‘TUNK MOUNTAINS, MAINE’ Oil on canvas, 25 x 30 inches, by John Marin, 1948.
For the first half of the 20th century John Marin (1870-1953) was considered one of the foremost American modernist painters, and this fine show of some 50 of his later works at the Portland Museum of Art gives us a good idea why. Taken as a whole it is the best show I've seen at that museum and should clarify and solidify Marin's position among the top American artists.
Marin trained and worked in Europe and had seen the Paris avant-garde at first hand. When he returned home to the US permanently in 1910 he had an armload of new ideas about how to make a picture. He had his first of many solo shows that year with Alfred Stieglitz, and soon gained critical approval that continued his whole career. He was championed by Henry McBride, the influential New York Sun critic, and his list of admirers over the years included Hilton Kramer, Clement Greenberg, Fairfield Porter, and many others. Lewis Mumford remarked in 1933 that if he were interested in presenting a symbol of the energy and organization of American civilization he would "select not a Ford motor car but a Marin watercolor."
But by the late '60s we tended to view Marin through the lens of the New York School painters like deKooning and Pollock, who were reckoned as the pinnacles of an evolutionary progress coming more or less from Cézanne through Cubism and on to pure abstraction, culturally mirroring a technologically and politically changing world. It was a peculiarly American view of history, and Marin was relegated to progenitor status, like a way station on the journey. This show offers an opportunity for deeper insights into that narrative in general and to Marin's position in particular.
The dominance of "pure" abstraction in the '50s produced a number of theoretical ideas that changed much of the thinking about American art, among which were a persistent mis-reading of Greenberg's "flatness" remarks and Harold Rosenberg's equally persistent, and wholly specious, notion of "action painting." These ideas, and the now less-than-credible belief that there is an evolutionary imperative in art, induced the thought that because Marin painted pictures of the ocean he had missed the boat.
It has since become clearer that the distinction between abstract and representational art has little meaning. Any painting is, by its nature, an abstracted invocation of the human visual experience. A Marin may be more a reflection of the subjective awareness of a particular place than, say, a deKooning or a Rothko, but they all relate somehow to how we respond to what we see. The same could be said about Mondrian, Ryman, or Noland, all of whom occupy positions on an artistic continuum of visual awareness.
Marin learned aesthetic and visual verities from Cézanne's subjectivity, Cubism's fracturing of the picture plane, and Bergson's ideas about intuition as intelligence. He gathered these threads into his passion for the feel of a place, whether downeast Maine or downtown Manhattan, throughout his career.