(A Reflection)

SIGNS & SYMBOLS at the Whitney Museum

June 28 - October 28, 2012


Mark Rothko (1903–1970), Agitation of the Archaic, 1944.
Oil on canvas, 35 3/8 × 54 1/4 in.

I often wonder why more museum exhibitions are not structured around an institution’s own collection. Especially in this competitive town known for its distaste for repetition, one often gets the impression that museums encourage their curators to look far afield rather than to focus on what is already there. One can only imagine the thousands-of-square-feet-worth of museum storage, which are filled with artworks that for decades have not seen the light of day. These include works of the past, but also recent acquisitions. How many contemporary artists, whose works are part of the permanent collections at MoMA, The Metropolitan or the Whitney, for example, have actually seen their work on public display?

Therefore, it is refreshing that as of late some exceptions have occurred. While it might be due to the volatile economy and its accompanying budget deficits, or simply to the fact that overwhelming inventories are becoming better organized in the digital era, various national and international museums are beginning to take an inward look and to put together exhibitions that draw extensively from their own holdings. There certainly is a special pleasure to gain from these somewhat self-analytical and unpredictable shows, in which curators can uncover some long-forgotten treasures and present it for public revaluation.

After MoMA’s crowd-pleasing “Abstract Expressionism New York” exhibition (2010/2011) - the most prominent local example of such projects in the last couple of years - the Whitney now follows suit with a much more humble but also enchantingly intimate look at American abstraction of the immediate postwar period (mid-1940s to late 1950s). Curated by Donna De Salvo in collaboration with Jane Panetta, “Signs & Symbols” is the third in a series of six exhibitions aimed at reassessing the Whitney’s collection in anticipation of its projective move downtown in 2015.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903–1974), Vigil, 1948.
Oil on canvas, 36 × 48 in.

Culling from its collection of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, and photographs, “Signs & Symbols” should not be confused with a survey of any sort. It consciously offers glimpses rather than an overview. Nevertheless, according to the curators, “to challenge perceived notions of this time period,” when the witnessed horrors of World War II and the hardships that followed prompted many artists to wonder “what to paint next”.

As its title suggests, the exhibition explores visuals that lean towards the mythic. When I asked how they went about selecting works from the collection, De Salvo and Panetta explained: “We cast a very wide net and began by looking through the Whitney’s digital database of every work in the collection that roughly fit the relevant time range–approximately 1945-1959. We then worked to pare this down to examples that supported the show’s thesis and that simultaneously allowed for a range of key artists and works across all mediums. Lastly, we spent considerable time in the Museum’s storage looking at and discussing all of these works in order to hone the selection even further.” This process has led them to a group of works that sufficiently describes just how diverse the search for a new pictorial language was.

Interestingly, “Signs & Symbols” begins with a work that is far from abstract, but which serves as a perfect illustration of the artist’s struggle at the time. It is George Grosz’s watercolor “Painter of the Hole”, which was completed two years after the war. It depicts a famished artist, who surrounded by a crumbling world, is facing his decaying easel with anxiety. On it sits a canvas, whose sole subject is not the horrific scenery, but a fear-inducing void. The latter sums up the uncertainty of the artist’s role in the future, as well as the visual language that would emerge from the post-war generation. From here, “Signs & Symbols” embarks on a journey that seeks to provide answers to Grosz’ contemplation. In America, this new language would manifest as abstraction, a visual language not influenced by Western concepts of art making, but by various “indigenous” sources, ranging from Native American and international primitive art, to Eastern calligraphy and 20th Century psychology.

Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), One and Others, 1955.
Painted and stained wood, 18 5/8 × 20 × 16 7/8 in.

It might be the exhibition’s strongest aspect that its examination of how these interests manifested involves many atypical works by some of the most prominent figures associated with the ABEX movement, such as Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko, as well as signature pieces by less prominent names. The latter group encompasses the formidable sculptors Richard Stankiewicz and David Hare, for example, as well as Jean Follett and Hugh Townley. De Salvo and Panetta confide that while embarking on their project, they “were not at all familiar with all of the works – or even all of the artists” and that “this was one of the most revelatory aspects of the process.” Due to their commitment to offering a sense of range, they “unearthed works that have rarely been exhibited at the museum, or at least not in several decades.” It is this joy of discovery, which first experienced by the curators and which will affect even the most seasoned audience that sets this show apart.

