Landscapes Sparkle in Marin's Art
From New England Coasts to Europe's cities, John Marin's works - on display at the National Gallery in his first retrospective in 20 years - throb with a life of their own
WASHINGTON — `I DON'T have to see the ocean anymore to paint,'' said John Marin who painted some of the most wonderful seascapes this side of Winslow Homer. ``I've been looking at it so long, I can see it with my eyes closed. And so I try to put it on canvas as I see it, the colors and the movement as it appears to me. I'm not interested in how other artists paint the sea. I paint it as I see it.''
Marin's seascapes of the mind are among the 125 watercolors, oils, drawings, and etchings on display in the National Gallery of Art's new look at one of the major 20th-century American painters. ``Selections and Transformations: The Art of John Marin'' arrives like a breeze from the sea, the first such comprehensive show of this artist in 20 years. As National Gallery director J. Carter Brown points out, it looks like a new Marin to some viewers, with its ``sparkle and quality and verve and sheer intellectual brilliance, which is, I think, what appeals to so many of us in his work. ... Here we have an artist who was able to distill out the essence of so many aspects of the American landscape and bring to it his freshness and modernism.''
Marin created over 3,000 works of arts during his half-century career. They focus on his favorite subjects: natural landscapes, the coast of Maine, New England, and the sea; but also urban landscapes, from New York to Weehauken, N.J.; Taos, New Mexico; and even cities captured during his early years in Europe. His urban work seems to jump and throb with a life of its own: His watercolors of New York's Woolworth Building, No.28 and 31, might have been painted during the early tremors of an earthquake. The building shakes with the energy of his vision. Marin captured a sense of movement in his glowing studies of the Brooklyn Bridge, of Broadway, lower Manhattan, the Singer Building, and the Telephone Building, which quakes apart into Cubist chunks.
The same art of motion is visible in his seascapes and landscapes, like ``Movement, Sea, and Sun,'' the vibrant watercolor and charcoal work whose colors dance on the cover of the exhibition catalog. A gold sun repeated like frames of movie film reels across the top of the painting, under which a lavendar bar dashes above a churning, abstract sea, dense green waves riding high, sunshot with a bolt of blue, and framed by four quick black lines. In the watercolors ``Wind, Maine,'' ``Sea Movement, Green and Blue,'' and ``Schooner and Sea, Maine,'' you can see the wind blowing the waves into points, watch the clouds scudding along, and in the case of the Schooner painting, see the sails billow. In a breathtaking oil, ``Wave on Rock,'' the mountains of cobalt waves seem to leap, the thick white surf to surge up not just on the waiting rocks but on the viewer too.
At Cape Split, Maine, which was to become his summer, as well as artistic, home, Marin and his family lived in a cottage on the rocks, with the sea about 25 feet from their door. Marin said the sea was so ``insistent'' there that houses and ``land things'' wouldn't appear much in his pictures. And they don't in ``Grey Seas,'' an oil which is all rocks, billows, and foam.
The National Gallery is home port for the John Marin Archive, formed by the recent donations of the artist's works by Mr. and Mrs. John Marin Jr. The painter's devoted son did not live to see this exhibition, but his widow spoke at the press opening.
Later, standing in front of a Marin she murmured, ``You know that this [painting] `Deer Island, Maine,' was part of the gift we made to the National Gallery. I looked at it just now, and it's as though I never saw it before, because it's so wonderful. You know, the abstract qualities of it, the way he handled the watercolors, the depth he has in it, the shorthand he used, in describing the spruces. That's just the way they look on the islands. To me that's real. It's realism, yet it's abstract. ... His work always looks fresh and au courant. I may be prejudiced, but I feel that way.''
The Marins have donated 28 works to the Marin Archives here, which previously had 32. ``With the whole archives here we are now safetly the great center for the study of this artist,'' said director Brown.
Ruth Fine is the National Gallery curator of prints and drawings who spent five years puting this show together and writing its catalog. She explains the dual vision, almost like a Bach fugue, that runs through Marin's work:
``There was always a sense of Marin working on two parallel tracks, one track dealing with the place that he was looking in a very closed kind of way, and the other one where he was taking from what he was looking at, extracting shapes, colors, rhythms, and transforming that in the amazing images that he composed. And it was that sense of selecting and transforming that became the key title for the exhibiton.''
Marin's work spans two centuries. He was born in 1870 in Rutherford, N.J, studied art at Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Academy, then painted and etched in Europe. Returning to New York, he became a close friend and colleague of photographer Alfred Steiglitz, a drum major for Modernist art in America, who also included in his circle his wife Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Max Weber, and Arthur Dove.
In 1948, five years before Marin's death, art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that Marin was ``the best painter alive in America at this moment.'' In the same year, Marin was named the No. 1 painter in the United States by a Look magazine poll of art crtics, artists, museum directors, and curators. ``So this gives you a sense of the respect in which he was held during his lifetime,'' says Ruth Fine. ``Since then, with paintings getting bigger and bolder, one has the sense that Marin did for a period of time move from center stage. ... I suppose what I'm hoping this exhibition will do is bring him again right back into the center of attention.''
The exhibition continues until April 15 at the National Gallery; it will not travel.