Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street
Mildred & Herbert Lee Galleries, second floor
Signs & Symbols
June 28-October 28, 2012
Signs & Symbols, the third in a series of six exhibitions focused on the Whitney’s collection, takes stock of the period from the mid-1940s to the end of the 1950s, drawing upon the Museum’s deep collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, and photographs. This exhibition reconsiders this critical postwar moment — a time perhaps most frequently associated with a select group of Abstract Expressionists and their large-scale, highly abstract canvases and gestural brushwork. By contrast and through a more textured narrative, Signs & Symbols highlights primarily abstract work completed on diverse scales, engaged with more figurative signs and symbols, and by a larger group of artists, many of whom are lesser known and rarely exhibited. The exhibition is curated by Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, in collaboration with Jane Panetta.
Donna De Salvo comments: “The postwar period that Signs & Symbols makes its subject has become so identified with the heroic abstraction of New York School painting that it's easy to overlook the broader, more nuanced investigations into representation and abstraction that occupied artists throughout the country at the time. The Whitney's collection is wonderfully rich in these experiments as they play out nationally. And from the vantage of 2012, the range and variety of abstractions mediated by figurative signs and symbols takes on a new order of interest.”
While key canonized Abstract Expressionists play an essential part in the exhibition (often represented by atypical examples of their work), among them Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Richard Pousette-Dart, Barnett Newman, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, the show’s scope extends to the work of artists less immediately associated with the period such as Ivan Le Lorraine Albright, Will Barnet, Forrest Bess, Byron Browne, Dorothy Dehner, Herbert Ferber, Ellwood Graham, Morris Graves, David Hare, John Ward Lockwood, Boris Margo, Alice Trumbull Mason, Alfonso Ossorio, Anne Ryan, Charles Seliger, Theodoros Stamos, Richard Stankiewicz, Mark Tobey, Bradley Walker Tomlin, Hugh Townley, and Steve Wheeler.
In considering the nature of this work, the exhibition presents examples indebted to a range of diverse influences, including Native American art, the role of mythic imagery, Eastern calligraphy, and the surrounding natural world. These influences worked to establish a new national aesthetic imbued with universal meaning that attempted to move beyond European Cubism and Surrealism. To achieve this, many of the artists presented here utilized highly personal and symbolic systems as the formal basis for their work — whether through calligraphic marks, pictograms, invented languages, or symbolic forms functioning as referential markers.
For example, the installation includes artists such as Morris Graves, Norman Lewis, Charles Seliger, and Mark Tobey — abstract artists often sidelined in this narrative despite having made calligraphic and highly symbolic work related to notions of a universal unconscious. Artists such as Adolph Gottlieb and Bradley Walker Tomlin explicitly utilized pictograms and calligraphic mark-making as an alternative to representation, striving to establish an alternative vocabulary for abstraction. The show also highlights Indian Space painters such as Will Barnet and Steve Wheeler — artists whose all-over compositions were inspired by the flatness and geometric characteristics present in Native American art. Ultimately, these varied investigations contributed an important foundation for the next generation of artists that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s; Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein, also included in the exhibition, readily embraced distinctly American subjects while similarly incorporating highly individualized systems of signs and symbols into their work.
This is the third in a multiyear series of six shows reassessing the Whitney’s collection in anticipation of the Museum’s move downtown in 2015. The earlier exhibitions were Breaking Ground: The Whitney’s Founding Collection and Real/Surreal. The fourth in the series is Sinister Pop, which opens November 15, 2012.