Throughout my conversation with Whitney, a tension between autonomy and community emerged: mixed feelings about the New York art scene, and teaching itself. Though his occupation required a significant social investment—more speaking and interacting than most occupations—he told me that he didn’t maintain relationships with his students. “Students put their claws in and then don’t let go,” he said. He never wanted “disciples” around him.
Whitney’s painting process, of course, requires just such engagement and withdrawal. He begins by laying down one color, then stepping away and considering the correct next move. He’s likened the process to jazz musicians’ “call and response,” as they improvise and engage with each other.
As he paints one swatch after another, Whitney attempts to maintain a sense of equality, so that each part of the canvas is as interesting as any other. He concerns himself with what he thinks of as transitions, or how the viewer’s eye moves from one square to the next, without trapping it in any particular part. Nevertheless, he’s also aiming for his audiences’ lingering, endless examinations. “Every square or every color could be a painting in itself,” he said. He pointed to a white square: “That might be enough for someone to look at all day long.”