PRINT January 1967

Gothic Parallels

AS OF DECEMBER, THE AMERICAN Watercolor Society was 100 years old. The Metropolitan Museum is commemorating the anniversary with another of its historical but somewhat shapeless surveys. This one is called 200 Years of Watercolor Painting in America and it has no particular point of view on the subject.

The Society’s anniversary has also been marked by the publication of A History of Watercolor Painting in America by Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, Associate Curator in charge of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan.1 The book is a scandal. Virtually every one of the fifty color plates, drawn largely from works in the exhibition, is wildly unfaithful––either too red, too blue or too yellow. Nor does a fifteen-page essay, as far as it goes an informative study, and some picture captions in guidebook prose (e.g. "This watercolor [Channel Bass] records Homer’s interest as a sportsman and shows his ability to design an unusual composition) qualify it as a history.

Similarly, the exhibition serves history, and quality, less than it does the occasion. It comprises more than 300 works strung out very loosely between the years 1757 and 1966, from early views of the New World to swirling views of the New Space. Of course, all of the old warhorses of American watercolor are present––Homer, Marin, Prendergast, Demuth, Hopper, even John La Farge; and Sargent is represented by a group being shown for the first time since they were bequeathed to the Museum in 1954. (Odd that a press release should confess the Museum’s indifference to its public obligations. My guess is that the cache was not shown sooner simply because it was forgotten.) There are, besides, some 70 watercolors by living members of the American Watercolor Society, intriguing glimpses at 18th-century watercolors, documents and memorabilia such as designs for book illustrations, and 19th-century interior and architectural drawings notable for their remarkable control of a difficult medium. There are, besides, a contingent of notable Abstract Expressionists (which fact will become increasingly important as my argument develops). I did not see the exhibition installed, but I had the impression when I previewed it that it reflected a curatorial instinct that was essentially antiquarian, that like a similar exhibition of painting and sculpture at the Metropolitan in 1965 it accepted the 20th century as a painful but unavoidable imposition.

Certainly the antiquarian flavor of the occasion is implemented by the simultaneous exhibition elsewhere in the museum of 101 American Primitive Watercolors and Pastels from the collection of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, a show which I saw in Washington at the National Gallery. This outwardly appealing exhibition constantly repeats its one note of enchanting naivete until it gets boring. One then recognizes how much Early American art lives off contemporary nostalgia and a desire for a past. Yet it is impossible not to be impressed by the echoes of earliest antiquity of Woman in Red Chair, by an unknown artist around 1830 (though I suspect a practiced artist of Dutch or German background), and impossible not to see new things in a modern artist like Hackney upon recalling his resemblance to one Mary Ann Willson whose four watercolors on the subject of the prodigal son, circa 1815, prove again, despite the unprofessional context, that narrative, contrary to current dogma, is not inimical to formal intentions. True, her work is highly decorative and the drawing borders on caricature of a very schematic and childish kind. For the way her flat forms twist into strange shapes in their search for depth is finally and quite unintentionally humorous––like drawings by children, and I suspect Miss Willson to have been a child (or else a very old lady). But what is interesting is the relationship between sentiment and design. The latter is so eccentric as to prevent the former from becoming saccharine––indeed, a kind of early 19th-century Pop.

The most important aspect of the celebration, however, is the event that brought it to pass, namely, that the American Watercolor Society had reached the century mark. Most professional art organizations simply do not last a century, at least in America. And while it is true that the Society no longer embodies a relevant esthetic nor commands an influential audience, its longevity not only confirms the fact that Americans have shown what shall prove to be an extraordinarily significant aptitude for washes of translucent color, it indicates that the entire watercolor tradition is somehow inseparable from recent developments in abstractionist painting. For abstractionist paintings that continue to be made with paint tend more and more toward the condition of watercolor. Virtually all of the best-known abstractionists seem to have adopted aqueous plastic media which, when diluted, can be stained directly into unsized canvas much like a watercolor wash sinks into the very fibre of a sheet of paper. Helen Frankenthaler is usually given credit for originating the stain technique, having taken a cue from Pollock in the fifties and diluted her oil paints which she then handled in a traditional Abstract Expressionist manner. More recently she uses an acrylic paint and seeks to exchange her old form symbolism for the new color-space-feeling idea. Other examples: Louis, Noland, Olitski, Stella, Poons (whose opaque Liquitex dots against a stained translucent monochrome ground echoes the conventional combination of traditional watercolor and gouache).

