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Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon

Friday, February 9, 2024Monday, May 27, 2024

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Color Bar, 1997. Oil on linen, 72 3/4 x 85 1/4 inches (184.8 x 216.5 cm). Photo: Courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Gundlach Building
Floor 3

From early breakthroughs to mature formal experiments, How High the Moon is the first retrospective to trace the evolution of Stanley Whitney’s wholly unique and powerful abstractions over the course of his fifty-year career. The exhibition’s title is inspired by the 1940 song penned by Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis, which became a jazz standard that has conveyed enchantment, longing, and, in some interpretations, has reached for the sublime.

Since he began making them in 2002, Whitney’s square-format, loosely gridded abstract canvases have increasingly captured the imagination of viewers. Each contains four horizontal rows of alternately askant and ordered squares painted in varying degrees of opacity. While Whitney’s format has remained consistent over the past twenty years, no painting is the same as another. As he builds these immersive abstractions, Whitney holds space for his viewers to focus not on each painting’s subject, but rather on our own response to color.

Yet Whitney only began making these ever-shifting grids when he was in his mid-fifties. As has been the case with many great artists of color in the twentieth century, wider critical attention to his practice came later still. This is the first exhibition to contextualize Whitney’s best-known later paintings alongside a robust installation of the innovative works that preceded them. Between the early 1970s and the early 2000s, Whitney dedicated himself to wrestling with the spatial legacies of foreground and background, object and field in paintings such as Untitled (1979). The artist’s travels between the mid-1980s and early 1990s—first to the American West, then to Italy, and finally to Egypt—were transformational. If his works just before these travels, such as Sixteen Songs (1984), were characterized by a dynamic rhythm and interplay of colored forms suspended in space (what the artist at the time called “landscape air”), the paintings that followed were grounded by a loose framework of horizontal lines, such as By the Love of Those Unloved (1994).

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Untitled, 1979. Acrylic on canvas, 48 x 70 inches (121.9 x 177.8 cm). Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Sixteen Songs, 1984. Oil on linen, 66 x 108 1/4 inches (167.6 x 275 cm). Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). By the Love of Those Unloved, 1994. Oil on linen, diptych: 78 3/4 x 102 1/2 inches (200 x 260.4 cm) overall. Photo: Lisson Gallery, courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.


From then on, this format became increasingly consistent. Planning each painting around a fluid grid allowed Whitney to focus on exploring color’s formal and evocative qualities: the way one pigment might recall an Italian Renaissance painting in one moment and in the next suggests the vibrant shirt of a passerby.

How High the Moon features extensive installations of the artist’s improvisatory small paintings; his drawings and prints, which constitute their own important practice for Whitney; and a chronological selection of the artist’s sketchbooks spanning from 1987 to 2021, which offer a view into Whitney’s engagement with the written word as well as politics. Throughout, his work is put in the context of his diverse sources of inspiration, which include music, poetry, American quilts, and the history of art and architecture, among many others.

Whitney's powerful, color-saturated abstractions give viewers the space to feel what it means to be human, to mentally wander, and to gather the strength to survive. This touring retrospective, the first survey of Whitney’s work ever assembled, demonstrates the true height of his achievement.

After its presentation in Buffalo, the exhibition will travel to the Walker Art Center (11/14/24–03/16/25) and ICA/Boston (04/17/25–09/01/25).

Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon is organized by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum and Curated by Cathleen Chaffee, Charles Balbach Chief Curator

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). James Brown Sacrifices to Apollo. Oil on linen, 72 x 72 inches (182.9 x 182.9 cm). Photo: Lisson Gallery, courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). No to Prison Life, 2016. Signed and dated verso. Oil on linen, 96 x 96 inches (244 x 244 cm). Photo: Adam Reich. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Endless Time, 2017. Oil on canvas, 96 x 96 inches (243.8 x 243.8 cm).  Collection Buffalo AKG Art Museum; Bequest of Arthur B. Michael, by exchange, 2017 (2017:21). © 2017 Stanley Whitney

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Untitled, 2020. Monotype in watercolor and crayon on Lanaquarelle paper. 23 3/4 x 23 1/2 inches (60.3 x 59.7 cm). Photo: Two Palms, New York, courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Page from Sketchbook, 2017. Graphite and watercolor on paper. Photo: Robert McKeever, courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio. Artwork © Stanley Whitney.

Stanley Whitney (American, born 1946). Sketchbook, 1995–96. Graphite on paper. Photo: Robert McKeever. Artwork © Stanley Whitney


Photograph of a black man with glasses in a blue coat stands leaning against a table behind with his arms resting on its top, he looks at the viewer

Stanley Whitney has had solo exhibitions of his work at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York (2015), the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2017), and most recently as an official collateral event at the 59th Venice Biennale presented by the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. His works are included in the collections of many major museums, including those of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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About the Catalogue

To accompany the exhibition, the Buffalo AKG and DelMonico Books will publish the most comprehensive catalogue yet dedicated to Stanley Whitney’s pioneering fifty-year career. The book’s essays contextualize Whitney’s best-known gridded paintings from the past two decades alongside an historical assessment of his practice; the interconnected development of his works on paper; Whitney’s relationship with the written word; and the influences on his practice from art history, poetry, music, quilting, and more. The catalogue features new essays by exhibition curator Chaffee and host curators Ruth Erickson, Barbara Lee Chief Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs, The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) and Pavel S. Pyś, Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. It also features texts by Kim Conaty, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Norma Cole, a poet, painter, and translator; and Duro Olowu, a London-based fashion designer and curator. These exciting examinations of and reflections on the arc of Whitney’s career are presented alongside full-color reproductions of the works featured in the retrospective, a robust bibliography, an exhibition history, an illustrated chronology, and an extensive interview with the artist by Grégoire Lubineau and conversation between Cole and Whitney.

Exhibition Sponsors

Stanley Whitney: How High the Moon is presented by the Buffalo AKG National Council. The exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Gagosian. The project is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation in honor of the Ellsworth Kelly Centennial, and the Robert Lehman Foundation. The catalogue is produced with support from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation.


To find out more about how National Endowment for the Arts grants impact individuals and communities, visit


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