Rediscovering John Marin, American Watercolorist

Re-emerging to be Celebrated Again

It’s a thrill to learn that prolific American painter John Marin (1870-1953) is being rediscovered, talked about, and featured in important exhibitions again. A couple of these exhibits are, “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 primarily from nature–seascapes, landscapes, and mountain scenes. Yet, trained as an architect, he presented urban settings, too. He abstracted his subjects with bright colors and simple energetic brushstrokes. He didn’t fuss with his paintings or employ sophisticated techniques. His strategy must have been: See it. Interpret it. Paint it. Done.

Often, he created his composition with a point of view above a typical eye level. Point of view is often not called out by the viewer. Yet, it presents a novel way of observing a scene.

His paintings have an immediacy and a friendly intimacy. This is in opposition to, for example, Edward Hopper, (1882-1967) whose paintings had a more standard eye-level point of view, but conveyed a sense of remote isolation. His paintings reeked “loner” and a loss of intimacy.

And, no one would use an adjective such as “friendly” to describe his work. Possibly Hopper’s most famous painting is “Nighthawks” shown here which is on permanent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Painting of people sitting at a counter in an urban diner.
Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.

John Marin at the Museum of Modern Art

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.

Press Release: John Marin Exhibit 1936 MOMA

Marin’s Techniques

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 how je na sais quoi, complicated, his watercolors looked.

The freshness of his work is saved by his restraint. His work is not laborious or overworked. Details are implied. Apparently, he was ambidextrous and worked with brushes in either hand. The image that brings to mind of the artist painting away–double-fisted– adds to the energetic quality of his paintings.

Hues are interpreted, not necessarily as seen in nature. The repetition of color, pattern, and visual energy conveys the depth of planning that underpins his work.

Successful watercolor painting requires mastery of the sequence of stokes, patience, managing the ratio of water to paint, and learning when to stop. These skills are paramount. Perhaps they are more than creativity or artistic gifts. Marin’s paintings look effortless because he was focused and, it’s obvious to me, that he loved working in watercolor.

It is estimated that he painted over 2,500 watercolors. Really no surprise there. His ease with the medium are demonstrated through his quick, confident strokes, and sparse washes of color.

Off Cape Split, Maine
Kufstein, Austrian Tyrol, watercolor by John Marin, American, Rutherford, New Jersey 1870–1953 Cape Split, Maine. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Isermann, 2002. Accession: 2002.241 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

His Story Telling

When I was a neophyte to American Modernists, and developing my own style as a watercolorist, and I found his style and “voice” completely intoxicating. It was riveting to stand in front of his work filled with wild abandon and conviction.

j marin- MET w credit
Off Cape Split, Maine, watercolor and crayon on paper, by John Marin, (American, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1870-1953 Cape Split Maine.) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949. Accession: 49.70.156. © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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).”

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 his work is not always representative of a moment in time. For example, he is diametrically opposed to Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), who coined the phrase, “the decisive moment.” Cartier-Bresson sought to capture that exquisite moment in time where the future hangs and waits. It’s a pinpoint; Marin’s work is more of an expression of a continuum.

A bicyclist is riding along a street at the bottom of a windy staircase.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Magnum Photos, as used in a “Christian Science Monitor” article, May 7, 2010, Cartier-Bresson: A Master’s Black-and-White World.

Todays Marin is Not on Anyone’s “Best Known” List of Artists

John Marin, 291, No_4,1915. Public domain.

Marin has enthusiast admirers–such as myself, and was once in the same stratosphere as Jackson Pollack, (1912-1956), other Abstract Expressionists, and even all other artists. In 1949, he was regarded as “America’s Artist No. 1” by Look Magazine. Yet, after his death in 1953, Marin seems to have fallen out of the discussion.

The same Wall Street Journal article, (August 5, 2011) presents opinions as to why Marin fell off the radar of the influential art critics, curators, and 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 dramatic work. Additionally, often the mood conveyed in the artwork created during and immediately following the World Wars was brooding, dark, or stark.

John Marin’s paintings were often comparatively small works in a transparent medium. These are not the attributes associated with the most well known Modernists or Abstract Expressionists.

As mentioned, Marin started using oils later in his career, which he often handled in a watercolor-like way. Watercolor as a medium was rarely seen as a serious, professional art form for artists in the fine art field.

Watercolor lends itself to portability and a fluid, spontaneous technique. I find his watercolor paintings fresh and brilliant.

What a treat to have a renaissance of John Marin’s work in these two current exhibits. (2016-2017).

What an intriguing afternoon it would be with these fellows in 1911.

Unknown photographer: A Group of Young American Artists of the Modern School (from left to right: Jo Davidson, Edward Steichen, Arthur B. Carles, John Marin; back: Marsden Hartley, Laurence Fellows), c. 1911, Bates College Museum of Art. Sarah Greenough et al: Modern art and America – Alfred Stieglitz and his New York galleries. National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. 2001, ISBN 0-8212-2728-9, p. 63.

1 comment

  • Jane J.

    I love the work of John Marin. What a treat to read this post! Looking forward to discovering the rest of this blog.

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