Sign ☮ the Times

Signs & Symbols
Whitney Museum of American Art
Through October 28, 2012
Saturday I woke up early, went for a run in Central Park, had breakfast at The Carlyle, and at 10 went over to the Whitney Museum to meet the artist and director Michael Lee Nirenberg (I just finished an interview with him on his new performance documentary Redacted), the actor James Franco, who Nirenberg was meeting to discuss doing the voice-over narrative for another doc, and Nirenberg's assistant Lana (who also works in the film industry, mostly punching up scripts for comedies) to catch the new exhibit Signs & Symbols, featuring the work of Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Tobey, Will Barnet, Forrest Bess, and others.

Drawn from the permanent collection, the works in the show represent a strain of graphic expressionism that was largely overshadowed in the Fifties by more painterly works, such as Jackson Pollock's spattered canvases and Mark Rothko's stained, atmospheric takes on Veronica's Veil.

One of the first pieces we see is a sculpture by David Smith called Hudson River (1951, above). It's comprised of welded steel, bent and twisted into small punctuation-like forms. As we take it in, Lana points out that the title of the show was the name of a Nabokov short story that was published as both "Signs and Symbols" and "Symbols and Signs." "I think that the ambiguity that Nabokov had toward that story relates to the uncertainty of the artworks here," she says. "These guys were coming up with their own kind of language."

Franco agrees, and Niremberg wanders into another gallery, stopping before two Pollock ink drawings (both "Untitled" [1939–42] and [1944]). He points out how the calligraphy in these smaller pieces is like a letter, or poem, when compared to the larger works that he would become known for.

I stop in front of an Adolph Gottlieb, "Frozen Sounds #1" (1951, right), a masterpiece, in my opinion, and remark that he always seemed to be under-recognized historically as an important painter -- the series of Imaginary Landcapes being very important. "Too Jewy," piped in Lana. Nirenberg's eyes roll back, and he groans, "Here we go again, Lana...your anti-Semitism is so predictable." Franco and I laugh at their little in-joke. (Lana is half-Jewish on her mother's side; her father is Japanese.) "I kind of agree with Lana," I say, "if she is maybe referring to some parallels between Gottlieb's compositions and Hebraic writing." Franco picks up on this immediately.

He says, "I can see the parallels. Hebraic writing, unlike ours, is regulated vertically. Latin characters are firmly planted on a baseline. Hebraic letters cling to an upper register...." I point out how Gottlieb's colored shapes float above a horizon line, all the action taking place above ground level. Franco continues, " if suspended from an inverse gravity, like rays of light or something. You are reading the letters as if they are coming over a horizon. Anything above the register line is the Absolute, below is the domain of writing, or mankind. Only one letter traditionally breaks this demarcated line: Lamed, which refers to the word lamad, meaning to learn or to teach and is the root of the word Talmud." I point out how Gottlieb is using paint, something traditionally outside the realm of language, to create a new language based on shape and color. "Still too Jewy," Lana says, smiling.

As we wander around the show, we stop in front of Forrest Bess's painting "Letters." Bess had been included in the last Whitney Biennial with six paintings, documentation of his writings, and photographs of his attempts at self-transformative surgery. Franco muses out loud, "Bess was a Texas fisherman whose colorfully stark paintings were largely intended to be symbolic keys to a personal theory about the essential hermaphroditism of humans. The paintings alone are profound, but the accompanying texts he left behind, mostly excerpts from letters to the critic Meyer Shapiro, give a crucial, additional understanding of his work. Some might think Bess was insane, and considering that he performed self-surgery on his penis to help prove his theories of hermaphroditism, there are at least grounds for this. Bess spent his life isolated on the Gulf, seventy miles outside of Houston, making a scant living from fishing and his paintings. He started showing in New York at the same time as the Abstract Expressionists but didn't enjoy the same turn of acceptance that they did in the Sixties. As with Pollock and some of the others, his early work derived from the Mexican muralists -- such as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera -- and ideas of infusing myths into the artwork. Van Gogh's landscapes and still lifes were also influential to Bess, as was his example as a letter writer. There was ostensibly a master book that Bess called his 'thesis,' now lost, in which he detailed his ideas of the liberation of humankind through hermaphroditism. He had hoped to show these theories alongside the paintings, but Betty Parsons -- who also showed Pollock and Rothko -- refused."

"She did show his paintings, though," Lana, always keen on business details, interjects, "and did sell a few." The Whitney accompanied the paintings with his letters to Shapiro, Carl Jung, and others whom he trusted with his psychosexual explorations. The most crucial and disturbing of these accounts details the fistula he made on the underside of his penis to transform himself into a hermaphrodite, of sorts.

At noon we go into the bookstore. Lana buys some postcards, the new biography of Martin Kippenberger, and a scarf printed with a Roy Lichtenstein design. Nirenberg buys a book of photographs of silly dogs dressed up in funny costumes and in hilarious poses, by William Wegman. He says, "My son is going to love this! Oliver really likes dogs!" Franco kids Nirenberg that he was using Oliver as an excuse to buy the book. Then we go to the café to buy large coffees and go outside to smoke.

We have to leave early to make a two-o'clock matinee of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park. As we walk down Madison from 75th to 48th Street, we continue discussing Forrest Bess. Nirenberg muses aloud, "When I went to the Biennial, I almost got sick reading the descriptions of what he did to himself. And the photos! [Bess took pictures of his body before and after the operations.] He was insane, wasn't he? I mean if he hadn't been a painter, would we consider him to be a genius or just crazy for what he did?"

As we continue walking, the park is to our right, and the coffee we bought from the museum café is good. Lana jumps into the dialog, "He is kind of like a more fucked-up version of van Gogh. Instead of cutting off his ear, he almost cut off his dick! I think it makes his work even more interesting -- I mean, how many artists are that committed to their fucked-up ideas?"

Franco responds, "You're right, but that's because his ideas are interesting as ideas, whether he was medically right or not about how hermaphroditism might lead to utopia. Immortality is not important when he is using such ideas for his art. In the conceptual realm of art, his ideas only need to open questions and create nodes for new discussion. But when he started practicing these ideas on his own body, he added the pressure of actually being medically correct about his theories, instead of just theoretically provocative." I agree, and Franco continues, "The self-surgery was where the line between sanity and instability became ambiguous, but I suppose that was the point, and that was why it was important to have the writings alongside the paintings. For Bess, the paintings were gestures as concrete as the self-surgery. They were symbols intended to unlock the Jungian collective unconscious in all of us." Even though school is out, Franco still talks like he is writing a paper for some art theory class.

Later, as we hurried down Broadway trying to catch a cab to that new restaurant Cana, in Tribeca, the marquee lights started coming on, signs of a different sort. - Bradley Rubenstein


The Whitney Museum of American Art is at 945 Madison Avenue in New York, New York.

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.