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Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Features John Singer Sargent: The Watercolors

Viewing this artist's watercolor works requires more than one trip.

But this isn't a show about Sargent's sexuality, which has been addressed elsewhere. Queer or not, Sargent's eye translated what he saw into watercolors that are fabulous. They're also beautifully installed in the special exhibition galleries of the MFAH Beck Building, on richly colored walls of dove-gray or deep blue or maroon. They're grouped together by theme, like with like, as Sargent wanted: In Villa Gardens, Arab Encounter, Mountain Heights and so forth. No slight intended to the curators, but even they admit that it's almost as though Sargent had curated the show himself.

I have one quibble with the installation: Instead of marching in a line around the gallery walls according to modern museum orthodoxy, I'd like to see the paintings hung in a more salon-like style, as they might have been in Sargent's day.

So much for the good news. Now for the bad. Even for all its glories, there's a near fatal flaw in this exhibition: the ticket price. It's unfortunate that modern museum economics require (or is it excuse?) ticketing any exhibition, but in this case it's particularly galling. In fact, the words "crying shame" come to mind.

John Singer Sargent captured the human gaze with aplomb.
John Singer Sargent, Bedouins, c. 1905–06, opaque and translucent watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, Purchased by Special Subscription
John Singer Sargent captured the human gaze with aplomb.

Though Sargent was right that there's added power in his watercolors hanging together, their subtle elegance begs that each also be savored individually. This show needs to be taken in as lots of little art encounters over many visits as the mood strikes. Otherwise it's like getting a fifth of great whiskey that you have to slug down in a single night. What a hangover. And you're likely to remember about as much the next morning.

But at $23 a visit (somewhat, but not much, less on weekdays or for various categories), how many of us regular folks can afford to go more than once or twice? Not even becoming an MFAH member helps that much, since even the $1,500 level includes only six free visits.

Put me down as an advocate of responsible art consumption. There's got to be a better way than this reckless binge viewing. It would be best, of course, if a sugar daddy or mommy from among Houston's 1 percent made the show free. Barring that, how about an exhibition-long pass at a reasonable price (I'm talking $10s here, not $100s) that lets you drop in as often as you like? Or even — dare I say it? — a free day every week or two? With a billion-dollar endowment, second only to that of New York's Metropolitan Museum among art museums, surely MFAH can afford to let us see the art they bring as it should be seen. Otherwise why bring it at all?

Attention, MFAH: Just having the art doesn't add stars to art museum heavenly crowns. It's having it seen that does that.

That flaw aside, however, and lest anyone reading this think that I always get up on the wrong side of the gallery, I'll say flat-out that this is a brilliant exhibition. And it's particularly fitting that it should be in Houston, since, after New York and Boston, Houston has the third largest concentration of Sargent works in public and private collections anywhere. We got to see many of them at MFAH in 2010 in "Houston's Sargents," mounted in conjunction with the traveling exhibition "Sargent and the Sea." Now we get a selection of the local holdings again as a coda to this show. Not even Brooklyn and Boston had that.

Even though we've seen lots of Sargent already, it's never possible to see too much — unless, of course, we have to gulp him all at once like that fifth of whiskey. Perhaps this is the time to spend less on whiskey on our weekend barhops, so that we can afford to sip Sargent slowly over the next few months.

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