What makes this assimilation of the wash principle by easel painting significant is that most of our superior watercolorists have been important painters in oil as well. Moreover, these painters––Homer, Sargent, Prendergast, Marin, Demuth, Hopper, Burchfield and even Adolf Dehn (only the last two have done no significant work in oil and are accordingly the most minor painters of the group)––represent a sustained if not necessarily superior achievement in American art where the record in oil painting, outside of their own work, is rather spotty and not nearly as consistently high in ambition. In other words, there was some sort of dialogue which these artists held via their dual media, in which a desire for solid form seems to have contended with a desire for luminous, expressive illusion. This dialogue now seems to have been assimilated to major abstractionist art––with a curious result. There is no desire for an image but the desire for luminous illusion persists. This is by way of saying that the demand for illusion, which persists in the American grain, having encountered the forces of modernism, now proceeds along the lines of the latter, but continues to seek its fulfillment. A formal explanation of this paradox is then best supplied by a description of the principles of translucent easel painting.

Specifically, what the drift toward translucency in abstractionist easel painting establishes as a virtue is not so much color as luminosity, achieved by the contrast of color, i.e., color affecting color, as opposed to the simple value contrasts of traditional chiaroscuro. It is this luminosity which has enabled the most prominent abstractionist painters to deal with the major problem that faced them as the influence of Abstract Expressionism began to recede: how to convey, as I put it in an article on optical art two years ago,2 “a volume surrogate and its attendant precision while maintaining an orientation in two-dimensionality, the purpose being to preserve the generalized form-and-space consciousness of abstraction.” In other words, how to achieve an abstract illusionism.

More specifically, the virtue of watercolor, or rather, the watercolor effect, is the translucency of color which results when paint is washed onto or stained into canvas, but especially when stained. Translucency virtually automatically implicates the picture surface as part of the design, obliging a correspondingly general approach to mass. More specifically it eventuates a surface that is identical with the space evoked by color when it is not assigned to any other volume, such as say an illusionist orange. The difference between illusion achieved with flat washes of translucent color as opposed to modeled opaque color is that in the latter, invariably oil, the illusion is usually detached from the medium by an image which intervenes, whereas in the former a degree of illusion already inheres in the medium through the translucent effect. The richness of form and illusion of much Old Master painting derives from translucent glazes which add their implied depth to that of the modeled forms underneath. Correspondingly, pure color, melting upon or sinking into the fabric is a kind of glaze which deepens a surface through sheer luminosity, by flooding as it were the surface with the very atmosphere which, as light and in concert with other like-functioning colors, has enabled abstractionist art to entertain an illusionist space without violating the highly prized surface unity without which no painting is regarded as modern today.

The formal terms of traditional watercolor are the same as those of the aqueous media abstraction, but the objectives differ. Where the abstractionist seeks the built-in illusion of chromatic translucency, the illusionist watercolorist seeks the ordering principle that is built into the surface. In other words, formally speaking, the attraction of translucency to the representational watercolorist is dictated by a problem of structuring illusion rather than illusionizing structure, which is the abstractionist intention.

It is no accident that the best watercolorists happen, as I have already said, to be those who have also done a substantial body of work in oil or done their major work in oil. Oil painting developed in response to a demand for greater illusion and verisimilitude. It is therefore natural and proper to model in oil. But it is another thing controlling the illusion. And American realism has had a difficult time in this area if only because it remained loyal to realism when modernism was altering the priorities of form and image. Prendergast labored long over his oils, constantly repainting, in order to achieve the surface unity he achieved almost too automatically with watercolor. Hopper’s career was launched by a successful exhibition of watercolors; it took him some time before he learned to control illusion in oil through a kind of architectonic use of light which obliged him to simplify his forms.

