Re-emerging from Obscurity
It’s a thrill to learn that American painter John Marin is being rediscovered, talked about and featured in important new exhibitions: Maine’s Portland Museum of Art (through Oct. 10) and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art (through Sept. 11). Marin has enthusiast admirers–such as myself–but for some reason after once being in the same stratosphere as Jackson Pollack, Marin fell out of the primary discussion.
The first time I saw one of his watercolors, I was instantly almost dizzy with an incomprehension as to how an American watercolorist could be so far away from traditional composition and how childlike yet…je na sais quoi… complicated, his watercolors looked. It was a far step from how watercolor art “should” look. They say he painted over 2500 watercolors. Really no surprise there. His ease and confidence with the medium demonstrates his mastery.
At the time I was a neophyte to American Moderists, and I found his point of view completely intoxicating. It was riveting and world changing for me as a watercolorist and artist trying to figure out what a style and point of view meant for an artist.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article This WSJ article is a great article; please click link to read it... he was described as, “A bold colorist who viewed the American landscape through the kaleidoscopic prism of cubism, Mr. Marin conveyed with identical precision and sympathy the nervous angularity of lower Manhattan (“City Movement,” 1940) and the ceaseless turmoil of the waves that break on the coast of Maine (“Outer Sand Island, Maine,” 1936).”
Now, after quite a bit of study of the Abstract Expressionists and other artists, I am completely enamored by his dazzling simplicity yet complexity, and his story-telling through his work. For example, his work can present multiple points of view or points in time simultaneously– like cubism. it is a different way of thinking. Like a cartoon panel tells multiple frames. Or more closely really to the doors on the Bapistry of the Duomo in Florence, Italy which tell the Biblical story of Jacob and Issac in one frame but in within that frame presents the visual sequence as the story moves along.
The WSJ article presents options as to why Marin fell off the sights of the influential art critics, curators, patrons of the first half of the twentieth C. Perhaps because he was American, the article conjectured. In my opinion, it was partly because he was working in watercolor. Most of the giants of the Abstract Expressionism movement and other modern styles were working in oil, collage (like Pollack), or other media in which they could create bold big work. Marin’s used oil too, which he often handled in a watercolor-like way. I think his true voice was crystalized through his watercolor. They were often comparatively small works in a transparent medium. Watercolor lends itself to portability and a fluid, spontaneous technique. I find his watercolor paintings incredibly fresh and brilliant. But those were NOT the key adjectives sought for the artwork in the brooding, intensely dark era during and immediately following the World Wars. so because his mood didn’t fit, nor did the transparency of his medium, he fell behind the pack.
In any case, what a treat, a renaissance of Marin. And, wouldn’t it have been an intriguing afternoon, spent in a room with these fellows in 1911? Ah-h-h-h, to go back in time…