that he settled on crystalized when he was in Italy.

He tells Obrist: “My early work, even up to 1992, is a lot more about drawing, a lot more gestural. But then I got tired of the gesture. I didn’t want the paintings to be abstract expressionist, and I didn’t like the idea of graffiti either. I want the openness of a [Jackson] Pollock, with the color and depth of, say, a [Mark]Rothko.”


STANLEY WHITNEY, “Good News Day,” 2019 (oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches / 183 x 183 cm), Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


BORN IN PHILADELPHIA in 1946, Whitney has lived and worked in New York for more than five decades. Since the 1990s, has has divided his time between the city and Parma, Italy. He attended the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, and earned a BFA from Kansas City Art Institute (1968) and an MFA from Yale University (1972). He taught painting and drawing at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art for more than 20 years. Currently, Whitney is a professor emeritus at the Philadelphia school.

Whitney talks with Obrist about drawing constantly from the time he was a young child—before he even knew his letters, the ways in which his travels have influenced the direction of his practice, and he also responds to a slate of questions about how he works with color. What he said, in part, follows in a brief selection from the conversation:

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: When did you come to the composition? Even if they are so different, the structure seems to be always the same.

STANLEY WHITNEY: I got to that format because I want to get to the color immediately. I don’t want to have to work on a drawing, work on a structure, and then add the color. So this format allows me just to get to color. I thought a lot about the format when I was in Italy. I spent a lot of time at the Vatican, and looking at the facade of Palazzo Farnese, and thinking about how they’re built. I looked at a lot of ancient pottery, both Greek and Roman, in terms of how things were set up – one tier, another tier, and another tier. Another thing I really liked, from Morris Louis, was the idea of gravity. That’s how that happened. With this kind of system, it allows me a lot of freedom. The paintings are all the same, but they’re all totally different. I think about them almost like people—we’re all the same, but we’re totally different.

You said that painting for you is about color, but it’s also about getting the right rhythm—getting the right combination. Again, it’s an analogy to music—you’ve said it’s like call and response. In terms of the process, I want to ask you to tell me a bit more about this—color calling another color…the rhythm… the call and response. How does that call and response work, and how do you build up the rhythm?

I think that’s just my background. Music was such a big thing. The idea of getting the right rhythm… it’s really part of me, being Afro-American, and how important music was. In terms of Africa, when they got here they couldn’t get that out of us—the music. I think music really saves us. That’s something that I kind of inherited. When I saw [Paul] Cezanne, I felt this kind of rhythm. I thought, ‘Oh, sort of like Charlie Parker’. It made sense to me in terms of his rhythm. That’s the thing that’s different about me than maybe, say, someone like Donald Judd. The work doesn’t stay still. It doesn’t behave. I don’t want the color to behave.

Can you talk about the role of titles?

Titles are another way of opening things up. Or a way to have things said out loud. I named a painting “Aretha,” which I love, because then people have to say, “Where’s Aretha?”, “Who has Aretha?”, or “I love Aretha.” Titles also identify who I am. If you did a book on my titles, you’d figure out a lot about who I am. They mix up everything from politics, to music, to silliness—all kinds of things. It’s another way of people getting involved in the work. It shows the depth of my understanding of politics, or race, or the world in general. It’s not easy for me to always name them. CT


“Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors” is on view at Galería Cayón in Mahon, Menorca, June 19-Sept. 5, 2019


TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors,” Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


The exhibition catalog “Yves Klein/Stanley Whitney” was published to coincide with the Menorca show. Explore Stanley Whitney’s practice further with these volumes published to accompany previous exhibitions: “Stanley Whitney,” “Stanley Whitney,” and “Stanley Whitney: Sketchbook.” In addition, “Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange” documents a survey presented at the Studio Museum in Harlem and includes contributions by Lauren Haynes, Thelma Golden, Robert Storr, and Lowery Stokes Sims. Forthcoming volumes include “Stanley Whitney: In the Color” by Andrianna Campbell is expected later this month, and “Stanley Whitney (Contemporary Painters Series)” by Christopher Stackhouse is due in March 2020. Lastly, “David Hammons Yves Klein / Yves Klein David Hammons” accompanied the Aspen Art Museum exhibition that explored the “resonance” between the two artists.


Installation view of “Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors,” Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


STANLEY WHITNEY, Installation view of “Poetry Afternoon,” 2019 (oil on linen, 80 x 80 inches / 203 x 203 cm), Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


Installation view of “Stanley Whitney / Yves Klein: This Array of Colors,” Galería Cayón, Mahon, Menorca. | Courtesy Galería Cayón


FIND MORE about a David Hammons x Yves Klein exhibition organized by the Aspen Art Museum in 2014


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