On the other hand, Homer achieved such facility with watercolor that he modeled slightly in addition to the built-in illusion of translucent wash, so that while a number of his watercolors have interesting general internal contours their combination of imposed and inherent illusion is such that they become too deep, the illustrative element too dominant. Interestingly, Homer developed the structural silhouette best in his oils.

Subtlety in the handling of the watercolor medium is something of a contradiction of the general character of the surface because the surface as an object is not complex. For the same reason frescoes are not naturalistic. The pictorial surface is made complex by additions that are like it in generalness. Once watercolor is taken beyond a certain point, it becomes miniature easel painting, a complicated affair of transparent glazes. Eighteenth-century English watercolorists appear to have understood this. Appropriately, William G. Wall, who painted a tight but exquisite View of The Hudson River (1820–25), was actually born in Ireland and died there in 1864, after two extended sojourns in the United States between 1818–1836 and 1856–1862.

The great influence on American watercolor painting was, of course, English watercolor painting. So it is generally true that only in the 19th century, when a broader style developed among the Americans, did the Americans begin to assert their autonomy. Yet the Englishman Cotman was early a master of a remarkable abstract treatment of mass and shade while Turner, as is well known, carried broadness to near-Rothko extremes.

In any event, watercolor probably emerged as a popular medium in the 19th century in America, and not until then, because it permitted the same broad effects that painters as different in temperament as Homer and John La Farge (whose watercolors are worried as if they were oils), and even Ryder were seeking in their oils. A romantic idealism had entered into the spirit of American pragmatism. But Eakins, obviously, did not develop a specialty in watercolor precisely because he had no taste for bravura. Thus in his watercolors he reverted to a tight style from which, however, certain general aspects could not be withheld. And it is interesting to note that a certain stiffness afflicts his watercolors whereas a tautly rendered canvas such as the Philadelphia Museum’s The Concert Singer, currently on view at the Whitney, fairly glows with realized opaque color.

The real master of this bravura watercolor style turns out not to have been Homer at all. It was John Singer Sargent whose watercolors of soldiers during the first World War, unveiled for the first time at the Metropolitan, show him to have had moments of Tiepolesque celerity. In one study of two supine but anachronistically elegant nude Tommies who are napping after a bath in a stream, we see the way translucent watercolor admits the surface as an organizing element, shaping the light in a way Sargent could never do in his oil portraits unless he emphasized the silhouette as he did in Madame X, and he did this rarely.

To judge, next, from the work of members as prominent as, say, Ogden Pleissner or, even more prominent, Andrew Wyeth, the heir of Sargent’s sumptuous style appears to have been the American Watercolor Society. In their hands however, the style became codified as the general approach was to combine bravura with a regressive sense of detail, yet to treat the surface in too painterly a way. The results are usually flashy, in most cases virtuoso performances of meaningless facility and in virtually all contemporary cases (Cropsey, Homer were once members) abandoning watercolor’s inherently abstract matrix. This, no doubt, accounts for the gradual separation of the Society from the mainstream of American watercolor, a separation which was formalized by the attack on bravura in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It was Maurice Prendergast’s engaging decorative style that probably announced the new direction. Prendergast’s free but contained handling of a broad wash produced a tapesty-like surface based on the post-Impressionism of Cézanne, whose influence is immediately evident in his oils. There are, besides, implications in his watercolors of a bravura checked by a sense of the plane. Thus where Hassam tried to reproduce mass as light, Hassam made it yield to the general flatness of the surface, though very frequently his watercolors are too cluttered with too many flattened forms to preserve the structural effect.

