Rejecting urbanism and irony, John Marin used European avant-garde methods to make a quintessentially American art.
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To understand the art of John Marin we must first note the impact of Cubism, the most influential development in Western painting since Renaissance painters guided their art out of the Middle Ages. Their most important invention was one-point perspective and its variants, which endowed pictorial space with coherence and stability. The mastery of perspective was the key to the other developments—proportion, foreshortening, rational lighting, volumetric modeling—that established what we call a realistic view of the world. Then, in the first decade of the 20th century, just two painters—Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque—dismantled the pictorial machinery that Renaissance painters had designed and subsequent generations modified but never rejected. For over four centuries, Western eyes had been certain of the way a picture looked and how it worked—a certainty reinforced by the development of photography in the late 1830s. With the appearance of Cubism, that certainty was, if not gone, then violently challenged.
Crowding their images up against the picture plane, Braque and Picasso did away with perspective. Light was now was an unstable flicker of bright and dark tones across fragmentary forms that that made it difficult and sometimes impossible to make out a subject—and any bottle or glass or human face that the viewer was able to piece together could never be fully extricated from its surroundings. Of course, Cubism didn’t emerge from a void. Braque and Picasso’s revision of the very idea of painting—of picturing the world—owes much to Paul Cézanne, the Nabis, the Fauves, and others.
Yet it is clear at a glance that Marin’s mature work is crucially dependent on specifically Cubist precedents. Like the Futurist Umberto Boccioni and the Cubo-Futurist Lyubov Popova, Marin found his own uses for Cubist flattening and fragmentation. Unlike these painters and a remarkable number of others in Europe, Russia, and the United States, Marin did not invent Cubist variations in response to the quick tempo and incipient chaos of a modern, mechanized world. Nor did he refine Cubist clutter into a set of elemental forms, the building blocks of a timeless, other-worldly realm, in the manner of Piet Mondrian and his fellow geometric abstractionists. Marin painted from nature—rather, from a characteristically American feeling for nature with roots in the early years of the 19th century. When Joseph Stella painted the Brooklyn Bridge around 1919, he elaborated its swooping forms into a quasi-Futurist abstraction. Marin treats this quintessentially urban presence as if it were a portion of a newly discovered mountain range.
Marin was born, raised, and had his first taste of higher education in New Jersey. After a year of architectural studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, he decided to become a painter. Enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, he took classes from Thomas Pollock Anschutz, a fine-grained realist, and a neo-Impressionist named Hugh Breckinridge. After two years at the Academy, he took classes for a year at the Art Students League, in New York, a period he later recalled as a waste of time. In 1905, he traveled to Europe, where, it is usually said, he was exposed to avant-garde painting. Though this is no doubt true, Marin tended to underplay the importance of the time he spent abroad.
The photographer and writer Dorothy Norman published Marin’s Selected Writings in 1949, four years before the painter’s death. In her introduction, Norman recalled him saying that, despite settling in Paris to study art, “I spent most of my time outside the school [and] pretty soon I gave up going there at all.” Nor, he added, did he “look at paintings much in Paris. I guess I took a couple of trips to the Louvre. But mainly I played billiards, walked about, took trips to the country.” Asked about the Impressionists, he said he didn’t know anything about them at the time, though, he added, “I must have seen some of their work in windows when I’d go walking, without knowing it.” As for the work of the Fauves and Cubists and other avant-gardists who emerged during the six years Marin spent in Europe, no mention of them appears in the Selected Writings. Marin’s comments and glaring omissions signal the not entirely convincing nonchalance of an American determined not to be impressed by Europe. It may well be that his indifference was a necessary pretense, a way of freeing himself to find his own uses for Cubism and other European challenges to the pictorial inheritance of the Renaissance.
While Marin was abroad, he made landscapes with what might loosely be called Impressionist brushwork and color. And he found a market with charming etchings of canals in Amsterdam, cathedrals in France, porticos in Venice, and other favorites along tourism’s well-beaten path. Not until he returned to the United States was he capable of paintings like Weehawken Sequence (circa 1910–16). Here he generates a convincing light from willfully arbitrary yellows, pinks, blues, which he lays on in flat, wide brushstrokes very like those of André Derain and Georges Braque in their Fauvist phases. Only when he applies lessons learned from Braque’s—and of course Picasso’s—Cubism do we see him on his way to becoming one of the most powerful painters in America’s 20th century.
In Weehawken Sequence, brushstrokes run parallel to the surface. Soon Marin is applying paint with a kind of torque that puts his forms at an angle to the surface and opens up the space of the image to a characteristically American feeling of limitlessness. For Marin’s version of Cubism does not play off the geometry of urban architecture. It does not, in the ironic manner of Braque and Picasso, reflect on the circumscribed harmonies of traditional composition. Rather, his fragmentations of form serve his need to make contact with his subjects, to enfold them in an emphatic embrace and thus preserve them, in all their particularity, against the eroding immensities of American space. See, for example, the intimacy and the grandeur of the tilting, sprawling, surging marks and color-splotches in Palisades No. 2 (1922).
In a letter to Alfred Stieglitz, Marin says he wants “to illustrate a point” about drawing “the prow of a ship. I draw abstractly. It’s cut up, yet not cut up. It does things, it assumes directions and leanings yet it is not really cut up. In all its movements it remains a whole.” Or one might say that, because of the “movements” imparted to the prow by Marin’s version of Cubism, its wholeness is not merely preserved. It is dramatized. This inanimate object is brought to life, made into an actor integral to the theater of sea and sky and land that enfolds it in the unbounded theater of Marin’s America.
In 1909 Stieglitz gave Marin his first solo exhibition at 291, a New York gallery named after its Fifth Avenue address. Four years later, his paintings were included in the Armory Show. The two had met through the photographer Edward Steichen, a member of the Stieglitz circle, which included Georgia O’Keeffe, Max Weber, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and a very few others. Until his death in 1946, Stieglitz showed Marin’s work nearly every season, at 291 or one of his later galleries. When the Museum of Modern Art presented a Marin retrospective in 1936, he was widely recognized as a historical figure. Yet he never played the maestro in full command of his art.
In another letter to Stieglitz, Marin ruminated over his approach to his art, confessing that “from time to time in a vague sort of way” he has “planned out work ahead. But I find this wayward temper of mine will not allow me to do so. So that I don’t know myself, I don’t know my sub-conscious self, and this sometimes scares me and surprises me and I find things cropping up I never intentionally intended.” Marin’s formulation implies that on occasion he unintentionally intended his works, a possibility that recalls Romanticism’s impatience with the rational calculations of a supposedly autonomous ego. Without benefit of theory, Marin came to believe that he would achieve his individuality—he would become, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s phrase, “self-reliant”—not by separation but through immersion.
In an 1841 essay called “The Over-Soul,” Emerson invokes “that Unity … within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.” Marin echoes his predecessor in the succession of American Romantics when he declares, with a painter’s predilection for specifics, that “the true artist must perforce go from time to time to the elemental big forms Sky, Sea, Mountain, Plain … But to express these, you have to love these, to be a part of these in sympathy. One doesn’t get very far without this love.” Marin’s embrace of his world is so passionate that he seems almost to revive the early idea of America as a New-World Eden. He was an optimist, though never starry-eyed. Writing from Maine, he commented on “this weather of ours here in America,” calling it “cussed, alluring, and repellent all in the same breath. Let our people live here long enough and they’ll get like the weather, then some things, great, will happen.”
By Carter Ratcliff