Watercolor at the New York Studio School
Drawings at Marist College

In 1998 Roger Kimball, writing in The New Criterion, called The Studio School "the most subversive art institution in New York City." Its most shocking attribute, to the contemporary look-ma-no-hands crowd, is its passionate commitment to drawing. At the center of its teaching and practice is faith in the initial graphic act from which all else flows.

The Studio School’s assault on reigning clichés continues in its belief that students should seek their models in the great works of art history, not on the walls of trendy galleries or in the production of art celebs. As witness to its program, it mounts shows in its own exhibition space, a low-profile but significant and satisfying gallery. It has the look and feel of a laboratory for working artists: part atelier, part place of aesthetic delight. The smell of resin and paint is not far away and students’ own work lines the halls outside.

This year’s opening exhibition, called simply Watercolor, placed on show works by 40 contemporary artists, many of them commissioned to produce a piece for the event.

The intention was to "take the temperature of a medium" and "redefine our experience of watercolor." An ambitious concept only partially borne out in the undertaking.

The most rewarding paintings here are by artists whose native bent and habits of working are compatible with the singular promise of watercolor. However, an exhibition attempting to survey a medium—rather than its most able practitioners—is open to works chosen for reasons other than sensitivity to the touch or traditions of the craft.

Bernard Chaet’s shimmering White Sun stands as a complete course in the poetry of watercolor in the right hands. Forms are achieved in the classic way: by layering one thin or semi-transparent stroke beside another or letting them overlap. Water pooling from the brush perfectly conveys the shifting configurations of sunlight reflected across an expanse of earth—a moving body of water? a sea of rocks?—stretching toward the horizon. In the simplicity and directness of Chaet’s touch, the life of his subject unfurls in the flux of the medium.

White Sun, Bernard Chaet

It is a high pleasure to find work by Fulvio Testa, a painter we do not see often enough. Sylvia Plimack Mangold offers a graceful description of a branching pin oak. Graham Nickson’s Winterdark, Serena’s Tree is a compelling performance. Susan Shatter’s Wave carries a fitting rhythmic force. Janet Fish, Philip Pearlstein, Avigdor Arihka, Andrew Forge are among those worthily and appealingly represented. Wayne Thiebaud’s Three Flavors is a delicate, luminous confection. Think of ice cream cones by Fra Angelico.

Winterdark, Serena's Tree, Graham Nickson

Malcolm Morley is an admirable painter whose virtuosity is sometimes disguised by attitude. You can hear it in the title: George Washington and the Eagle Over South Beach. Here, the gestural ease of his medium lends an Expressionist force to a scene that, in its whimsy and emphasis on pattern, recalls—yes, it’s true—Raoul Dufy.

Al Held’s Particular Paradox provides an instance where the medium seems more a matter of convenience than of art. The illusion of forms moving through space, Held’s hallmark, is oddly missing here. Held’s characteristic geometry is simply washed over in yellow, coloring book style. The result is a design in the flat, missing the dynamic quality that distinguishes Held’s work. It functions best as a preliminary study than a finished art work.

The number of fashionable brand names in the show seems at variance with the Studio School’s stated motto: "Ambition for the work; not ambition for the career." Several entries seem to have been chosen more as a courtesy to corporate sponsorship than for aesthetic reasons.

Francesco Clemente’s Tale suggests one of these. Picture a kneeling female in profile, firm breast standing bail for weak anatomy overall. The figure, reminiscent of a kneeling Buddha or a Hindu statuette, stretches out one arm that holds a smaller image of itself. This, in turn, holds an even smaller image of itself, which holds . . . . It keeps going in diminuendo across the picture plane. It is the sort of thing that goes well with a beer.

Sean Scully’s modest entry is instructive for revealing the extent to which the impact of his signature geometry relies on the sheer weight of oil on large canvases. Similar lessons are scattered throughout.

A more expansive overview of watercolor and its capacities would require explorations outside the tight world of gallery culture. Students should be exposed to the full sweep of beauty and talent breathing life outside of it. Enchanted moments in children’s book illustration, dominated by gifted watercolorists, might have been included. So, too, the disciplined expression of contemporary botanical painters. Perhaps these will find their way into some future show.

The Studio School’s gallery is one of the few remaining exhibition spaces not determined by flackery. May its support enable it to stay that way.

