Sign language is a system of communicating by hand gestures. It is a substitute for the spoken word that can be used by people of different cultures to share ideas and emotions. In the context of twentieth century painting, its meaning expands. It includes marks and symbols in which references to earlier art are embedded, and it is also a metaphor for two important and sometimes overlapping developments: the emergence of distinct gestural styles, and the embrace of non-objective imagery.
By mid-century, painting had become both an international language and a vehicle for self-expression. Brushstrokes, as individualized as handwriting, were free to reveal the subconscious or to deliver messages that were independent of subject matter. Artists invented and became the active verbs of this language: witness Joan Mitchell's physical movement of the arm to create aggressive painterly passages, Cy Twombly's repetitive motion of a crayon to produce automatic writing, and Jackson Pollock's abandonment of brushes in favor of poured and dripped paint. Mark Rothko's glowing, brushy icons were a new dialect in this language, quiet and contemplative in contrast to Cleve Gray's bravura statement on an otherwise serene color field.
The cornerstones of this sign language were laid early in the twentieth century by antitraditional artisans: Cubists, Fauves, Surrealists, German Expressionists, experimental interpreters of modem reality. Their contributions formed a new lexicon of subjects and of ways of painting that continues to be referenced in the "texts" of later generations of artists. This selection of works from the Museum's permanent collection reinforces the universality, and confirms the resonance and endurance, of these highly personalized means of artistic communication.