A Morse code of earth, sky, and sea

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A radiant, all-embracing enthusiasm for nature's more ebullient moods and inaccessible places characterizes many of John Marin's best watercolors, oils, and prints. It is unlikely, in fact, that any other American painter -- with the possible exceptions of Winslow Homer and Charles Burchfield -- exulted in the perpetual dramas of sea, sky, and earth more than he. One of his greatest gifts was the ability to distill that enthusiasm into concentrated bundles of painterly energy, and to translate the sight of waves dashing against rocks or trees bending in the wind into a few daubs of paint, some washes of color, and a line or two.

This gift made its earliest and still somewhat tentative appearance in his 1909 watercolors of the Tyrolean Alps, rapidly found its voice along the coast of Maine during the next six or seven years, and came to full maturity in a series of watercolors painted in that state and in New York City in the early '20s. From then until his passing in 1953, it manifested itself in a steady stream of ever simpler and more passionately direct images that captured and conveyed what he had seen and felt before the wonders of nature and the man-made skylines of New York.

At times -- when nature was most dramatic or when he felt most expansively at home on one of Maine's smaller islands -- his emotions would bubble over and explode into images so terse and elemental that, viewing them today, we can actually go back in time to share what he saw and felt several decades ago.

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No one else has ever had quite that capacity for immediacy, for getting to the heart of a particular perceptual and emotional experience, and then distilling, reshaping, and transmitting it as art in about the time it takes to describe it. None of the great Chinese or Japanese masters of the brush, neither Rembrandt nor Turner, nor any of the Impressionists, could match him in this, for they were all just a bit more relaxed in their transpositions of experience into art. Only in this century, in fact, has art been ``speeded up'' to such a degree, been forced at times to act as swiftly as Morse code.

Much of Marin's uniqueness lay in his ability to fashion an art that, while true to the realities of earth, sky, and sea, spoke in a formal language very much in tune with the beat of a highly urbanized and industrialized society.

Proof of that lay in his success. His watercolors so impressed Alfred Stieglitz, modernism's most important early champion in the United States, that Stieglitz exhibited them in his New York gallery from 1909 on. By 1913, Marin was regarded highly enough in modernist circles to be included in the famous Armory Show. Before the decade was over he was included among the ``great'' by Henry McBride, one of the leading art critics of the period. A major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936 was followed by election to membership in both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And to top it off, when a national magazine polled American art professionals a few years later for their choice of this country's 10 best artists, Marin easily came in first.

All this time, he was hard at work in the small fishing village of Stonington, Maine. For all his fame in the big cities, and his fascination with New York's energy and power, he preferred to paint as far away as possible from urban hustle and bustle. Even two painting expeditions to New Mexico in 1929 and 1930 failed to entice him away from Maine. Although he was impressed by the mountains of the Southwest, he never felt altogether comfortable in their presence, and didn't really break loose again until he was back home painting the familiar scenery of his adopted state.

From the early '40s on, his paintings became more blunt and direct than ever, even to the point where the line separating his work from that of the emerging Abstract Expressionists seemed slim. Indeed, such pictures as ``Movement in Light Red, Cerulean Blue and Umber'' (1950) and ``Sea and Clouds, Cape Split, Maine'' (1952) are about as ``abstract'' as a landscape can be and still be identified as such. He didn't see it that way, however, for to him abstraction was a self-indulgence. What he was after was much more respectful of the appearances of nature, and much more specifically communicative. If, in the process, his work seemed to become more and more abstract, so be it, but that was not to be seen as his intention, only as the outward manifestation of his pictorial code.

Above all, Marin saw himself as a transmitter of what he felt in the presence of awesome natural and man-made places and events. If his images are small and compact and lack the size and aggressive impact of what Pollock and Kline produced, it was not because he lacked their talent or power but because he was too much in love with the sources of his enthusiasms ever to violate or negate their realities. If, for instance, he was inspired by the sight of a sunrise, that sunrise would remain at the heart of his painted image -- even though, while attempting to transmit its effect on him to us, he ``simplified'' its appearance into a few daubs of paint, some washes, and a line or two.

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