The gallery is open 10 to 6 PM, Monday through Saturday.


Marist College Art Gallery is a spare, voluminous kunsthalle, a generous exhibition space hospitable to large contemporary works. Located in Poughkeepsie, a 90-minute drive north of New York City, the gallery’s teaching mission—to offer students easy access to actual models of superior work—has a greater urgency than that of analogous spaces closer to metropolitan galleries and museums.

The current exhibition, Six Approaches, features a series of drawings by six different artists who live and/or work in the general vicinity. Disparate methods and visions are held together by the central fact that line has many lives and can serve a multitude of aims.

Another cohering factor is a shared belief—whether recognized or not— that the artist’s internal state, his intuition, takes precedence over the physical object created. When inward vision is held to be the single true expression, external media become secondary. In practice, what appears on canvas or a sheet of Arches matters less than what the artist says about it.

Robin Arnold’s near-life-sized drawings of iron workers and welders are based on photographs taken at twelve Albany-area factories. Focus is on distinct individuals amid the impersonal architecture of heavy machinery. Rendered in labor-intensive pencil hatchings, these large-format drawings are intended to provide the testimony of a living hand to the repetitive precision of skilled workers. These are the most accessible works on show and the ones that best lend themselves to judgment in technical, rather than rhetorical, terms.

Alan Cote’s low-keyed, patterned surfaces punctuated with pastel markings fix attention on the graphic process. What you see and what you don’t is very much a matter of the viewer’s engagement with the complementary blank or erased areas of a reserved, calligraphic oeuvre.

Norman Turner’s personal script lends weight and interest to what, in other hands, could slip into a mannerist codification of disembodied theories of space. Titles provide clues to those things in the real world that occasioned these acts of drawing: Pond, Snug Harbor; Rock Slab; High Falls. Merleau Ponty’s emphasis on the primacy of perception, with its instabilities and ambiguities, sets the stage here.

Turner, who has written thoughtfully on Cezanne’s concept of space, makes no concessions to those in search of definitive imagery. Rather, he makes effective use of pentimenti and white highlighting to reinforce drawing’s intrinsic powers of inference and suggestion.

Not even in his most abstract works—the late watercolors—did Cezanne abandon all reference to the visible world. By discarding all but titular acknowledgment of things seen, Turner banks everything on the eloquence of his own touch. Once again, whether or not that is enough depends on the viewer.

Ed Smith, Pamela Dreyfus-Smith and D. Dominick Lombardi share an apocalyptic streak that each expresses in contrasting ways. The two Smiths bear the greatest similarity in medium and iconography. Drawing in ink, each employs imagery with an inherent melancholy. Ed makes repeated use of variations on the memento mori. Skulls abound. A sense of impending threat is palpable throughout. Pamela’s imagery summons up actual history. Loosely rendered, gestural figures are suggestive of exile and the forced migrations of European Jewry.

Dominick Lombardi

Dominick Lombardi is the more audacious of the three. He is willing to risk dismissal of serious intent on the grounds that cartoons are not a proper medium for grave content. Here he follows the lead of Art Spiegelman’s Maus: a Survivor’s Tale, whose comic book version of the Shoah sparked debate on whether or not certain subjects required elevated forms.

An installation of 85 drawings, dexterous and eccentric, are part of what he calls The Post Apocalyptic Tattoo Series. It is an effort to use, in his words, "a comic book/tattoo aesthetic" to represent the heads of whoever might be left on the beach when the radioactive winds have passed.

The heads themselves, outlined in black on plexiglas, are limned with wit and flair. Lombardi has a sure hand that fulfills William Morris Hunt’s injunction to "Draw firm and be jolly." And therein lies his dilemma. The drawings themselves contain no clue to the seriousness of his intent. Without dialogue balloons or any internal narrative to guide viewer response, the cleverness of them points toward humor rather than sobriety. Audiences are likely to play the game of seeing how many heads can be distinguished in each frame—there’s a nose; turn it this way and here’s another one.

There is no unalterable cultural hierarchy of forms. Catastrophe is expressible in an infinity of ways. But it has to emerge from the work itself, without prompting from exterior statements. It will be interesting to watch how Lombardi unties this creative knot.

The gallery is open 12 to 5 PM, Monday - Friday; 12 to 4 PM, Saturday.


Maureen Mullarkey © 2002

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