There is, however, the question of whether watercolor should have attempted to follow the development in oil, for it is impossible to reproduce modeled opaque structure in the non-plastic watercolor idiom. Post-Impressionism was still close enough to the basic properties of watercolor not to cause trouble. But Cubism was above all an opaque, anti-Impressionist description of three-dimensional form. So that when Marin “brought his Cubism back in a bucket” (as compared to the “spoon” of Demuth, who made the observation) he also brought home the problem of an opaque intention in direct conflict with translucent means. Besides, the Cubist plane is structurally redundant in watercolor. Marin, as a matter of fact, was more interested in structure and movement than light, but his attempt to combine the freshness and spontaneity of watercolor with the conceptual inferences of patiently worked out oils at least temperamentally anticipated the later effort to apply translucency to a monumental field. Marin’s oil paintings, which make less of a sacrifice to spontaneity than his watercolors, may just overtake them in time.

Demuth, on the other hand, appears to have perceived the contradiction early, reserving his “spoonful” of Cubism mostly for his oil painting where he could use opacity to affirm the surface whereas in his watercolors he used his sense of the luminous plane to effect a crispness of strongly illusionist form with a slight post-Impressionist planarity. But Demuth rarely finished the backgrounds of his later detailed studies of fruits and vegetables, clearly demonstrating the greater conflict that had formed in art between illusion and form, the same problem Cézanne himself could not entirely resolve except through a prophetic dematerialization in the last paintings of his career. The problem meanwhile was eventually to touch off the Abstract Expressionist explosion. It is only recently, that in color abstraction, emulating watercolor on a monumental scale, a kind of order has been restored within the pictorial frame . . . perhaps too much so.

BEYOND FORMAL CONSIDERATIONS, the lasting appeal of watercolor is based simply on the fact that it is not opaque, that it glows with light. Releasing this light, watercolor dematerializes mass. This serves no formal need, but is rather a symbolic release from the limits of “things.” It is also an escape from the frame, seeking rather a representation of the Spirit, of the Sublime. This is obviously the antithesis of classic conceptions of form or the cruder forms of realism. It is essentially a Gothic impulse. As such it is a Northern specialty, developed to mitigate the hardness of neo-classic form. Northern art has a history of luminism, from Ravenna to Grunewald to modern Expressionists like Munch and Nolde, opposed to the Southern tradition of stable form. The outstanding example of Gothic translucency is of course stained glass. Stained glass actually replaced mosaic as decoration of religious architecture. By the same token a mosaic could be described as a kind of opaque stained glass. Clement Greenberg has written about mosaics in his discussion of Byzantine parallels in modernist art.3

The significant thing, formally and expressively, about stained glass is the way the linear “leading” is effectively counteracted by great washes of natural light which are tinted as they pass through the flat panes into the vast interiors of the great 13th-century cathedrals. France then was still a Northern province in terms of sensibility, even though Suger was drawn to the mysticism of numbers and proportion. Correspondingly, modernist color abstraction seeks a similar symbolic dematerialization of edge and mass. (Though the Gothic would never have abandoned its religious iconography.) Indeed abstract luminism begins its search for translucency in the “pure plastic” impulses of Mondrian. Mondrian, a Northerner who said he worked like an Impressionist, sought in his final works the dematerialization of his grid through the chromatic action of cubes of pure color. He thus paradoxically set into motion an anti-plastic impulse that persists today in the work of Ad Reinhardt and Mark Rothko, and most recently, Robert Irwin, whose attack on the frame, the most elegant yet, proceeds from a fanatical dandyism––spirituality as style, form as the temptation of the senses.

The difference between these painters and post-painterly abstractionist luminists such as Olitski, Noland and even Stella is the consciousness of decorative values in the latter, implying a structure far more open, far more receptive to luminist intentions than the superseded post-Cubist models upon which the former are based. Even before Cubism, in pointillism, which was also a luminist style, there is the persistent echo of closed, modeled form.

It should be clear by now that between these two contrasting poles of the same impulse lies the work––and the painterly line, a forerunner of modern luminism––of Jackson Pollock. Pollock was responsible for all the nobility that Surrealism ever knew, since he gave automatism scale and set the stage for a heroic secularism in painting. Meanwhile, the relationship between Gothic luminism and Eastern iconoclasm is another subject. Suffice it to say that if Cubism led us into Byzantine parallels, the new color abstraction processes Gothic ones.