“Ancestral Worship” (1947) by Theodore Stamos, a work that hints at Miro’s influence but holds its unique voice through many personal marks and notations, is one such discovery; so is Mark Rothko’s “Agitation of the Archaic” (1944), an otherworldly landscape that begins to shift away from Gorky’s impact and becomes dominated by flattened forms and translucent geometric planes.

Despite the large variety of stylistic approaches assembled here, all of the featured artists shared the ambition to liberate their forms from narrative contexts and reading. Their new forms became more universal and symbolically suggestive. As a result, these began to manifest as the artist’s individual and mysterious code.

This is best exemplified by the work of Adolph Gottlieb. In fact, according to the curators, Adolph Gottlieb’s “Vigil”, 1948, “was one of the key works that were essential to the installation from the very beginning and that became points of departure for what the show was trying to present.” The composition, which belongs to Gottlieb’s Pictographs, is dominated by images of eyes and cryptic symbols that are enclosed by a loose grid. Though inspired by the archaic art he had encountered in the Southwest, and African tribal art Gottlieb’s symbolism did not emulate any particular culture or place. Instead, it embraced a vocabulary that was applied by means of free association and rooted in the subconscious. In addition to the exhibition “Adolph Gottlieb: Gravity, Suspension, Motion: Paintings 1954-1972” hosted at Pace Gallery earlier this spring, “Signs & Symbols” should support the new case for Gottlieb’s undeniable importance.

Forrest Bess (1911–1977), Drawings, 1957.
Oil on canvas, 8 × 28 in.

Since the last Whitney Biennial, in which his work was presented in a solo installation, much more attention has also been paid to one of the finest and most obscure American artists, Forrest Bess (1911-1977). Bess coined himself a “visionary painter”, who if closing his eyes in a dark room could see the color, lines, and forms that would then populate his canvases. His painting entitled “Drawings” (1957) features five distinct forms. Each is featured in its own rectangular section, accentuating their immediate iconic presence. Concrete but without being clearly referential, Bess’ shapes reflect his interest in alchemy, the philosophy of Carl Jung, and the rituals of Australian aborigines.

While currently well known for his paintings based on his personal life, including images of his wife, daughter and family pets, Will Barnet (B. 1911) started out as an abstractionist. A central figure in a New York movement referred to as Indian Space Painting, Barnet based his early semi-abstract works primarily on Native American art, eliminating the traditional distinction between figure and ground. “The group of artists loosely known as the Indian Space painters–so examples such as Will Barnet and Steve Wheeler–could certainly use further re-visiting”, state De Salvo and Panetta. “While they’ve each had individual shows fairly recently, it could be productive to bring together this group of artists (that extends well beyond Barnet and Wheeler, of course) within a more comprehensive context.”

Several of the works in “Signs & Symbols” seem to have sprung out of a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Louise Bourgeois’ sculpture “One and Others” (1955), a cluster of biomorphic forms whose color patterns are suggestive of animal skins, William Baziotes’ ethereal “Sea Forms” (1951) that is suggestive of a underwater world unknown to mankind, or Charles Seliger’s finely compartmentalized abstraction “Internal Space” (1945), among them. When viewing them, Rothko’s words from 1945 begin to resonate: “our paintings, like all myths, combine shreds of reality with what is considered "unreal" and insist upon the validity of the merger." In the end, what Rothko and his peers formulated visually remains difficult to describe. In fact, as Gottlieb pointed out, when he knew what his unconsciously applied forms meant, he abandoned them immediately “because that would have been boring.” By presenting a new focused angle in the context of a movement usually generalized as post-war Abstractionism, “Signs & Symbols” succeeds in shedding new light onto a subject that still encourages exploration. After all, this generation of painters set the tone for much of what was to follow. In the meantime, it is a rare pleasure to encounter so many treasures dusted off finally for us to enjoy.