Published: August 19, 2011
During his lifetime, John Marin (1870‱953), was not only a leading early Modernist, but one of America’s most celebrated artists. In 1942, Abstract Expressionist champion Clement Greenberg said Marin was perhaps the greatest living American artist. In 1948, a nationwide survey of museum directors and critics conducted by Look magazine named Marin “America’s Number 1 artist.” These accolades acknowledged the broad appeal of his idiosyncratic approach to paint handling, color, perspective, movement and energy †and his diverse subject matter.
While he never completely embraced abstraction, Marin helped pave the way for the Abstract Expressionism. He found inspiration and used a Modernist touch wherever he went †New Jersey, Europe, New York, New Mexico and especially Maine.
After early experiments with etchings, Marin hit his stride with watercolors, which brought him into the fold of art impresario Alfred Stieglitz. As early as 1922, Charles Demuth, an excellent watercolorist himself, called Marin “the greatest watercolorist of all time.” Long recognized for the originality and appeal of his watercolors, Marin in the last two decades of his career turned increasingly to oil painting, which he found freed him up to try fresh, powerful styles that were more fluid and emotional.
This late surge of creativity, 1933‱953, is the subject of a superb exhibition, “John Marin: Modernism At Midcentury,” on view at the Portland Museum of Art through October 10. Featuring around 60 paintings, watercolors and drawings, the show is guest curated by Debra Bricker Balken and co-organized by the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and the Portland Museum.
A New Jersey native, Marin maintained a home there throughout his life. While studying briefly at Stevens Institute of Technology and working in architecture, he developed a lifelong appreciation for structure, balance and weight.
At 30, Marin enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where William Merritt Chase was among his teachers, and studied at the Art Students League, 1901‱903.
Marin then spent six years in Europe, with Paris as his base. He took up etching, and created soft, Impressionist-style watercolors, most successfully during a 1910 trip through the Alps.
Stieglitz began to give Marin solo exhibitions in New York, initiating a strong bond of friendship and professional respect that lasted until the dealer’s death in 1946. After his return home, Marin began to integrate elements of Cubism, Expressionism and Futurism, picturing the Big Apple as a metropolis bursting with energy and movement †”a fractured yet mountainous set of buildings,” as Balken writes in the exhibition catalog. Whether depicting the Brooklyn Bridge or the Woolworth Building, Marin’s structures bent, twisted and swayed; as he said, “The more they move me the more I feel them to be alive.” Likewise, when he turned to nature and the sea, his focus remained on his inner emotional response, usually joyous, to the grand forces he perceived.
In 1914, Marin first visited Maine, which came to symbolize for him the power and dynamism of nature. As he wrote Stieglitz soon after his arrival, Maine represented a “fierce, relentless, cruel, beautiful, fascinating, hellish and all the other ish’es place.” Thereafter he found subjects in the state’s busy harbors, roiling seas, forested mountains and sturdy small towns. Settling in the Small Point area by Casco Bay, an area marked by rocks, cliffs, windswept trees and rolling waves, his watercolors overflowed with an exuberant sense of discovery.
In 1919, moving further up the coast to the picturesque fishing village of Stonington, Marin spent a decade producing semiabstract watercolors in which the town, with its wood frame houses tumbling down a hillside, and the water interacted. The area around Stonington and Deer Isle illustrated his notion that “Old Man God when he made this part of the Earth just took a shovel full of islands and let them drop.”
His watercolors of this period expressed a feeling of taut energy and explosive vitality by means of a rich combination of bold brushwork, dense patches of color, fluid washes and deft lines. One senses in these works that Marin was torn between painting abstractions and wanting to maintain a sense of the landscape, responding in effect to fluctuating inner commands to portray his sites in some instances as they looked and to transform them in others. He sought an equilibrium between the forces of dynamism and movement and those of stability and order.
Finally, in 1933, he landed for good further north †or Down East, as Mainers put it †in a sparsely populated area near South Addison, buying a cottage at Cape Split, which juts into Pleasant Bay. The home/studio was set out on rocks, with the sea a mere 25 feet from his doorstep, and pine-clad islands on the horizon.
Marin’s enchantment with varied aspects of his new location was reflected in “Cape Split, Maine, No. 2,” an oil painted the year he moved in. Captured in a rather smooth, Cubistic image that recalls his roots in architecture, are sharply angled suggestions of houses, boats, islands and turbulent water.
Marin often painted from the open porch, “so close to the water I almost feel at times that I am on a boat,” he wrote Stieglitz. Indeed, “Composed from My House, Outlooks 1,” a 1942 watercolor, takes advantage of that handy vantage point.
