Just when we thought it was safe to close the volume on Abstract Expressionism for awhile, here comes a major exhibition of late ‘40s and ‘50s sculpture to announce that the facts are not all in yet. The show is “The Third Dimension: Sculpture of the New York School,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art through March 3, and it delivers revelations of a glaring kind.

First, we are reminded that the history of sculpture has been obscured by painting during the period when American art finally stood on its own.

Second, “The Third Dimension’s” roster of 22 artists contains almost as many forgotten ones as sculptors who have remained in the international limelight. For every Isamu Noguchi or David Smith, there’s a Raoul Hague, a Frederick Kiesler or a Richard Lippold.


Third, the exhibition’s pervasive figurative allusions question the notion that nonobjective art reigned supreme during the Abstract Expressionist era. Apart from Willem deKooning’s paintings of women, such expressions of heroic agony as Rothko’s brooding clouds of color and Clyfford Still’s ragged flames have come to symbolize the New York School. “The Third Dimension” suggests that organic or even humanoid sculpture might be an equally apt trademark.

Lisa Phillips, the Whitney’s associate curator and head of branch museums, has assembled about 50 works made between 1945 to 1960 in her latest investigation of three-dimensional art. (Another, in 1979, was called “Sculpture in the Age of Painting.”) She presents sculpture as a liberated form, not as fluid or spontaneous as its painted contemporaries but freed from ancient, physical strictures by the explorations of Cubists, Constructivists and Surrealists. The New York sculptors were also free from traditional figurative concepts, but few of them completely purged the figure from their art.

Tall, upright individuals are here in Smith’s steel “Tanktotem IV,” Noguchi’s pink marble “Kouros,” Seymour Lipton’s nickel-silver plated “Sorcerer” and Richard Stankiewicz’s cast iron and steel “Kabuki Dancer.” These strange, vertical beings stand rather like primitive sentries in one gallery, their names evoking foreign cultures, totems possessing magical power or, in David Hare’s case, the familiar feeling of “Waiting in the Cold.” So strong is the figurative presence here that all vertical, roughly human-proportioned pieces seem to blossom into personages, no matter how abstract.

Louise Bourgeois’ red and black painted wood “Mortise,” a 4 1/2-foot-tall tower of short beams stacked in the shape of an elongated X-shape, suddenly appears human. “Kwannon,” Ibram Lassaw’s airy, three-dimensional grid, rises from three legs, spreads its arms and sprouts a squarish head. When we find that one of the most pristine, geometric sculptures in the show--a delicate tracery of brass and copper wire by Lippold--is called “Primordial Figure,” it’s hardly a surprise.

Nowhere--except in Smith’s “Cathedral,” placing a cut-out silhouette and fallen people (one of whom has literally lost his head) in an architectural structure--does the figure broach realism or perform a narrative function. Nearly everywhere, it hovers, lurks or inserts itself in intensely human-centered work.

Reuben Nakian’s massive bronze, “Olympia,” speaks of heroic energy and the ragged remnants of force. Hague’s polished wood “Mount Marian Walnut” could be a reclining torso or a transformation--in the nature of Edward Weston’s photographs of peppers. Gabriel Kohn, best known for well-crafted abstractions made of laminated wood, has created a humorous “Guest in the House” by setting a triangular block on a wooden “chair.”

In this company, even when nature is the ostensible subject, it relates to processes of human life or its aftermath. Peter Agostini’s white plaster piece is called “Clouds,” but it seems to signify growth. Seymour Lipton’s rough-textured metal forms, such as “Earth Forge II,” tend to resemble layered or expanding pods. Lassaw’s lumpy concoctions of various alloys emulate coral reefs. Theodore Roszak’s craggy “Spectre of Kitty Hawk” may be as much about organic decay as about the promise of flight and the threat of technology.

Looking at the human component is only one way to see a show providing an overview of a fertile and varied period in American sculpture that produced everything from the whimsical genius of Alexander Calder to the lyrical gusto of John Chamberlain and Mark di Suvero’s keen sense of physical tension and kinetic play. “The Third Dimension” accommodates works as disparate as Louise Nevelson’s intimate little group of wooden forms in “Black Majesty” and Kiesler’s “Galaxy,” a room-size enclosure once used as a stage set at Juillard.

If the exhibition is rather boggling in its range, it effectively emphasizes the staunch individualism of sculptors in the New York School. Art historians have despaired of categorizing their work and accused them of working against their own best interests simply by being so idiosyncratic and diverse. Seen in 1985, the work seems relatively cohesive in its opposition to the cool nonobjectivity of later styles, in its figurative strain and in its dramatic break from the stultifying constraints of traditional monuments.

The forces brought to bear on this vigorous body of art range from primitive sculpture totechnological revolution and World War II. In the narrower context of art, the most troubled relationship brought to light is that of sculpture and painting. Surrealism’s influence is particularly sticky. Such Surrealistic works as Lassaw’s accretions of metal alloys and Hare’s spiky figures are either overwrought or too attenuated and exhausted to be compelling as art. They have bastardized Max Ernst’s ideas--and not his best ones at that--in images that might be better painted or drawn. Noguchi’s figures echo Joan Miro’s paintings but retain such purity of biomorphic form that the influence is transformed.

As Phillips notes in her catalogue essay, it was impossible for sculptors laboring with recalcitrant materials to create a precise parallel to Abstract Expressionist painting. Yet, they shared with painters a strong desire for independence from European tradition and their reactions to a recent war. If they couldn’t spill their guts in fluid paint or act out their emotions in canvases construed as arenas for action, neither could they retreat from a need for spiritually-attuned art. Their silent totems, apocalyptic birds, unfolding organisms and tattered remains are every bit as concerned with turning feelings into expressive form as their painterly counterparts.

The romance of the New York School’s sculptural efforts and the art itself fell from favor as the ironic humor of Pop and, later, the cool remove of Minimalism took their turns as America’s primary styles. Now that Neo-Expressionism has revived romantic sympathies along with the human form, it’s a good time to look at what got swept under the art historical rug the last time around.