Watercolor at Kouros Gallery
23 East 73 Street
New York NY 10021, 212 288 5888
August 6-22, 2003
exhibition travels to Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center
Auburn, NY in May-June 2004
Watercolor, once the Cinderella of mediums, has been having a ball recently. Pamela Auchincloss and Melissa Meyer curated a survey of 22 abstract painters who use watercolor in 2001 that has been on virtually continuous national tour since, while last fall the painters Graham Nickson and Susan Shatter were co-curators of a ground-breaking international survey at the New York Studio School of 40 current practicioners that cut across stylistic divisions. Of course, in bastions of traditionalism across the land – arts clubs, community centers, academies – there has never been a let-up in annual shows by enthusiasts, but these two exhibitions challenged stereotypes about the medium, showing great range of expressive possibilities.
A preview of another survey, again of 22 artists, destined for the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, N.Y. next summer, is now at the Kouros Gallery. It has been organized by members of Zeuxis, a group named for the Greek painter celebrated by the Ekphrastic poets for a depiction of grapes so realistic that birds were deceived into pecking them. The Zeuxis group is devoted to still-life, although this show, of members, late members, and an eclectic roster of guests, is divided equally between the genres of landscape and still life, with a couple of abstractionists thrown in for good measure.
Despite the conservatism of this pervasively polite show, there are some truly remarkable painters here whose work rewards optimism about the vitality of this most ancient and elusive of mediums. Several exhibitors paid homage to the patriarch of modern watercolor, Cézanne. Both Robert Jessel and Ruth Miller favor the French artist’s delicate overlap of diaphanous veils. Where Mr. Jessel, who also brings to mind the watercolors of Signac, carpets his composition with repetitive strokes in a way that ultimately belies watercolor’s transparency, Ms. Miller’s explorations yield miraculous depths, a numinous sense of inner space. It is too bad that she is separated from her late husband, Andrew Forge, whose single contribution is hung on another floor: There is an exquisite commonality of vision and touch uniting the perceptions of abstract husband and realist wife.
In his mature paintings, Mr. Forge developed a deeply felt yet hermetic system of notation from colored dots, with the occasional intervention of connecting sticks. His oil paintings have the shimmering mystery of Byzantine mosaic, but to the uninitiated the sense of depictive logic without the reward of pictorial meaning makes hard work of them. In watercolor, where the roles of dot and stick are reversed, his esoteric pointillism lets its hair down, so to speak, in what is, for Forge, an exuberant display of painterly sensualism.
In a typically felicitous phrase, Mr. Forge, who was a dazzling lecturer and critic, once told sculptor and fellow Brit Garth Evans that, when starting a watercolor, the white paper is “money in the bank.” On the evidence of three works in this exhibition, Mr. Evans seems to be keeping his investment intact: no white shows through at all. Indeed, his use of watercolor seems counter-intuitive, for the effect of pigment pushed against page is to bolster the physicality of the support rather than create the ethereal otherness which is the most familiar property of watercolor. But in his masterful handling, the medium reveals itself as the perfect means to reconcile volume to flat shapes.
In contrast to Mr. Evans’ parsimony, Robert De Niro, Sr. (father of the actor) was positively profligate with the whiteness of the paper in the undated work included here. This seemingly dashed-off still-life arrangement of pots and flowers is a wonderful orchestration of wet against dry, color against virgin page – dualisms that recall the famous “push-pull” dictum of De Niro’s teacher, Hans Hoffman.
Other artists of De Niro’s generation shown here include Louisa Matthiasdottir, who makes the medium behave in harmony with her smooth, fluent vision, and Nell Blaine, one of the only artists in this generally rather tame exhibition to let rip, painting wet in wet with the ferocity of a German expressionist.
In a set of small duck watercolors from 1990, Lois Dodd takes the power of the support to an extreme: But for the beaks, all of the birds’ bodies is negative space defined by surrounding grass, sky or their own shadow. (Underlying pencil drawing does add further articulation.) Like the cows from earlier in her career, ducks are a perfect vehicle for the kind of placid, understated animation this quiet modernist values in landscape. Ms. Dodd evidently has an admirer in Phyllis Floyd, a prime mover in Zeuxis. Her economical but keenly observed views of city parks deftly capture specific body types and gestures in a way that is neat and endearing, and she handles watercolor with business-like straightforwardness.
The same compliment cannot be extended to Arthur Kvanstrom, whose bewildering, illegible, and fiddly back-and-forth merely aggrevates the eye, or Joseph Byrne, whose anemic tree trunks aspire to the fey reductiveness of early Joseph Beuys but merely confound the attention their fussiness demands. Victor Pesce saves the day for feyness with a touching, Morandiesque lemon, which is anything but.
The show, it has to be said, is generally let down by lightweights padding out the ranks*. The artists really compromised by their company are those whose understated style or compositions initially seem academic but on closer inspection are quietly inventive. I’m thinking of John Goodrich, for instance: The delicate awkwardness in his handling of the open form of a lattice bowl then left to stand out against a bold diagonal expanse of crimson wall is deliciously subtle.
Someone, meanwhile, should save Carmen Lund from her framer: Her abrasive, cacophonous flower studies, aggressively cropped with almost a collage sensibility to form a dense if irregular grid, were all ready to be taken seriously until shiny, kitsch mouldings disasterously intervened.
* In the printed edition of this review, the sentence continues: “although these are probably core members of Zeuxis, whom the heavy-hitters were enlisted to bolster”. Further research has revealed the opposite: it is the artists singled out for praise in this review who are Zeuxis members, the unnamed “lightweights” who were guests. Apologies to anyone hurt by the misunderstanding. Readers will have an opportunity, incidentally, to judge Zeuxis’ membership in greater depth in an upcoming exhibition, Zeuxis- A Moveable Feast, at the Westbeth Gallery, 155 Bank Street, New York, September 6-28, 2003
A version of this article first appeared in The New York Sun, August 14, 2003.