“Lobster Boat, Cape Split, Maine,” a vigorously brushed oil that emphasizes the choppy water through which the prow of a vessel ploughs, is from a boat level view. This is as good an evocation of rough water as you will see; ditto for several other oils on canvas, including “Movement in Greys and Yellows” and “My Hell Raising.”
Marin wrote from Cape Split that “the Sea is so damned insistent that the houses and land things won’t appear much in my pictures.” That turned out to be true, except for distant islands.
Marin’s response to the sea was characteristically impassioned, in both oils and watercolors. He portrayed the water in all its moods †calm or violent, gray or filled with color, luminous or leaden †a remarkable record of exciting phenomena. A real beauty is the semiabstract “Grey Sea,” a 1938 oil, in which the artist utilized strong, swirling brushwork to draw viewers into a vortex of churning water. Similarly, Marin poured on the passion and the paint to convey seas pounding against rocks in another oil, “Cape Split.”
He achieved nearly similar strong effects in watercolor. “Movement: Sky and Grey Sea,” a 1941 watercolor, makes good use of gray washes to capture the clash of water and rocks on a gloomy day. “The Blue Sea,” 1943 approaches abstraction, albeit the agitation of the ocean and the solidity of the rocky coast are evident.
Marin’s continuing experiments with the opposing forces of energy and movement and solidity and endurance were suggested in a 1934 watercolor, “Island (Ship’s Stern),” in which the turbulent water is merely suggested by a few, deft strokes of blue, while the jagged rocks and trees on land exude strength and resiliency.
By this time Marin was working increasingly in oil to convey the compelling forces of nature that captivated him. Oil, with its inherent fluidity and viscous texture, was well suited to capture not only the impact of sun, wind and rain on the ocean, but the intense blues, greens and grays of the water.
Balken sees a “symbiotic relationship” between Marin’s watercolors and oil paintings, citing, for example, the “exposed expanses of white paper and canvas” that became a “staple” of his images after the mid-1940s. In “Blue Sea,” a 1943 watercolor, and “Movement: Sea, Ultramarine and Green: Sky, Cerulean and Gray,” a 1947 oil, expanses of bare surface are “an integral feature of the picture plain,” she observes.
While some have bemoaned Marin’s late conversion from watercolors to oils, others applauded the shift. Pioneering Modern art museum founder Duncan Phillips wrote in 1950, when the artist turned 80, that Marin “has achieved the same mastery and confidence in oil which is more generally acknowledged in his water colors and one can only regret that he did not paint more frequently in oil during the middle years.”
When not painting the insistent sea, Marin was depicting quaint towns or mountains. In “Tunk Mountains, Maine,” a 1948 oil, Marin punctuated a panoramic view of the area with bold calligraphic lines and patches of idiosyncratic color that reflected his awe at the grandeur of the scene.
Starting in the 1920s, Marin’s works were occasionally accompanied by stock frames that he painted to complement and harmonize with his art. His watercolors often included borders within their outer boundaries, underscoring that his views were “pictures within pictures.” His later oils included frames with loose, geometric forms and carved edges as extensions of the work of art. In brightly-hued mountainscapes like “Tunk Mountains, Maine” and “Movement: Lead Mountains Near Beddington,” these decorated frames augment Marin’s already appealing works.
Starting in the 1930s some critics said that Marin’s interest in the abstract possibilities of oil paintings presaged Abstract Expressionism, some linking him to emerging stars like Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock.
In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of Marin’s work, making him the first artist with abstractionist inclinations to receive such an honor. But he was not included in subsequent abstract exhibitions, in spite of nonrepresentational oils like “Movement: Grey and Blue,” 1952. His independence, low opinion of European modernism, and penchant for distancing himself from the New York art crowd set him apart.
Yet, important critics and curators recognized, as Balken puts it, “that Marin was actually a linchpin, that his painting bridged the School of Paris, through its lingering traces of Cubism, and the new movement of Abstract Expressionism&Hence&⁛the] decision to showcase Marin’s work at the Venice Biennale in 1950 and present him as a forebear, or at least the elder statesman, of Pollock and de Kooning.” Balken concludes that for all the contradictions, Marin was a transitional figure in the onset of new art in midcentury America.
It is fitting that Marin’s last painting, done a few months before he died, was a sea-dominated watercolor. “I don’t have to see the ocean anymore to paint,” he mused a few years before, “I’ve been looking at it so long I can see it with my eyes closed. And so I try to put it on canvas as I see it, the colors and movement as it appears to me. I’m not interested in how other artists paint the sea. I paint it as I see it.”
The exhibition travels to the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, November 5⁊anuary 8, and the Addison Gallery at Andover, January 27⁁pril 1. The 108-page fully illustrated catalog, written by Balken, is published by Yale University Press in association with the Addison Gallery. It sells for $30, softcover.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information, 207-775-6148 or www.portlandmuseum.org .
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