WATERCOLOR, because of its freedom and directness, was an ideal medium for the German Expressionists, as well as for other German and European artists of the early 20th century such as Lovis Corinth, George Grosz, and Paul Klee. Emil Nolde used the medium to particular advantage, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner did some of their best work in watercolor on paper. Americans, however, are still relatively unfamiliar with watercolors by these artists, Klee being the big exception. Nolde is somewhat better known than the rest - mostly because of his florals and the high prices his pictures demand. The watercolors of the others, however, are shown, if at all, in conjunction with their better-known oils and prints.
One hopes this situation will be partially remedied by the exhibition of 54 major German watercolors and drawings at the IBM Gallery of Science and Art here. These intense and generally colorful works are on loan from the Detroit Institute of Arts, which has one of America's finest collections of German Expressionist art. Included are outstanding examples by the artists mentioned and by Otto Dix, Otto Mueller, K"athe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein, Christian Rohlfs, and others - most of whom were condemned by Hitler as ``degenerate.''
The exhibition celebrates the memory of Wilhelm R. Valentiner (1880-1958), who, as director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, was among the first in the United States to exhibit modern German paintings and encourage collectors to buy them.
During the 1930s, when French painting dominated the world art market, Mr. Valentiner presented more than a dozen exhibitions of German Expressionist art. This helped introduce the work of these artists, and brought them recognition at a time when they needed it most.
Although both groups of seminal Expressionists - ``Die Br"ucke'' and ``Die Blaue Reiter'' - are represented in this show, only the former has a solid selection of works. Dominating this group - and the exhibition - are nine outstanding watercolors by Nolde, including several florals and portraits, and fine examples by Kirchner and Schmidt-Rottluff. Unfortunately, ``Die Blaue Reiter'' is represented by only one piece, a not very spectacular figure study by August Macke.
As always, Nolde makes his point with the simplest of means. So do Klee and Kollwitz, the artists who stand furthest apart from the rest - Klee because of his formal approach, Kollwitz because of her sophisticated and impassioned draftsmanship. No matter how long or how deeply one studies the work of Klee and Kollwitz, there is always something one hasn't noticed or a work one hasn't seen before. This show offers three Klee watercolors that had somehow escaped my attention and are now among my favorites.
Chief among them is ``Plants in the Moonlight,'' a wonderfully luminous piece of the greatest simplicity that is as witty as it is sensitively drawn and tinted. Close behind are ``Captive Pierrot,'' a somewhat more solidly conceived and composed image, and ``Storm Over the City,'' a smallish, spray-painted study that proves once again how superbly Klee could mix media and processes for maximum effect.
From Kollwitz, the surprises are two drawings: ``Death, Woman and Child,'' one of several preparatory studies for her great 1910 etching of the same name, and ``Burial,'' probably a preliminary sketch for a never-completed print in her 1903-08 ``The Peasants' War'' cycle. Brilliantly executed and profoundly moving, both indicate how effective black-and-white imagery can be in the hands of a master.
George Grosz also scores significantly with two works on paper, a large pen-and-ink drawing, ``Tangle of Lives,'' and one of his best watercolor evocations of cities, ``New York Harbor.'' Other impressive pieces are Corinth's ``Pink Clouds, Walchensee,'' Kirchner's ``Landscape with Mountain Lake,'' and Georg Kolbe's black crayon drawing of a kneeling female nude.
Kolbe is one of five German artists represented by miniature bronze sculptures scattered throughout the exhibition. Several of these seem like three-dimensional drawings, mainly because they so beautifully complement the actual drawings (in some cases by the same artist) hanging nearby.
In addition to Kolbe, the sculptors are Ernst Barlach, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Gerhard Marcks and the little-known Richard Scheibe. I was especially touched by Marcks's ``Greek Flute Player,'' a haunting, gentle 1933 piece after a sketch made by the artist in 1928. For those who want to compare the two, the sketch hangs only a short distance away.
At the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, 590 Madison Avenue, through June 23.