It is an unbalanced scarp, at once transparent and opaque. Commingling vegetation and earth, ink and wash on rag paper, Albrecht Dürer’s clipped watercolor from around 1494 proffers trees and drooping roots over a cliff. Cracked chunks of red sandstone, sliding downward, grind against one another. After visiting the southern environs of his native Nuremberg, Dürer collaged two divergent views of a rocky heap into a single composition and inscribed the sheet with a single word—steinpruch (quarry)—and a monogram. This film of pigment—legible as such only because of Dürer’s labeling—is “an unappealing subject in itself,” Walter Koschatzky wrote; “one might say, no subject.” The sheet, formerly in Bremen, is one of more than a dozen landscapes Dürer seems to have executed around 1500. They are watercolor and gouache, later cribbed in monochrome for engravings and, in a few cases, woodcuts. In the quarry piece, stones are green with damp moss. Some of the plants are dead.
Watercolor remains an undertheorized medium. Unlike its modernist progeny, the stain, watercolor traditionally offers no resistance to, as Rosalind Krauss once put it, “the violence of a hardened contour.” Watercolor is ancient yet retains associations with the fleeting, the delicate, the minor. As a practice, most visibly in the nineteenth century, watercolor has bespoken the faint or dilettantish: at best experimental, at worst aristocratic. As hue, controlled watercolor liaises too closely with enclosure to appeal to teleologies of abstraction. Watercolor fills, staining deprives; watercolor seeks to add, while the stain’s epistemic register is negative. Watercolor, Georges Didi-Huberman writes, is “where figuration abolishes itself.” Watercolor would seem to secret no poetics of the abject, the informel, the entropic.