Prendergast Imbued Watercolors With Magic


SOME exhibitions are a pure delight because of the pleasure and joy they bring. To my list of recent examples - the Woodner Collection of master drawings at the Metropolitan Museum here, the Giorgio Morandi show at the Philippe Daverio Gallery, the Calder exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum - I can now add the Maurice Prendergast retrospective at the Whitney Museum.

If only I could have taken a dozen of the watercolors home with me! What fun it would be to move them about the apartment until each had found its proper place.

I wouldn't care whether they fitted into the mainstream of 20th-century art, or were deemed either ``significant'' or ``authentic'' by modernist art historians. Or even if anyone else thought they were good. None of that would matter.

What would matter would be that they moved and delighted me - made me feel more vital, eager to tackle whatever life had in store.

But how, one might ask, could Prendergast's smallish watercolors - with clusters of colorfully dressed men, women, and children promenading on the beach, in a park, or on the streets of New York, Paris, or Venice - possibly have such an effect?

Was I perhaps carried away by the color and technique, the turn-of-the-century charm?

Possibly, but I doubt it.

For one thing, these aspects alone aren't that outstanding. For another, I'm not particularly charmed by turn-of-the-century life.

No, my reaction to Prendergast's work - especially his watercolors - goes right to the heart of creativity and to the reason art exists in the first place.

Quite simply, I believe Prendergast was blessed; I can think of no other word to describe what happens when an individual actually does what he or she does best and something ``magical'' occurs. True, this didn't always happen for Prendergast thoughout his career, but it certainly did from 1894 to roughly 1910 - whenever he loaded a watercolor brush with paint and touched it lightly or forcefully to paper.

How else can one explain the act, not of depicting life, but of transmitting it through line, color, and form?

On a significant level, it happens very rarely - with only a handful of artists in a century. But the times when it happens share one basic characteristic: The work is stamped totally and absolutely with the unique spirit and quality of the artist who made it.

Study it as one will, one can detect no other artist's vision or hand in this work. Everything has been so perfectly assimilated and has flowed so directly from or through the painter that it represents this artist at his or her truest, most open, and best.

The work can be large in scope or small. There is room, after all, for both Michelangelo's giant murals and Paul Klee's tiny ``doodles'' in ink and wash.

A fascinating aspect of all this is that no artist (so far as we know) has ever been completely ``in tune'' 100 percent of the time. And understandably so, since an artist's student years are usually spent under the influence of powerful masters and the later years are often dominated by responsibilities that leave too little energy or time for the devotion art demands.

BUT there's something else that can account for this fact - particularly in Prendergast's case: An artist can possess a number of talents and skills but only one that rings uniquely ``true.'' In Prendergast's case, it was the watercolor medium - and for a short time.

His later watercolors appear forced and obvious, and his oils, outstanding as many of them are, show as much evidence of who inspired him and what he was attempting as of his own identity and what he actually was able to do.

The watercolors tell another tale - and what a story it is! Through them we share the enthusiasms of an artist discovering his creative ``voice,'' first in and around Boston and New York, then in Europe.

We are with him as he assimilates the challenges of modernism. And finally, we share his exultations as he lets the pigments explode in a riot of hot, brilliant colors on the beach at St. Malo.

That is the genuine Maurice Prendergast, the artist who is one of the glories of early 20th-century art.

Fortunately this exhibition shows him at his very best, with 107 of his finest watercolors, oils, and monotypes. It was organized by the Williams College Museum of Art and was curated by Nancy Mowll Mathews.

After closing at the Whitney on Sept. 2, it travels to the Williams College Museum of Art (Oct. 6-Dec. 16); the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 21-April 22, 1991); and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (May 18-Aug. 25, 1991).

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