Whiting’s Whereabouts

by Louis Postel for New England Home | July 2015 Read in New England Home

Painter Allen Whiting in his studio with his work, "Vineyard Sound From Menemsha." Photo: Martha's Vineyard Times
Painter Allen Whiting in his studio with his work, “Vineyard Sound From Menemsha.” Photo: Martha’s Vineyard Times

Allen Whiting recalls the rhetorical question his painting buddy Bill McLane would ask as they wound their way through the Martha’s Vineyard dunescape on their way to work.

“Don’t you just love Mondays?”

How wonderful indeed, to greet the day observing every nuance of mists and grasses, inlets and shores, farms and boats, as opposed to creeping along through Monday morning traffic hell.

Whiting enjoys a long history with Martha’s Vineyard. His family, which arrived on the Mayflower, has been on the island for many generations. The son of Miles Standish built the family manse, which still stands amid the old elms and maples of the West Tisbury property, a stone’s throw from the house Whiting lives in today. And Whiting continues to work the family farm, a farm he gladly subsidizes through the sale of his art, noting that the reverse used to be true for many painters, including his grandfather.

“I don’t think about planting corn or grassland management,” Whiting admits, “I think about painting.”

For anyone contemplating hanging on after the summer season to try his hand at becoming a professional artist, Whiting’s life seems life the stuff dreams are made of. Carly Simon, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, and Bill and Hillary Clinton all have Whitings on their walls. So do a few of the island’s billionaires, who by a $10 million property to live—and the one behind it, to ensure they keep the views Whiting somehow makes as eternal as they are ephemeral.

Interior designer Mary Rentschler is a fellow islander and Whiting fan. “One of my clients is a high-powered lawyer in Washington, D.C.,” she says. “He has one of Allen’s oils in his office that shows oystering in Chilmark. He says it works like a relief valve in his airless city tower, allowing him to take a breath.”

Life is, indeed, wonderful on Monday mornings and every morning. But after the summer cocktail parties have faded away, there’s just Whiting with his canvas. “It’s real life,” he says. “And what often gets left out is the loneliness of it all, the struggle. “The world’s not clearing a path for you. You have to be out there every day, freeing the hand—like being a dancer, you have to get out there and dance.”

That’s why he avoids working from photographs, he says. “I go out in nature with a raw canvas hungry to take it all in, just as a hungry person goes to Whole Foods. Sometimes I actually wish I had blinders, because I’m paying a lot of attention to everything.”

Coupled with his ability to look closely is his exquisite draftsmanship.  “I remember taking a life drawing class with Allen,” says Rentschler. “I used to lie down across my sketchbook just because I didn’t want him to see my work. His was just too good.”

Beyond technique lies art.

Whiting’s muscularity, his majestic perspectives in incomparably rich, slow-drying oil, as opposed to acrylics, bring the Vineyard’s twilit, off-season towns and its romantic coastlines aproned by sun-dappled dunes to life. You’d have to go back to Albert Bierstadt and other mid-19th century luminists for equal scope. Whiting’s workmen and fishermen are just as vital, and even at times heroic. The laboring man in “New Roof”,  for example, shares a distinct kinship with the strapping figures of Thomas Hart Benton. All the same, what makes Whiting more than a mere synthesizer of historic styles is a receding, lonesome quality to his work that is all his own. There’s a sense that not just the Vineyard, but America itself may be fading away, sadly, proudly, while forever poised to somehow reinvent itself.

“Some of his landscapes can border on abstract but I believe what makes them work is his craftsmanship, his ability to render almost anything: a face, a boat, a cow,” Rentschler says. “He can paint a whole bunch of boats in a harbor and each one looks different. In my guest powder room, I have a self-portrait he did in charcoal, that’s on the inside flap of his book, A Painter at Sixty.”

“I like taking clients on field trips to his gallery and studio in his home in West Tisbury,” says Rentschler. Allen’s funny and humble and never pushy. He’s got a lot of his experiments scattered around the studio: paintings on old doors, a series of brick sculptures, and found objects from the ancestral ground. There’s a chair in the corner that you  know is meant for him curling up in the sun, studying his canvases.”

If that’s what Monday morning calls for, then that’s where you’ll find Allen Whiting.