Re-emerging to be Celebrated Again
It’s a thrill to learn that prolific American painter John Marin is being rediscovered, talked about, and featured in important exhibitions again, such as “Drip, Splatter, Wash: American Watercolor, 1860-1960” in 2016 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum; and “American Watercolors in the Age of Homer and Sargent” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (The Philadelphia exhibit closed in May 2017).
He drew his inspiration from nature–seascapes, landscapes, mountain scenes, even urban milleaux. He abstracted his subjects to simple compositions, often composing from a long view with a point of view above a typical eye level. He had an energetic expression with definitive brush strokes and clear transparent colors.
A charming depiction of John Marin, written contemporaneously, is included in a 1936 press release announcing the opening of the Marin exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.
The link to the entire document is included following this quote from the release:
“Loren Mozley, a young artist friend of Marin, presents a vivid picture of the ‘Yankee Artist’. Mozley says in part: ‘John Marin is an American original, a curious little man, wiry and frail, his face is incredibly wrinkled and puckers into all sorts of criss-cross lines. His candid eyes peer out brightly and mischievously under an outlandish curling bang, His hair is scarcely streaked with gray. When he comes to town he dresses old-fashioned with a quaint/elegance. A dark green tie knotted in a remembered way. A pearl. And a tense grace born of habitual alertness.
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 of the huge names, such as Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, or Georgia O’Keeffe.
The first time I saw one of Marin’s 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. Apparently, he was ambidextrous and worked with brushes in either hand. The freshness of his work proved his restraint. The repetition of color, pattern and visual energy conveys the depth of planning that underpins his work. Watercolor is a study in planning your sequence of stokes, patience, and learning when to stop, as much as any other of the skills needed.
To me, at my first encounter, it was a far step from how watercolor art “should” look.
They say he painted over 2,500 watercolors. Really no surprise there. His ease and confidence with the medium are demonstrated through his quick, unmuddied strokes and sparse washes of color.
At the time I was a neophyte to American Modernists, 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 what a point of view meant for an artist.
In a Wall Street Journal article 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).”
After quite a bit of study of the Abstract Expressionists as well as other artists, I am completely enamored by his dazzling simplicity yet complexity, as well as his story-telling expertise conveyed through his work.
For example, his work can present multiple points of view or points in time simultaneously– as in cubism. Or, like a cartoon panel that tells a story across multiple frames. It is a different way of thinking.
Here’s another example, when in Italy, I was drawn to the doors on the Bapistry by the Duomo in Florence. The panels on the door each present a story evolving over time–not exclusively one frame of time. For example, one panel tells the Biblical story of Jacob and Issac. Within that single frame is 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 Century. The article conjectured that perhaps it was because he was American,
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, (Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, or Wassily Kandinsky), or collage (like Pollack), or other media in which they could create bold big work.
Marin 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 to have a renaissance of Marin.
Wouldn’t it have been an intriguing afternoon if spend in a room with these fellows in 1911? Ah-h-h-h, to go back in time…