John Singer Sargent at the Brooklyn Museum

04/30/2013 04:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2013

Contrary to the argument of the recent "Inventing Abstraction, 1910-1925" show at MOMA, which is that abstraction came about at particular time and place in the history of art, one is perpetually astonished by the ubiquitousness and precociousness of the impulse to abstraction. Indeed abstraction preceded mimesis. What could be more abstract than a cave painting?

The impulse to abstraction may also be a characteristic of certain media. Many watercolorists become inadvertent abstractionists because they can't control the paint. But as the current show of John Singer Sargent watercolors at the Brooklyn Museum demonstrates, the lability of the medium can be the occasion for abstraction and representation both.


Sargent was known for his portraits, but he may have even been an even greater watercolorist due to the sublime ways he used the medium to move from the abstract to an almost classical sense of perspective. In this regard, Sargent was a painterly hermaphrodite. This is particularly exemplified in his Venetian paintings.

In the foreground of Gondoliers (1906), we find two figures who are created with brilliant washes of the brush, while in the background Sargent employs the paint with an uncanny intuitive sense of control to capture the perspective.

In his paintings based on Italian gardens, the abstraction predominates, with the work moving into territories that might be more associated with abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. Gourds (1908), Magnolias (1908) and Vines and Cypresses (1909) all became the occasions for organic abstraction, a kind of painterly taxidermy, in which the skin of the fruit, as it were, was removed -- as is literally the case in Pomegranates (l908). There is a luminescence and almost effortless beauty to these works. It's been said of Sargent that he worked hard to show that he wasn't working hard.

Painting, Gourds by John Singer Sargent (1908)

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}