A collection of rarely seen, exceptional watercolors by American masters is on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through Nov. 20, and once they come down they will probably not be shown again for years.
“Drip, Splatter, Wash: American Watercolor, 1860-1960” is a chance to see 29 stunning works from the museum’s permanent collection. Some of them have not been seen in a quarter century.
That’s because watercolor paintings are highly susceptible to light damage, so preserving them means keeping them in dark storage. For every six months they are on view, the Nelson “rests” them for at least five years.
This exhibition spans a century, giving viewers a glimpse at how techniques evolved from landscape realism to pure abstraction.
A trio of seascapes from the 1920s by John Marin, Edward Hopper and Birger Sandzen are in themselves worth making a trip. The three A-list painters use differing techniques to push the boundaries of modernism. Kate Crawford, assistant curator of American art, selected the works with a focus on technique, exploring how painters used drips, splatters and washes to express meaning.
Marin’s “Houses, Stonington, Maine” (1923), which Crawford admits is her favorite in the show, is evocative and throws the viewer off balance. “We’re not really sure whether we’re on land or at sea,” Crawford says. “It is destabilizing and by far the most abstract of the three pieces.”
“Rocks” (1924) by Sandzen shows a completely different style. Crawford says Sandzen, a native of Sweden who immigrated to Lindsborg, Kan., used watercolors almost like oils, building up thick layers of paint on paper. In addition, Sandzen used blank areas of white paper to evoke the foaming frothiness of the ocean and the glint of light on waves, Crawford says.
Hopper’s “The Dory” (1929) is much more realistic than the Marin and Sandzen seascapes, and perhaps a revelation for people who know only Hopper’s later oils on canvas. This scene of a lone man in a small boat with taut, swelling sails on the churning ocean is spare and powerful. “It is a joy to feature this Hopper, because I think it it the Hopper-iest Hopper in our American art collection,” Crawford says.
“Drip, Splatter, Wash: American Watercolor, 1860-1960” will be on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through Nov. 20. Free admission. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday (open till 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday).