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'Signs & Symbols' at the Whitney reassesses US post-war art

— July 2012

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Theodoros Stamos, Ancestral Worship (1947) © Estate of Theodoros Stamos, courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

‘Signs & Symbols’, the third in a series of six exhibitions focused on the Whitney Museum’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 post-war 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, curated by Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Programs, in collaboration with Jane Panetta, opened on 28 June and remains on view through 28 October in the Mildred & Herbert Lee Galleries on the Whitney’s second floor.

Donna De Salvo commented:

 The post-war 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 canonical 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.

These artists had diverse influences, including Native American art, 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. Such work was an important foundation for the next generation of artists that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s, including Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein.

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 on 15 November 2012

The Whitney Museum is located at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, New York City. Museum hours are: Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm, Friday from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., closed Monday and Tuesday. General admission: $18. Concessions available

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