The many masks of modern art
Making energy visible was John Marin's most special talent. Considering all that's happened in painting these last 40 or so years, this might not sound like much. After all, wasn't that what Pollock was all about -- to say nothing of Hofmann and Kline? And wasn't the realization of a highly charged and fully energized pictorial surface one of the major victories of such widely divergent painters as Gorky, Tobey, De Kooning, Matta, and Dubuffet?
True, but even so Marin was special. And for the simple reason that the energy to which he gave pictorial form was always specifically a part of a natural phenomenon, was always derived from a particular perceptual experience (whereas Pollock's and Kline's, for instance, derived almost totally from the act of painting itself).
In the case of Marin, this could be something as simple, crisp, and clear as the slap of a wave against a rock, or as complex and longer lasting as the jerky movements of a small boat on a choppy sea, the rhythmical beat of the wings of a sea gull battling a stiff breeze, the tension of a single pine tree bracing itself against a storm, or the jumbled, cacophonous, and nervous rhythms of downtown Manhattan traffic.
But whatever form it took, a Marin image almost always represented force against counterforce, action against resistance.
Now, while many artists before Marin had painted waves, pine trees, sea gulls , and urban traffic, he was the first to make the actionm of a wave, the tensionm of a pine tree, the beatm of a bird's wings, or the nervous clashesm and rhythms of city traffic the actual subject of a work of art. He didn't, in other words, paint how a wave looks, but what it does when it interacts with a rock. Similarly, he didn't paint the loveliness of a pine tree, but its act of bracing itself against the storm. With some youthful exceptions, Marin always preferred pictorial conflict and crisis to the depiction of even the most beautiful of static objects, and would most probably have painted a busy street intersection as a collision of two or more cars.
To fully appreciate Marin, then, we must view his paintings as acts of drama rather than as objects of quiet beauty, and see him as one of the forerunners of the action painters of the late 1940s (such as Kline and Motherwell) who went one step further and painted pictorial conflict and crisis without any specific reference to actual places, things, or events.
But to see Marin only as a precursor is to miss the actuality of his art, its native character and atmosphere, its very real sense of place. Or to perceive him as a theoretic formalist would be to endow him with an identity he would have most emphatically denied.
Although some of his best early works were produced in Europe, and a few of his later watercolors in the American Southwest, Marin is most closely identified with the Northeastern corner of the country, and most particularly with the rocky coast of Maine. If ever an artist caught the essential spirit of a place it was John Marin. Not even Homer, Hopper, Hartley, or Wengenroth captured Maine's salty taste, its tension in the air, the peculiar tanginess of its wind, fog, smells, sounds, as well as he.
He also did something else, something quite rare in Western art but common in the paintings of the Far East; he distilled and compacted whatever experience he wanted to convey into such a concentrated bundle of dynamic energy that it literally leaps out toward the viewer as though it's an electrical impulse. But (and here is the marvel of Marin) not merely as impulse, but as an impulse capable of communicating the full, rich texture of Marin's very specific experience before nature.
Marin had the extraordinary ability of being able to abstract human experience down to a few dashes and slashes of paint -- and to then cause us to reconstruct the full dimensions of his experience within ourselves by means of his simple and direct artistic "code."
As a result, Marin's watercolors function in us like clear and sparkling insights.All we need do upon receiving them is to savor them and to consider their implications.
At the heart of Marin's art lies joy and exhilaration -- and love. He literally pulsated with the need to share what he felt, to give others a chance not only to see what he had seen but to experience its vitality and dynamic actuality as well. He was in love with life and took every opportunity afforded him by his talent to share that love with all of us.
A Marin watercolor is a moment caught forever. Although painted anywhere from 30 to over 70 years ago, it remains so fresh and vibrantly alive that we do not go backward in time to experience it, but find that it somehow magically moves forward in time to enter ourm lives, ourm present. The exultation Marin felt in 1911, 1923, 1947, or 1951 is still very much alive and present in his works. Looking at a 1912 watercolor of Fifth Avenue, we literally receive the energy he poured into and through that work. And the sense of awe he felt in 1913 before the Brooklyn Bridge can be precisely felt by us today if we only take the trouble to "enter" the work in the manner he intended us to.
With slightest willingness on our part, the viewing of a Marin painting suspends time. Going from painting to painting in a recent large exhibition of Marin watercolors, I had the uncanny feeling that I was with Marin as each work was created, and that it was all happening now. That flash of sunlight over the coast of Maine was just taking place, about to explode with its repressed energy , were right in front of me in actuality as well as in paint.
Looking at these pictures, I could sense the excitement of the Marin of various ages as he felt the sharp beauty of a bird against the sky, or the sparkle of blue water against an ochre-colored sandy beach. And I could participate with himm in the act of touching a green brushstroke to the sparkingly white and roughly textured paper, or share with him the tingling excitement of fingers eager to grasp a brush to communicate an image or a feeling.
How can I not love such a man whose art is so direct and immediate that it permits me to share with him not only what he saw and felt, but actually lets me into the creative act as well? How can I not be grateful for this enrichment of life, which gives me not only what I myself experience through my senses, but also gives me the experiences of another extraordinarily sensitive creative soul?
John Marin had a flash of greatness in him. Only that, because his insights, brilliant as they were, were scattered and not related to a larger formal system or vision. And yet, it seems to me that spark illuminated our American cultural life to a remarkable degree. And I suspect that when our 20th-century American art-circus moves on, we will realize that a few genuine items were with us all along -- and that the art of John Marin was among them.
the next article in this series appears on August 25.m