Kansas City knows the alluring gridded abstractions of Stanley Whitney from his paintings in the permanent collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. His arrangements of brilliant, gestural, color blocks converse with jazz, African American quilting and the long history of American abstraction.
The internationally exhibited artist, whose works are also in the collections of the Guggenheim, the Met, the National Gallery of Canada and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, recently completed his first commissioned public art project. It was installed April 5 on the H&R Block Artspace Project Wall at the Kansas City Art Institute, where Whitney received a Bachelor of Fine Arts before earning a Master of Fine Arts from Yale.
With its rows of eye-catching color blocks divided by horizontal bands, the work is immediately recognizable as a piece by Whitney. Where it departs from his paintings on canvas is in the inclusion of the text, “No to Prison Life,” handwritten in white over a large rectangle of blue in the lower half.
At the invitation of Artspace director Raechell Smith, the work was guest-curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. “I’ve wanted to do a project with Stanley Whitney for a few years,” Smith said. She is pleased with the way Whitney’s Project Wall resonates with the “30 Americans” exhibition of leading Black artists at the Nelson-Atkins.
According to the Artspace press release, Whitney’s piece is intended “to register an urgent public protest against a U.S. judicial system that promotes arrest, incarceration, and other forms of imprisonment that often further damages lives.”
Whitney previously used the phrase, “No to Prison Life” as the title for a painting he created for the international “Documenta 14” exhibition in Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany, in 2017. According to Smith, the Project Wall represents one of first times Whitney has incorporated texts directly into his abstract paintings.
“He wanted to use a billboard as an opportunity to claim some agency,” Smith said. “This is something that has affected African American communities, and he felt it was important.” Film and literary accounts of the Attica Prison uprising and recent criminal justice reform legislation including the First Step Act also factored into the artist’s thinking about the issue, Smith said.
“Project Wall: Stanley Whitney” will continue on view into late fall.
Images courtesy of Stanley Whitney Studio and Lisson Gallery, New York