Colors make us feel things.
Blues can be cool and calming while red can agitate and excite. Depending on the temperature of a color, we might respond differently. And when colors collide in complimentary pairings? They have a soothing effect based in their being connected.
The works of Stanley Whitney prove this by playing with color blocked juxtapositions. His large paintings featuring grids of color, oozing into and around each other in a geometric march of four sided shapes. They remind of television test patterns and photographer’s color cards: they appear official but are looser, more fluid, meditations on color compliments.
They shouldn’t make direct sense but they do. Whitney’s paintings don’t seek to be an ABC of colors, steeped in color theory beyond the grasp of a lay person, but they challenge viewers to comprehend what it means to have so many different colors in one place. Often by way of an underlining color or a connective tissue of hue information, you are given a feeling of cooperation despite so many colorful elements present.
In a way, Whitney’s work is a bit like visual ASMR in that they feel comfortable and tactile despite being one dimensional and sight based. I’ve seen his work a few times—Particularly 2011’s Blue Meets Yellow at the Palm Springs Museum Of Art—and it provides a strange comfort. The painting feels rewarding, in a way: the way the green moves to the yellow and the blue to the black amidst so many other colorful friends provides a unique moment of zen based in the color wheel.
That’s the joy of Whitney: he plays on our knowledge of colors and how they interact with each other. Our understanding of color is still somewhat alien but there are certain undeniable psychological associations with parts of the rainbow. Whitney knows that and he has fun in that notion.
And perhaps that is why Whitney’s work is so breathtaking: it uses all of our associations and information with color and throws them all into the air, creating something comfortable in the combination. In musing about music, Scientific American found color can make us feel too.
But visual signs do sometimes have emotional associations. For example, colors are notoriously emotionally evocative, and arguments about what color something should be painted are the source of an alarming number of marital arguments. And “V” stimuli, such as that yield sign on the street, have long been realized (within the human factors literature) to serve as the most evocative geometrical shape for warning symbols. But notice that color and “V” stimuli are plausibly about human expression. In particular, color has recently been argued to be “about” human skin and the exhibited emotions – which is why red grabs our attention, since it’s associated with blushing and blood – and “V” stimuli have been suggested to be “about” angry faces (namely, angry eyebrows).
Whitney is rewarding you by letting you indulge in colors. Unlike other geometric, color based persons like Ellsworth Kelly or Kenneth Noland, Whitney celebrates the conversation of colors instead of only the juxtaposition or difference as it relates to space: it’s about the collaboration despite all odds.
There is something so relaxing about his lack of blur, keeping everything distinct yet together. Like Mark Rothko and Morris Louis, Whitney finds comfort and joy in putting colors together and seeing what happens. But, unlike them, his paintings are full. They’re busy. They’re antithetical. They exist in harmony despite it all, much like people when at their best.