Stanley Whitney’s retrospective exhibition ‘How High the Moon’ honours decades of artistic dedication

Stanley Whitney, the 77-year-old abstractionist’s retrospective exhibition, “How High the Moon,” recently debuted at the Buffalo AKG Art Museum in Western New York, per Unlike his counterparts who constantly reinvented their styles, Whitney has spent the last two decades honing variations of a singular motif—a square, gridded image. 

His reluctance to deviate from this path forms the cornerstone of his retrospective, curated by AKG chief curator Cathleen Chaffee. Rather than measuring Whitney’s success through the lens of innovation, the exhibition celebrates his unwavering dedication to his artistic vision.

Chaffee, alongside other critics and journalists, lauds Whitney as one of the greatest living American painters—a sentiment echoed throughout the art world. However, Whitney’s journey to recognition has been far from straightforward. Despite his current acclaim, he faced years of obscurity and financial struggle, a reality that complicates his relationship with retrospective exhibitions.

In a candid interview, Whitney expressed ambivalence towards retrospection, acknowledging the tension between honouring his past and striving for future growth. His studio rituals—listening to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” and initiating each painting with a single brush stroke—reflect his commitment to consistency amid a changing landscape.

Portrait of Stanley Whitney by Aundre Larrow, 2023. © Aundre Larrow

The title of the exhibition, borrowed from a jazz standard, holds personal significance for Whitney, evoking themes of aspiration and the cyclical nature of artistic endeavour. Each painting in Whitney’s oeuvre serves as a testament to his lifelong pursuit of a “signature painting,” a quest that led him to draw inspiration from classical architecture and ancient civilizations during his time in Italy and Egypt.

Despite decades of perseverance, commercial success eluded Whitney until relatively recently. His journey serves as a reminder of the arduous path many Black artists have trodden in search of recognition within the art world. Through it all, Whitney remained steadfast in his commitment to his craft, emphasising that true success lies not in accolades or sales but in the act of creation itself.

As visitors navigate the exhibition’s chronologically arranged works, they bear witness to Whitney’s evolution from experimentation to mastery. Each untitled piece from his early years at Yale speaks to his restless exploration, while his later compositions reflect a synthesis of influences and experiences.

Ultimately, “How High the Moon” transcends mere celebration, offering a poignant reflection on the resilience and perseverance required to carve out a place in the annals of art history. For Whitney, the journey is far from over—it is a continuous striving towards new heights of creative expression.

As the exhibition invites viewers to immerse themselves in Whitney’s artistic odyssey, it serves as a timely reminder of the transformative power of dedication and the enduring legacy of those who dare to defy convention. “Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon” stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of an artist whose journey has only just begun.

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