A Conversation: Stanley Whitney
Arthur Peña: We first met in 2011 while I was at RISD and what stuck with me from that meeting was a story of how your father wasn’t allowed in museums because they were still segregated. How I remember the rest of the story is you saying that when you did have your first museum show you wanted to make paintings big enough that they wouldn’t fit through the door and the museum would have to work to get them in. Did I remember that right?
Stanley Whitney: Well it’s true that my father couldn’t go in to the Philadelphia Museum. Jack Whitten calls those years the “American Apartheid.” I have lots of stories of paintings not fitting through doors but I don’t think it’s exactly those circumstances. Although, I might have mentioned something like that. It could have been related to a story from around 2006 when my dealer José Freire came to me and asked me to make the biggest work I could make to take to Basel to try and make things happen because he kept putting me in shows and no one was paying me any mind. So I made the biggest painting I could make in my studio, 96 x 96 in., and to get it out we had to cut it in half to get it through the door. We showed it on a big expensive wall and it didn’t sell.
AP: What was interesting to me, even though I obviously remembered aspects of the story wrong, is the idea of how painting could be weaponized in a specific way.
SW: Yes, you know it’s funny you say that. I just did a 96 x 96 in. painting for Documenta 14 that’s called No to Prison Life. Growing up in the ‘60s and being a painter I had to take a stand in that position. It’s kind of like now where people are trying to figure where art fits into everything. When I was in my 20’s people would come to me and say “Hey brother, what are you doing for the race? You’re making luxury items!” All the while I felt compelled to paint, it felt important for me to do but I couldn’t defend the positon. I had to figure out what it meant for me to do it and I had a sense that Art was vital. I was in Kansas City at the time and I didn’t have any black mentors. I remember when I met Bob Reed for the first time I was shocked because I didn’t know older black painters existed. There were all these ideas about ownership, who owns what. People would try and tell me who I was. I can go home today to my neighborhood and have people tell me, “Don’t think you’re somebody.” You know, I feel that I totally made myself up. Being an artist is a courageous act and it’s a loving act.
AP: All the while expectations may be projected on to you because of what you might represent or what people might want your work to represent. You’re saying that you or your work can address certain issues but doesn’t have to.
SW: It can be anything you want. People try to pinhole you and tell you what to be and it’s not true. It’s your world. When people want to understand a culture they look at their art and I think its important to leave something behind that is cerebral. I remember at the last Rothko show I saw, if someone’s phone went off they went running out. It wasn’t church. It wasn’t religion. You could say it’s something like that but it’s not that. It gets close to something that we all have in common.
AP: So maybe a painting can live outside of the objective forces that it was created in?
SW: I think it exists outside and inside. It’s something else. It’s more about asking questions or giving people the courage to love themselves.
AP: It allows for that kind of space to happen.
SW: That’s right.
AP: You’ve talked before about the democracy of color in your work. Does that democracy shift or take on new significance as social or political issues arise?
SW: I don’t shift but I do think because of our current situation the need for great art is even more important and people have to hold course to those things that truly matter, such as democracy. We need to find hope in Art and culture. This new painting, No to Prison Life, is real. They got a lot of us in prison. I remember in ’72 during the prison revolt at Attica, I was at Yale and we didn’t hear too much about it, no body was talking about it. I can make that painting now because I have enough power to do it and no one can tell me anything. When that painting goes out in the world I can have that conversation, I can bring that conversation in. It’s like when I made a book for a show I had at Karma and in it I put a picture of Cézanne next to Malcom X, side by side.
AP: How does that kind of pictorial conflation in meaning represent itself in your work?
SW: It happens in the color. People bring their own stories to it and the work allows for them to happen all at once. The titles do that to. Peaches could be about Peaches who was in a shootout with the Panthers in Oakland or could reference a beautiful woman of a certain color who is also hard as nails. There is always a Peaches. I could talk about a reference to a Nina Simone song. There’s lots of ways for these paintings to be read and I want the work to be open with lots of possibilities. I also want people to know who painted them and where they came from. People think they have an idea of what comes out of our community but I’m always surprised by how much actually comes out of ethnic communities. Like, how much music has been created that went on to influence the whole world but then no one got paid. It’s amazing to me what’s come out of Chicago, music that the whole world loved, made the Rolling Stones and yet people never got paid. You know what I mean? I want to have paintings that can bring up different discussions and I want them to live with people and allow them that space to think about all kinds of things. It’s a mental space.
AP: You’ve talked before about how you grew up in a family that lived on the financial edge, as did I, and it’s not very often I get to talk to other artists about this. How, if at all, did that affect the vision you had for yourself and your path to being a painter?
SW: I grew up in the late ‘50s in a small block community outside of Philadelphia in a rich suburb. There were about two streets that were a mix of black and Irish folk who were there to work for the rich people, cleaning and what not. My father was a small business man and they would cut grass, work catering. At a certain point he sold insurance and there were six of us living in a one bedroom above his office. We could walk around our block but as soon as we left those few streets the police would pull over and ask us, “Where you going?” In Kansas City it seemed like I would get stopped everyday by the police. It was just normal to me and I mean I was really poor. When I decided to pursue being an artist my father said, “You can’t do this.” They thought I was crazy but I had a feeling, a sense that I had to keep going. It’s not that I wasn’t scared I just knew I had to do it. It’s like in Philadelphia when the Black Panthers came by house looking for me and I said, “Tell them I’m not here.” I had to be an artist. I think about where I am now and I think about Matisse painting those tiny beautiful paintings with the Nazis down the street at the end of the war. Or when Nixon was president and it was horrible. I just stayed in my basement and painted. The kind of artist you are is who you are. You find the thing you love and that’s what you do. You kind of don’t have much choice about the art you make. Our role is to speak truth to power.
Stanley Whitney will participate in Documenta 14 opening this spring. His show at The Modern in Fort Worth FOCUS: Stanley Whitney will run through April 2.
Arthur Peña is a painter, writer and founder of music label Vice Palace Tapes and curatorial project One Night Only. He is currently the Visiting Lecturer in Painting at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX.