Fluid Capabilities

Curator Lisa Fischman's final UA Museum of Art exhibit shows off the world of watercolors

Watercolor painter Chris Larsen of Tucson has a mantra that he diligently drums into all of his students.

"You need to get the first 100 bad watercolors out of the way," he tells them, "the sooner the better."

Clearly, John Marin's 100 bad paintings were well in his past by the time he dashed off "New York Landscape." It's the single most beautiful watercolor in the University of Arizona Museum of Art's big summer show, To Have the World in Hand: The Art of Watercolor.

Painted in 1920, when Marin was 50 years old, this luminous work conjures up the New York City skyline. The artist looked at Manhattan from the far side of the East River, peering through the swaying cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. But his New York is like no other.

Instead of rigidly geometric skyscrapers, Marin's Manhattan has fat, amorphous blurs, with blue-violet brushstrokes tilting every which way. In place of placid water, there are short jumps of a brush drenched in blues and violets. The sky is a disrupted convocation of deep ochres, reds and blues. The famous cathedral-like arches of the bridge are there in their usual place, pointing toward the heavens, but they're quickly sketched, a loose wash of beige running outside Marin's pencil lines. Even the lone New Yorker in the scene, seated on a bench on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, is a barely discernible flash of blue and red.

Marin clearly mastered the famously difficult art of watercolor, an art predicated, as curator Lisa Fischman has elegantly written, "on the pleasures and challenges of solubility, on the fluid capabilities of pigment suspended in water." Marin alternates between washes thick and thin, between brushes wet and dry. His colors are never pallid (an all-too-frequent watercolor sin, in Larsen's eyes). In fact, in this one quick painting, he demonstrates every watercolor technique in Fischman's checklist: "layers of wash, vivid coloring, staining, delicacy of dilution, subtle nuances and graceful gestures."

By the time he made this little painting, Marin was a well-known modernist, but his training was traditional. Born in New Jersey in 1870, he studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the oldest art school in the nation. The academy is known for training young artists to paint very well, and Marin absorbed its lessons of line, color and composition. He kept the skills but later shuffled the rules, breaking free of the academy's lush realism to embrace joyous near-abstraction. His New York is a fractured rapture.

This large show draws 61 works drawn from the museum's own collection. Fischman has hauled quantities of 19th-century watercolors out of storage, and the old works demonstrate the way the medium was handled before innovators like Marin came along. Many pieces are from England, the European epicenter for watercolor a century and a half ago.

Where Marin attacked his paper fast, splashing and pooling his colors, traditional English watercolorists built up their paintings slowly, layer upon layer. They first carefully drew the outlines in pencil and then painted washes in between the lines, more or less, waiting for each layer to dry before starting on the next.

David Cox Jr.'s large untitled landscape from 1853 is a good example. An Englishman who lived from 1808 to 1885, Cox was a member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Like many 19th-century gentlemen (and ladies), Cox painted watercolors when he traveled. He favored pastoral idylls. This one appears to be a Swiss scene. Snow-capped mountains rise in the back; a charming mountain village of red roofs and spires occupies the center ground; and picturesque peasants in straw hats and smocks drive a herd of goats along a foreground path.

Cox has followed all the rules, to beautiful effect. Rendered in a thin wash, his majestic mountains palely recede into the distance. He left the facades of the cottages white, to convey the brilliance of sun on whitewash. He obeyed the dictum always to put dark against light, white cottage wall against dark green tree. He used a more loaded brush—less water, more pigment—on the figures in the foreground.

If you look closely at each house, each apron, though, you can see the alluring looseness of his brushstrokes. Even a painting as romantically realistic as this one is an abstraction at the cellular level. Like Marin—and all painters—Cox has broken the visible world down into symbols and strokes.

Fischman has done a fine job organizing the show thematically—maritimes, landscapes, still lifes—and highlighting the famous names. Raoul Dufy's simple view of St. Mark's, "The Piazzetta, Venice," not dated, is a beauty that falls halfway between Cox and Marin. The Frenchman fluidly sketched in the outlines of the near buildings, the water beyond and a church across the lagoon, and then pooled in thin colored washes to bring them all to splendid life. The splash of cerulean around a dome is lovely. Swiss artist Paul Klee likewise has a small, radiant architectural piece, a cityscape pungent in red.

Frederic Remington, the celebrity Western artist, has a series of mouthwatering "Mexican Doorways," painted entirely in ink wash, in a spectrum of grays and white. A grouping of mid-20th-century Southwest painters suggests Georgia O'Keeffe mixed with a dash of Thomas Hart Benton's regionalism. Eliot O'Hara's "Tucson Landscape" from 1941 is a boldly cubist rendering of our local mountains, their angular peaks and rocks pictured in orange and brown.

At the more contemporary end, a German artist named Mario Reis, born in 1953, painted "Daisy Creek, Montana," an abstract watercolor on cloth that mimics the light on muddy waters. Few women are in the exhibition, a surprise considering that watercolor was long considered a lady's medium. One exception is Nancy Grossman, an American born in 1940. Her "Portrait of a Man," 1975, is a watercolor cut up into strips and artfully rearranged to create a manly head, chest and biceps.

Fischman also included a lovely desertscape by Douglas Denniston, the late UA art professor who frequently rendered pale saguaros and mountains in minimalist strokes. His "Untitled (Picacho Peak)," 1973, has the exuberance of the Marin.

This lively summer show unfortunately will be UAMA's last by chief curator Fischman, whose four-year tenure at the museum ends June 30. Museum director Charles Guerin has made a habit of ridding himself of talented curators. Five years ago, he ousted Peter Briggs, a Latin American art specialist who had staged many brilliant exhibitions over his 14-year tenure.

The next year, Guerin hired Fischman. Like Briggs, a brainy Ph.D., Fischman embarked upon a series of stimulating exhibitions. Last winter, she curated a memorable show of sculptures made from trash by the African artist El Anatsui; the year before that, she presented Iona Rozeal Brown, a challenging American artist who imposes African-American hip-hop motifs on traditional Japanese woodcuts.

Guerin offered no excuse when he deprived Tucson of Peter Briggs' talents. (Briggs has moved on to a distinguished chair at the Museum of Texas Tech.) This time, Guerin's hiding behind the budget freefall. With a 19 percent cut in its budget, the museum eliminated a security guard, an assistant curator of education and a PR person. An assistant curator was retained but moved to soft money. The curator of education was reduced to half-time.

But budgets always allow for choices, and Guerin is making the untenable choice to eliminate the museum's chief curator, and an excellent one at that. He's retaining plenty of other staff. He, of course, will be protected. He's the decider: He announced that he will be chief curator as well as director from now on.