Rubens Ghenov cringes when asked to explain the meaning behind his paintings.
But when Ghenov, a 1999 painting alumnus and former adjunct instructor at the Tyler School of Art, once posed this same question to his mentor Stanley Whitney, he answered without hesitation.
“He immediately replied, as if he knew that I was going to ask him, and said point blank, ‘Hope,’” Ghenov said.
Whitney, a painter and professor emeritus at Tyler, is presenting the exhibit, “Drawings,” at Lisson Gallery in Manhattan until Oct. 21. The exhibit, a collection of gesture drawings dating back to 1989, is Whitney’s first major presentation of his drawings.
Despite the novelty of the show’s material, Whitney has been presenting work for more than four decades, ever since his first solo show in 1972.
Born in Philadelphia, Whitney received his BFA from Kansas City Art Institute and MFA from Yale University. As he progressed through his painting career, he worked as the chair of Tyler’s painting department from 1998 to 2001.
“Teaching allowed me to have a voice and do my main work in the studio,” Whitney said.
Whitney is best known for his color-grid paintings. He begins with three to five horizontal lines, creating a grid to fill in with color. His method for choosing and placing color is systematic: the colors have to work well together so the eye moves throughout the painting without being stuck on one particular color, creating an underlying rhythm, said Mackie Healy, Lisson Gallery’s head of communications.
“Rhythm is important to his placement of color,” Healy said. “It’s part of a progression. He starts at the top left and moves from there.”
She added that this sense of rhythm connects Whitney’s paintings to his drawings.
Rather than expressing rhythm through color placement, Healy said Whitney’s drawings convey rhythm through the curving lines of crayon and graphite, each scribble revealing the gestures of his hand in the artwork.
While some artists draw preliminary sketches before creating a painting, these drawings are not early drafts, but completely separate works, Healy added.
For Whitney, each medium serves a different function in his art.
“The medium dictates the work,” Whitney said. “Painting deals more with math, and drawing deals more with line. Every medium gives you something different.”
Ghenov said the rhythmic quality of Whitney’s work transcends visual art and even music.
“Although he himself and others have spoken of the work vis-à-vis music, especially that of jazz, the work does more than simply compare,” Ghenov said. “For me, he’s carrying the torch of Coltrane, Dolphy, Coleman, Rollins, Davis.”
Whitney’s guidance has greatly shaped Ghenov, he said, both on an artistic and personal level.
Ghenov said Whitney was able to bring out complexities in students when they couldn’t express themselves verbally or visually.
Even as Ghenov paints today, he said he can feel the lingering influence of Whitney in his work.
“His voice and work are always present in my studio, ghosts that remain because I trust and love them,” he said.
When Ghenov felt something that he couldn’t quite articulate in words or on the canvas, Whitney could “peer” into that inner thought and draw it out of him, he said.
“His approach to teaching was holistic, everything mattered, everything connected,” Ghenov said. “He spoke the voice of things that in culture remained hidden.”