Watercolorby Rachel Youens
at The Studio School
By bringing to light the admired yet at times obscure practice of watercolor, curators David Cohen and Susan Shatter direct their audience to the only occasionally acknowledged satisfactions of this medium. Their approach presents watercolor as an experiment that opens a window onto many artists’ normative approaches, yielding at times unforeseen results. I discovered some surprising works by artists I thought I already knew. To think further about watercolor as an experimental rather than as a secondary medium, panel discussions moderated by David Cohen illuminated its integral importance as a player in art’s major issues. The intrinsic qualities that are so magical in watercolor are its simultaneous density and lightness.
The late Andrew Forge has been quoted as saying that "the white of the paper is like money in the bank." Qualities of lightness and density permeate the exhibit, beginning with smaller work, like that made by Ross Bleckner with his rich synaptic ovoids and Eve Sonneman’s dispersed and charged focal points of color, which satisfied my eyes with their intensity of chroma and touch. Alternatively, Marlene Dumas drew out the expressionist qualities of the female nude through the use of broadly painted washes and sharp wet details.
The pursuit of densities yielded by the quickened pace of observational sketching, in the tradition of Turner, surface in works by Malcolm Morley, Graham Nickson, and Paul Resika. Dense opacities and airy transparencies are watercolor’s strength as a medium. More reflectively organized works of abstract painters such as Per Kirkeby, Sean Scully, and Melissa Meyer treat the medium with a contemplative forcefulness. For Meyer, watercolor has become a valuable medium through which to perform experiments in speed and duration, eventually allowing her to lessen the use of white in her oil paintings. Subsequently she has been commissioned to make a large scale work in watercolor. One of largest and most technically ambitious work is by Philip Pearlstein, a portrayal of figures seen through the iron work of a fan, was balanced by the equally ambitious mosaic of a sunburst by Al Held. In each of these works watercolor reveals a sense of touch that their paintings subsume, as well as a sense of the multiple components of their investigations.
This medium’s challenge to stay fresh and buoyant also leads to surprising pieces by German artists from Baselitz and Lüpertz, who share an interest in calligraphic line, to the Richter piece, whose multi-layered densities have a touch that his more mechanically produced paintings lack, and create a dialogue about space below Forge’s spare yet full renditions of measured strokes. Taking up expressionist modes, David Salle’s poppies are reminiscent of Nolde, yet have a lighter, fresher air.
Depending on who you talk to, watercolor as a medium has a wildly changing reputation. Its challenging techniques are admired for their ability to capture qualities of transitoriness, and disparaged for their links to conventional imagery, yet artists as romantic as Turner, as expressionistic as Nolde, as modern as Mondrian, and as taciturn as Charles Burchfield turned to watercolor as an alternative to the historic weight of oil painting. The sophistication that abounds in this show can be divided along the lines of artists who observe the world around them, and artists who play with the pure sensuality of the medium. Here the term "freedom" has a value at the private level, where discovery is plowed under and returned to painting itself. Possibly the ultimate risk of watercolor’s immediate staining power comes from Garth Evans comment that doing watercolor is "living like a gambler."
Rachel Youens is a painter, writer, and teacher who lives in Brooklyn.