One Fine Show: ‘Drip Splatter Wash’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The museum explores the artistic power of watercolors with an exhibition of stellar works from its collection.

A painting of beautiful flowers in front of a green background
John La Farge (American 1835-1910). Study of Pink Hollyhocks in Sunlight, from Nature, 1879. Watercolor and opaque watercolor over graphite on paper, 11 15/16 x 9 11/16 inches (30.3 x 24.6 cm). The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of James Maroney, F86-22.

The term “water-colours” appears in Shakespeare, but the medium came into its own with their wide manufacture in the 1800s, when they were perfect for the Victorian who wanted to slap out a landscape en plein air. Our age is more gilded than ever but you don’t see many artists working with them in contemporary art. Perhaps these bolder times demand the brightest colors. A new show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, “Drip Splatter Wash: An Exploration of Watercolor and Technique” seeks to explore this quaint pigmentation via some stellar works from its collection. They’ve even provided magnifying glasses for a better exploration of how artists like Andrew Wyeth, John La Farge, Reginald Marsh and Jacob Lawrence managed to achieve such powerful results with such delicate tools.

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La Farge’s Study of Pink Hollyhocks in Sunlight, from Nature (1879) may be the Platonic ideal of watercolors, even though the artist was best known for his stained glass. The individual creases can be seen in the petals of the flower, and this attention to texture continues as you make your way down the thorny stem to the wispy then firmer leaves. But return to the petals, where the violet bleeds out into the paper the same way it would with the cellulose of the flower. It feels more real than a photograph.

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Marsh, a WPA All-Star, offers something different with 20 South Street (1939): a scene of the downtrodden on a New York City stoop that offers such control it’s hard to believe it is, in fact, a watercolor. Though not cheery it is still beautiful, with facial expressions and body language contributing to a symphony of social realism. Even the fire hydrant is treated with dignity. Lawrence’s Home Chores (1945) offers another demonstration of the versatility of watercolor (technically gouache, as with Marsh) as the long arms of an angular worker battle with the swirling chaos of laundry in a sink. As with Marsh, the paint choice keeps a warm human feeling among the bigger ideas. And when it comes to experimentation, you could hardly do better than Albert Bloch’s Form and Color Study, No. 9: Railway Bridge (1913), which offers the lovely though unexpected delight of a Cubist view of a European town done in watercolor in the kinds of tones you might find in a box of Crayolas. Almost sounds like a prompt for Midjourney, right?

But I return to the thesis I hinted at in the opening: that with all due respect to the possibilities they afford, watercolors are primarily something to take on vacation. Henry Roderick Newman demonstrates this well with his Room of Tiberius, Temple of Isis, Philae (1894) which recreates the warm sandstone of ruins, and the way their etchings fade into time. Arthur Bowen Davies’s Italian Hills (1928) rise from the mist like they’re on the cover of a fantasy novel, his pastel waterfall cutting clean through the clouds. These paints are capable of great and subtle works, and the Nelson-Atkins is lucky to have a collection that shows such range.

Drip Splatter Wash: An Exploration of Watercolor and Technique” is on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art through June 9.

One Fine Show: ‘Drip Splatter Wash’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art