Monday, May 3, 2010

From Homer to Hopper at The Currier Museum

Just went to see the Homer to Hopper show at the Currier Museum in Manchester, NH. Full disclosure here - when I thought I was going to be an artist my medium was watercolor. I love it and all of its possibilities.

Watercolor is often treated as the ugly, younger sister to oil painting and sculpture. Because of the necessity of moving quickly with the medium many think that it requires little thought - and all action. Those who have become proficient at watercolor know that it is a medium that requires more than fast action, you must think quickly too. As a painting emerges the painter must be willing to chance it all with each new layer or incorporate the mistakes. From Homer to Hopper displays a beautiful and broad range of paintings in which to closely study the medium.

This show follows the arc of skill in American watercolor mastery from the early 1800's to the present day. For the early painters it was a medium that was easily transportable and lent itself to the quick portraits an itinerant painter needed to produce. I deduce from the early American examples presented that it was mainly used to color and didn't really take advantage of the natural tendencies of the medium- to pool, puddle, bleed and glow. These paintings are coarsely done but charming and serve to highlight the leaps that watercolorists made less than two generations later.

In the later 1800's we see the ascendancy of painting over imagery. Homer's "Fishwives", shown above, is a stunning tour de force of layers built up to create the moody, atmospheric scene. The artist has not shied away from scraping at the surface to expose a the paper through the pigment. The rich colors and heavy contrast negate the myth of the light, airy watercolor.

Prendergast's The Stony Pasture shows a lighter touch with watercolor. It is the antithesis of Homer's heavy hand with pigment. All the colors are fresh and sit on the surface of the paper. He has allowed the pigment to pool naturally creating a graded line at the edge of each shape, curving it around to create volume. He has let go of the fussy detail seen in the earliest watercolors in this show and allowed the strokes to seen. It is a seemingly spontaneous approach.

I was unable to find images from the most contemporary works (you can see many here) but there were some real beauties to be seen. A Burchfield studio scene is stunning. There was also a beautiful Arthur Dove from his Flour Mill Series. I saw another at the Phillips Collection that still sticks in my head- clearly it held a fascination for Dove. There was also an early Georgia O'Keeffe that is quite strong. These more abstracted pieces pave the way for what it to come later in the show.

The contemporary pieces are what really got my attention. The beautiful abstraction Visitors by Mark Toby with its use of opaque white drawing on the surface brought to mind some of the lovely ink and gouache drawings of our own Bert Yarborough. I was not aware that there was a history of using this opaque calligraphic line. This is very appealing to see this thread of aesthetic discovery over time. Another contemporary piece worth spending time with is a large abstract of lines by Sol Lewitt. While simple in concept it is quite mesmerizing. The lines flow across the surface creating a subtle movement. This is a piece I could live with.

I highly recommend seeing this show before it closes on June 7th. While it lures you in with the big guns of Homer & Hopper, it is the lesser known pieces which delight.

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