The connection between watercolor and abstract luminism, then, lies in the fact that watercolor in the Western application of it, is part of the same process of reduction of the Gothic involvement with light4 (though I would not be surprised if Oriental art has its Gothic parallels as well.) It must come, then, as a surprise to most members of the American Watercolor Society that their humble craft should have originated in such lofty sources. But there is more to it. The course of the impulse to translucency, and ultimately to watercolor, proceeds from stained glass (and consider now the significance of the invention of glass alone) to one of the most glorious moments in the history of art––early Flemish painting. It was in 15th-century Flanders that watercolor’s catalytic dialogue was foreshadowed as egg tempera gave way to painting in oil, which developed to a point where it became, and, until recently, remained, the principal painting medium of the West, obtaining for the Flemish masters an unprecedented translucency of color. Oil painting anticipated, for all its ultimate utilization as an opaque medium, a style and a technique that could be luminous––and only luminous––all the way through. I am, by the way thinking more of painters like Gerard David, particularly the National Gallery’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt and the portraits of Van der Weyden and Memling, than of the too Gothic realist Jan Van Eyck of the Ghent Altarpiece or, at the other extreme, the somewhat Southernized Arnolfini portrait in London. We do not again see luminous color with so expressive and so mystical a function. In the South, Leonardo was instead to develop one of the early anticipations of modern Impressionism––his entirely “scientific” sfumato.

Durer, Caravaggism, the Dutch Baroque and finally 18th-century English Romanticism––these were the steps that had to be traced via an increasingly less insular Northern route before luminism could fully deposit itself in America. There was, as a number of writers have pointed out, a “luminous landscape” tradition in 19thcentury American painting. Along with watercolorists, they launched an effort to restore something of the original psychological density of the impulse to translucency. For by the end of the 18th century light had simply become another state of “matter” rather than a formal-psychological condition. If the Americans were able to reproduce something like a 15th-century state of mind in respect to form and light, it was because their provincial loyalty to realism ultimately guaranteed their rigor. The British had gone soft and American painting wasn’t too strong either. Homer, then, can be seen partly as a reaction against an effete domestic transcendentalism which though more rigorous than English pantheism, was finally just as sentimental, just as vulnerable to the picturesque.

The slowness with which Americans received advanced ideas from the now classic South (France having by this time been fully assimilated to the Western mainstream) makes sense now. Down deep, Americans were interested in something else besides sophistication, which is to say that when Americans finally came to modernism, they brought not so much a new idea about art but a really quite old idea about its immaterial function. And for a while this idea survived in watercolor (and indeed in some of the best illustrations of the 18th and 19th centuries) while oil painting sought its place in the modern world. Thus the impulse to dematerialization was to combine with Parisian esthetics to produce the explosion known as Abstract Expressionism.

Obviously then, modernism could not be denied. This pressure was particularly evident in watercolor, where its dialogue with oil painting became a measure of the encroaching ambiguity of modernism. Homer was the first to feel the pressure. He has seemed a stronger watercolorist than oil painter simply because of his facility and his seeming virility. But the pressure was more noticeable in Prendergast whose watercolors weaken progressively after about 1900, while Marin became increasingly conservative as a watercolorist as his oils suffered from too much fluidity . . . or not enough. Demuth was never that strong, just intelligent, modest, honest. As for Hopper, he seems to have abandoned the medium long ago, at least as a regular practice. By the thirties, then, the light of the watercolor mainstream had pretty much burned out.

ACTUALLY WATERCOLOR WAS, from the start, in the same boat with oil painting. The advantage of it was that it was gratifyingly difficult to be pompous with it. Otherwise it too had somewhere to recognize that the secularization of light had made man simply a material fact whose atoms “blindly ran.” Gold, halos, angels wings, the inner glow, had gradually disappeared from art. Secularization had thus “reduced” the imagination and subsequently form. Artistically this was expressed as a complete insecurity of scale.

