Remember the old Leiber and Stoller number “Is That All There Is?” It was a hit for Peggy Lee in 1969 and has since been covered often; crate diggers may prefer the notorious 1980 version produced by August Darnell for no wave/mutant disco chanteuse Cristina. Well, that song of disappointment has been playing in the background of abstract art right from the beginning. What? A black square surrounded by white? Is that all? A bunch of colored brush marks? That’s it? A grid of faint pencil marks on a bare canvas, some ordinary bricks lined up on the floor, a square segment cut out and removed from a wall? Is that all there is? Actually, this pinched refrain was voiced in the art world long before abstraction or Peggy Lee. Henri Matisse once reported the perplexity of Gustave Moreau upon seeing his work; Moreau, then his teacher, exclaimed, “You are not going to simplify painting to that degree, reduce it to that! Painting will cease to exist.” Moreau was right. In the eyes of many, painting did eventually cease to exist. Once the process of reduction was taken far enough, there was little left of painting but the idea of it, and the next logical step was conceptual art.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and so into the void from which painting had been vacated rushed all the subject matter that abstraction had put at a distance. Art became referential again. For artists who continued to avail themselves of canvas and paint, colors and lines and matter, a direct appeal to the senses but without images, without a secure referent, “Is That All There Is?” was a charge hurled from both sides. Those scattered marks and patches of color continued to give the layman (and the layman who persists in the back of the mind of the practitioner) what the song called “the feeling that something was missing.” At the same time, the abstractionist heard the voices of a certain colleague, asking with an ironic tone: Why so timid? You can’t unburden your art any more than that? While the tyro cried out, “My kid could do that!” the virtuosi of the concept sneered at works in which the great historical task of deskilling had not been pursued with sufficient radicalism or rigor.
For a long time, in other words, the abstract painter had to negotiate the anxiety that he might be doing or showing too little; more recently he has also had to worry about doing too much. Yet between the two extremes there has always been a sweet spot where a little and a lot, austerity and sensuality, have coalesced. One painter who has found the sweet spot pretty consistently is Stanley Whitney. Although he is hardly a young artist—he was born in 1946—his work has come into focus only in the past ten or fifteen years. Last year Whitney was awarded the first Robert De Niro Sr. Prize for painting, endowed by the actor in memory of his father, a notable New York School painter. (Along with curators Robert Storr and Thelma Golden and patron Agnes Gund, I was a member of the jury that made the award.) In a recent interview Whitney reminisced about arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, when the Abstract Expressionists were still thriving but were not the only draw. There were the Pop artists, Minimalists and color field painters, among others. “I watched all of it, but I wasn’t about to act on it. I was in the studio, struggling and struggling…. There was never any one thing I could say, ‘this is it.’ I was sort of in between everything.” Part of his difficulty in finding a method of working may have had to do with being African-American, having to face the question of “how the art answers the call to race.” Whitney seems to have realized that in abstraction, race would manifest itself the way most issues of identity do: indirectly and willy-nilly. There is a particular way of articulating color and rhythm in painting that might be the outcome of specifically black experience, but to the extent that’s true, it need not be insisted on; it just emerges. In any case, social and economic pressures have made it harder for younger artists to follow Whitney’s example and bide their time. But for him, persistence has paid off. By his own estimate, it wasn’t until 1994, when a visit to Egypt convinced him that ancient architecture showed a way to combine structural simplicity with visual grandeur, that he found a way of working he was certain was the right one for himself—his “piece of the puzzle.”