Prendergast: every detail was lovingly attended to

THERE are few exhibitions I'd travel a thousand miles to see, but the Maurice Prendergast watercolor exhibit at the Coe Kerr Gallery here is one of them. It is both dazzlingly beautiful and a timely reminder that in Prendergast (1859-1924) America had a significant modernist a full decade before modernism officially found its way to this side of the Atlantic.

In fact, were I forced to choose between this show and the important John Singer Sargent retrospective at the Whitney Museum, I wouldn't hesitate to choose this one. Sargent may have been a genius and one of America's premier painters, but he was also too much the brilliant performer and too willing to put everything on the line for grandiose or magnificent effect ever to move me deeply.

Prendergast, on the other hand, confronted life humbly and with obvious joy at how vibrant and beautiful it was. He relished its vitality and richness, and dedicated himself to learning how best to translate those qualities into small, loosely executed watercolors, monotypes, and paintings.

In the process, nothing was too drab or unimportant to be lovingly attended to by his brush, and nothing, as a result, failed to find its appropriate place and emphasis in his colorful, tightly packed compositions.

His watercolors, although ostensibly about people enjoying themselves at the beach, in front of or within grand cathedrals, on the streets of European or American cities, or in parks, playgrounds, and almost everywhere else adults and children congregate, are actually about the shimmer and sparkle of light as it reveals itself through color, pattern, texture, and liveliness of movement.

A study of a dozen or so figures out for a stroll, for instance, including two elegant, white-gowned ladies with red parasols, becomes a brilliant, split-second glimpse of human pleasure that is pure visual delight. It remains every bit as alive and effervescent today as when it was painted 90 years ago.

A more densely composed image of children promenading in New York's Columbus Circle is transposed into a richly textured, opulently decorative frieze. And crowds of people going about their business in Venice, Rome, Siena, Boston, and Paris are transformed into veritable bouquets of daubs, swirls, dashes, and tiny washes of pure color.

In all, there are 40 of these extraordinary images on display, and practically every one is a minor masterpiece. There is a view of the surf that rivals the seascapes John Marin painted a dozen or so years later; a study of a fountain in one of Boston's public gardens that foretells the watercolors of Raoul Dufy; and several compositions that are so startlingly original that one cannot help wondering why Prendergast isn't even more highly regarded than he is.

Much of it probably has to do with the medium he used most frequently. Watercolor has never been taken as seriously by Americans as oil paint on canvas.

And then there is the matter of size - to say nothing of the delicacy and subtlety of his touch. Here again, he worked on a scale and in a manner guaranteed to cause him to appear less important than others who worked boldly and on pictures of a more ``respectable'' size.

Those who hold his medium against him, however, are seriously mistaken, for Prendergast was one of the most talented, innovative, and fully realized artists the United States has produced.

No other American working in the 19th century, not even Whistler and Cassatt, seems as ``modern'' to our eyes today as he.

No matter that the people in his pictures wear Victorian clothing, ride around in hansom carriages, and go to the beach in outlandish costumes.

The creative sensibility that observed them and then transformed what it saw into tiny splashes and daubs of colored paint, was moved by the same dynamic vision that inspired the likes of C'ezanne, Redon, Seurat, and the Fauves.

In his own way and in his own time, Prendergast was as radical as the Abstract Expressionists were in theirs. The miracle was that he could be that way with such joy.

At the Coe Kerr Gallery, 49 East 82nd Street, through Dec. 6. Rewald on C'ezanne

Any new book by John Rewald on the Impressionists or Post-Impressionists is art-world news, and that is doubly true when a new book by him on C'ezanne makes its appearance.

Anyone with lingering doubts about C'ezanne's quality and importance is advised to at least take the time to examine the 270 illustrations (118 of them in color) that stud the large, handsomely put-together, and altogether welcome volume about this major Post-Impressionist that was just released by publisher Harry N. Abrams.

The cover itself is almost worth the cost of the book ($67.50 until Jan. 1, $75 thereafter).

But there is a great deal more, especially Rewald's detailed accounting of the artist's life and work, photographs of C'ezanne's landscape motifs and still-life subjects, and various documents pertaining to his personal and professional life.

Best of all, Rewald presents C'ezanne whole, both as man and artist, and places him squarely within his time and place. This is a book that belongs in every art lover's library.

Theodore F. Wolff is the Monitor's art critic.

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