Synesthesia, a utopian correlation of the arts at the level of sympathetically resonating sensation and experience, has been with us for a long time. At the turn of the nineteenth century it was the Symbolist ideal, a kind of pre-psychedelic phantasmagoria of complete surrender to perception. Predicated on Arthur Rimbaud's translation of the vowels of the alphabet into colors, and his dictum that "The Poet makes himself into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses", (1) this tendency touched painting in Walter Pater's more decorous pronouncement that "All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music." (2)
The human organism yearns for harmony and order even as the world tends towards cacophony and confusion. Accordingly we are programmed to establish patterns to organize apparent disparity, and we are prone to applying those principles across the board no matter how emphatically and for whatever reasons we are told to make categorical distinctions. We think and feel by analogy. Rightly or wrongly - though what is "wrong" with any articulate pleasure? - we make our way through chaos on the lookout for correspondences.
In keeping with that propensity, there is little question but that what what we see influences what we hear, and what we hear impacts what we see.
Indeed, Whitney belong to a cohort of painters - including Mary Heilmann and David Reed, to name only two - who were emboldened to open their horizons to possibilities consciously disavowed or matter-of-factly set aside by the previous generation of 1960's artists, possibilities that encompassed greater chromatic range and more varied facture, all the while maintaining a non-ideological focus on "fundamentals", albeit fundamentals in flux. As a consequence, Whitney's essential painting formula - lateral bars of rich, generally warm color containing vertical bands or blocks of comparably alluring, though rarely pure hues - quiver with the vitality of choices just made, nuances just discovered, accidents that have just happened. (...) Think of him as a piano virtuoso redesigning his instrument so that each key looks like the note it struck.
Of course music is not only a matter of pitch and pace but of duration. From that vantage point one might think of Whitney's smaller canvases as short bursts of notes and his larger paintings as sustained, flexing explorations of the same basic formula structures, ones in which the adjacency of primaries and secondaries, and the buzz they emit at the edges where they rub against each other, gives way to a greater concentration on the internal expansion of a color when left alone to fill the area the artist has assigned it. In this regard it may be helpful to mention that Whitney studied at the Yale University School of Art, where, after his stint teaching at Black Mountain College, Josef Albers served as overall director of the program.
These are the tricks of the trade of modern abstraction, but while every painter knows or should know them, not every painter deploys them with equal finesse or authority. For Stanley Whitney - who among other things frequented the studio of Robert Rauschenberg who had studied under Albers at Black Mountain thereby double-dipping in the German master's methods - these tricks aren't really tricks at all. Yet he knows them so well that they have become second nature, and rather than putting them to work to create a picture that fools the eye, he lets them play amongst themselves. (...) In the tradition of call-and-response, Stanley Whitney's paintings reply with sounds he sees, and thanks to him, we can see the too.
(1) Arthur Rimbaud, I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2007), 33.
(2) Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888), 140
Excerpts of The Sounds he Sees of Stanley Whitney: Dance the Orange - The Studio Museum in Harlem Exhibition Catalogue (43) p, by Robert Storr (2015)