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Watercolorists' days of `no respect' may be ending. Demuth exhibition, charming and impressive, should win new appreciation for the medium

IT'S unfortunate but true: Anyone wishing to achieve major recognition in art had better not attempt it purely as a watercolorist. Even such great masters of the medium as Joseph Mallord Turner and Winslow Homer are most seriously admired for their oils. And as for those brilliant specialists Maurice Prendergast and John Marin, the art world would almost certainly think a little less of them if they hadn't put at least some of their ideas on canvas.

Charles Demuth (1883-1935) is another case in point. Although long recognized as one of America's earliest and most interesting modernists, the fact that the majority of his finest pictures were executed in watercolor has automatically relegated him to secondary status in the eyes of many. For several years now, in fact, his best-known work has been a not particularly outstanding oil entitled ``The Figure 5 in Gold'' that the Metropolitan Museum has had on more or less permanent display.

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Hints that this prejudice against watercolor may be on the decline are underscored by the enthusiastic reception afforded several recent shows, most especially the Prendergast exhibition held last year at the Coe Kerr Gallery that focused exclusively on his watercolors, and the John Singer Sargent retrospective at the Whitney Museum that shed new light on that artist's brilliant use of the medium.

And now, the Whitney has once again come to the aid of watercolor - as well as Demuth - by mounting a major and very beautiful exhibition of his overall production. ``Charles Demuth'' consists of 120 works on paper, canvas, and board selected by Barbara Haskell to represent every aspect of his career. Particular attention has been paid to his sensitive and poetic watercolors of flowers and fruit, and to his ground-breaking Precisionist paintings of industrial and other urban subjects.

For my money, the watercolors steal the show. They're so subtle and exquisite - they project such a delicate and shimmering aura while retaining the structural solidity of a C'ezanne still life or landscape - that it's difficult for me to imagine how anyone could fail to be charmed and impressed by them.

The parallels that exist between Demuth's paintings and C'ezanne's are far from accidental. Like so many artists of his day, Demuth was profoundly influenced by the art of that great French master. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, he never permitted formal theory to interfere with the lyrically romantic nature of his creative vision. Even at its most stylized or ``abstract,'' his art remains closer to poetry and music than to design. Like his friends Marin and Marsden Hartley, Demuth took only as much as he needed from C'ezanne, Cubism, and the rest of European modernism and then adapted and modified that to conform to his very American perception of life and art.

And American it was, as is especially evident in his studies of colonial churches and modern urban architecture. His grain elevators, industrial buildings, storefronts, and factories could only have been produced on this side of the Atlantic. For all their formal elegance and modernist underpinnings, they are too blunt and direct to be anything else. Europeans at that time were also, of course, painting factories and smokestacks, but without the frank enjoyment of those structures' immense, hulking size and aggressive physicality which Demuth's pictures display.

Although he was also adept at illustration (his interpretations of Emile Zola's ``Nana'' and Henry James's ``The Turn of the Screw'' are particularly effective), and he produced a number of fascinating studies of the rowdier aspects of the period's night life, it's in his watercolors of flowers, fruit, and vegetables that his distinctive gifts found their clearest and fullest expression.

Fortunately, this exhibition includes a substantial number of these, from the tentative and mildly decorative ``Zinnias'' and ``Strawflowers'' of 1915, to the powerful and subtly three-dimensional ``From the Kitchen Garden'' of 1925 and the warmly celebratory ``Zinnias, Larkspur and Daisies'' of 1928.

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Almost all are extraordinary demonstrations of the richness and flexibility of the watercolor medium.

Few artists have so successfully taken advantage of the expressive potentials of white paper, of its ability to function as both light-source and ground, as Demuth. And even fewer have managed to suggest volume, hue, and character as succinctly as he in a few washes of pure color, a dozen or so sensitively placed lines, and a handful of exquisitely positioned tones and textures.

The result is work that appears both dramatically ``real'' and brilliantly invented, that approximates the exact appearances of nature on the one hand, and produces images as structurally calculated and precise as anything by the Cubists or Mondrian on the other. Much of that effect derives from his remarkable knack for formal distillation, for being able to reduce complex clusters of objects to simple geometric forms and flat areas of color without subtracting anything significant from his subject's character or identity.

In this, he stands almost alone in American art. Once experienced, his work cannot be mistaken for anyone else's. His still lifes, florals, illustrations, and Precisionist architectural studies are as exceptional and distinctive as anything produced by any other American of his time. The fact that most of them were executed in watercolor should only cause us to think better of that medium than we have so far.

After its closing at the Whitney on Jan. 17, this excellent exhibition travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 25-April 24); the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio (May 8-July 10); and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Aug. 7-Oct. 2).

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