No Place Like Home
June 9, 2015
Allen Whiting’s rich, evocative oil paintings are sought after by people who love Martha’s Vineyard as much as he does.
Text by Louis Postel
Don’t you just love Mondays?” Allen Whiting’s painting buddy Bill McLane would ask that question as they wound their way through the Martha’s Vineyard dunescape on their way to work. 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 ancestors arrived on the Mayflower and the family has lived on the island for many generations. The son of Myles 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, who was born on the island in 1946, continues to work the family farm, which 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 like the stuff that 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 own houses that boast the kinds of views that Whiting somehow makes appear as eternal as they are ephemeral.
Interior designer Mary Rentschler is a fellow islander and Whiting fan. “I have a client who 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. Not that the life of a Martha’s Vineyard artist is without its struggles. It is Whiting’s job, after all, and even the best jobs have their challenges. “It’s real life,” he says. “And what people don’t know about it 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. Sometimes I actually wish I had blinders, because I’m paying a lot of attention to everything.”
Coupled with his ability to look at things closely is his exquisite draftsmanship. “I remember taking a life drawing class with Allen,” says Rentschler. “I used to lie 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 oils, 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-nineteenth-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.
Rentschler often takes clients to Whiting’s gallery and studio. “Allen is funny and humble and never pushy,” she says. “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 grounds. There’s a chair in the corner that you just know is meant for him to curl up in the sun and study his canvases.”
If that’s what Monday morning calls for, then that’s where you’ll find Allen Whiting. •
Editor’s Note Allen Whiting shows his work at his home gallery in West Tisbury, (508) 693-4691, allenwhiting.com.