Yet the Metropolitan’s exhibition concludes with a sampling of Abstract Expressionist painters, including Kline, Rothko, Motherwell, Newman, Pollock and, from the younger generation, Sam Francis and Helen Frankenthaler. Now all of these people were or are involved with a restitution of the monumental formal surface, the heroic implications of which imply a reconstruction of the ego––a new image of man. To keep my analogy intact, the exhibition should have included samples by Olitski who has done some very interesting things (small pictures in Aquatec handled like gouache) and by other color artists. But in any event, I don’t think that what they do (neither the Abstract Expressionists nor the color painters) is actually watercolor but a grander expression of its impulse . . . translucency. For one thing, there is no change from their easel painting technique. But they are backed up by their own force, working through increasing luminism, which, as I have insisted, has its sources––like modern watercolor––in the incandescence of Northern religious art.

The problem with this art, then, as I see it, is a conflict between a color sense that has its source largely in a decorative, and Southern, impulse (I shall explain this in a moment) while the light created with it stands not only for a spiritual energy but focused but general illusion. It is the feeling for color that keeps this art abstract; while everything about the light indicates a desire for an image to glorify and while scale, now vast, is also a measure of its public ambition. Consequently the artists are compelled to turn color into a subject. To glorify color is not only ironic; it is redundant. Peacocks don’t have to sing. Finally there is the question of spontaneity in respect to monumental scale. Spontaneity refers to a moment, however ecstatic an intuition is involved, and the work cannot possibly ever attain the classic resolution of a truly monumental art. There is not enough in an “impression” to create a really profound “illusion.” It must then seek in its own very impressive loveliness for a metaphor of spiritual meaning that in the final analysis makes all great art ultimately moral, moral not because of its content but because it executes the deeper psychological function of form.

The divided, or attenuated state of affairs of the new abstraction has come about, as I said, partly because while the feeling for light has a specifically Northern intensity, the feeling for color is strongly influenced by more Mediterranean sources. In point of fact American luminist abstraction received its principal coloristic precedents from Matisse who greatly diluted his oil paints in order to attain greater saturation of hue. (I cannot at the moment find any evidence of Matissean activity in watercolor.) It is, however, generally overlooked that one of the reasons Matisse elected for color was that he had difficulty achieving a modern, structured illusion. He never participated deeply in any modern movement after Fauvism because it was illusion that he was really interested in. Color was only a release from the frustrations that he suffered at the hands of illusion. Fauvism was in this sense an admission of defeat. Yet he would not accept the Cubist solution. Rather he employed Cubism to simplify his pictorial scheme, so that color would have plenty of room in which to convey what was now a surrogate illusionism of light. (How convenient for my position that he eventually decorated a chapel.) Matisse hung on to illusionist remnants almost to the end. He finally achieved a few abstract color compositions, but with an entirely different order of illusion from that achieved by advanced American color painting. For one thing his ambiguity is mainly formal. Matisse never made color entirely identical with the surface, and he used lines to help his perspective. And there is a vast psychological difference as well. The feeling of most American color painting is simply not hedonistic at all. It is really obsessive . . . there is a striving for a sheer, yet structured luminism that aspires to the state of an “illumination” which, because it is not attached to illusionistic things must receive and demonstrate the force of its own obsession instead. This quality of illusion “thingifying” itself with its own obsession ultimately leaves us with a very physical object that is nothing but color, a vast luminous pane through which light filters into the “interior” of a secular cathedral without walls––the concretion of our utterly self-conscious and material intuition of the universe.

If this be our Gothic, how soon a Renaissance?

––Sidney Tillim



1. Reinhold.

2. ARTS, Jan., 1965.

3. In Art and Culture, a collection of Mr. Greenberg’s essays. This is also the place to note the inspiration of two of Mr. Greenberg’s essays in respect to this study. Recently, in the course of preparing certain lectures, I happened to reread Byzantine Parallels and an essay not in this collection, Early Flemish Paintings (ARTS, Dec., 1960). Readers familiar with both of these unique studies will recognize the extent of my indebtedness.

4. Certainly “watercolor” as such existed before Flemish painting. I am speaking, however, of watercolor as a specialty and I accept the Encyclopaedia Brittanica’s suggestion that modern watercolor began with Durer.