Watercolor has had a bum rap. A fragile medium of almost fatal beauty and enchanting translucence, watercolor attracts devotees who swear allegiance to the material and form societies dedicated to perfecting technical mastery of it.
This precious, clubby attitude inspires suspicion of a medium that--like some craft materials--attracts practitioners who confuse technical prowess with expressive form.
But watercolor has survived its popularity. All it takes to prove it is an exhibition of superior examples, and “20th-Century Watercolors: Yesterday and Today,” at the Long Beach Museum of Art (through Oct. 30), is exactly that.
Watercolor is the link between the disparate works, but, as a press release says, “the medium is not the message.” If there is a cohesive theme, it is that watercolor need not be limited to technical displays. It can have as many personalities as artists choose to reveal.
Among selections from the museum’s Wichner collection of Blaue Reiter works, watercolor provides speckled veils of color in Vasily Kandinsky’s stenciled overlays, fat outlines in Alexej Jawlensky’s archetypal faces and knife edges in Lyonel Feininger’s incisively whispered sailboats.
When the exiled German Expressionist Georg Grosz got ahold of watercolor in the ‘30s, he whipped up an explosion of urban energy in a piece called “Fire Escapes” and fashioned a lineup of wonderful characters whose bodies melt into a crowd in a work called “Coney Island Boardwalk.”
Such treasures as these populate the early years of the show, effectively installed in a gallery divided by a new wall. As the exhibition proceeds through time, the uses of watercolor become more inventive but the point is never pure technique. Don Bachardy’s splashy portraits look so spontaneous that he might have whipped them out in five seconds flat, were it not for their expressive character.
Raymond Saunders has used watercolor with the directness of a pencil in sketchbooks filled during a trip to Paris. In one collage-and-watercolor sequence extracted from a sketchbook, he chronicles the life of a red flower in a glass of water. The series details one of those little memories of a foreign place that finally seem more important than all the visits to tourist haunts.
Joyce Treiman’s tiny “Imaginary Portraits” are near miracles of painting. She draws an entire pantheon of faces from messy blobs of paint, while sabotaging the notion that watercolor must be pristine. The wonder is that she can pull off such faces without creating muck.
Those who want perfect washes will find them, however, in Guy Williams’ architectural fantasies, Patsy Krebs’ airy geometric abstractions and Bruce Richards’ immaculate paintings of objects on softly graded backgrounds.
Richards’ works are probably the technical wonders of the show, but sensitive viewers won’t notice that. They’ll be too busy absorbing the transformation of objects into ideas.
A pair of roses sitting on a swag of chain, for example, is an affectionate “Couple,” suspended in an abyss. A tower of playing cards portrays the chancier aspects of “Modern Life.” The artist’s “Homage to John and Ono Lennon” is a pair of eyeglasses that casts a pinkish glow, while his concept of a “Terrorist” is a sledgehammer lying in wait of flies.
A purist trying to draw a bead on this exhibition, which combines works from the museum’s collection with loans from artists and other institutions, might conclude that the show is all over the place. It is, but purposefully so.