by Timothy A. Eaton

EARTH, SUN AND SEA: John Marin's lyric image

by Sam Hunter

Edited by Timothy A. Eaton



In a famous icon, Off Cape Split, Maine, * executed in 1938, the effort "to show paint as paint" and the intensification of the painted surface command our attention, rather than the suggestion of a ship dancing on the sea. Marin did not wish to free himself from nature completely, and he remained, even in this late phase, as visual as he was architectural, conveying a heightened, transposed "impression," but an impression nevertheless. Yet his combination of condensed sensation and abbreviated structure puts him in closer relationship to the spirit of Cézanne than to the other early American moderns who emulated Cézanne's elevated formal language. There is something of Cézanne's later delicacy of color in Marin's watercolors and in his variety of soft pinks, powder blues, and violets, which have the chromatic refinement of eighteenth- century porcelain.

By 1933 with the painting Vicinity Frenchman's Bay, Maine Coast*, (Fig. 6) Marin severely reduced his descriptive passages to the formulaic series of dots, dashes, curls and circles that came to represent his perception of shore, sea and ship. In Rocks,Marin's oil paintings undoubtedly excited greater interest among contemporary artists and critics in his later years, especially with the emergence of the New York School and Clement Greenberg's formalist criticism in the forties. Yet Marin continued to demonstrate an equivalent freedom and inventive capacity in both mediums, oils and watercolors. The nature of the watercolor medium, and his lifetime practice and mastery of it, gave his watercolors an originality and decisive character probably unequalled in his generation. Curiously, at the end of his life, he attacked the problem of "movement in paint" as aggressively in transparent aquarelles as he did in opaque, viscous oil pigment, which he manipulated in a more obviously tactile manner. In Rocks, Bit of Sea, Cape Spilt, Maine of 1938, (Fig. 18) he continued to reduce the number and scope of his symbolic elements-slashing, connecting diagonal blue-grey lines for rocky shore, deep blue dots on lighter fields for the sea and radiating vertical washes of pale blue strokes for sky and sun.

In his 1940 painting Pink Rocks and Green Sea (Fig. 19) and the lyrical Head of the Cape, Cape Split, Maine of 1944 (Fig. 23), he kept an exquisite balance among all elements, at all times: as his realism grew more tenuous, and as his colors became higher-keyed, and increasingly linked to interior cues, Marin nonetheless remained rooted in his desire to render not an abstraction but a referential work, one that was both modernist in its barest definition as paint on a flat surface, and yet realistic in its adherence to recognizable sources. He seemed to have amply proven by then that his lyric image; combined with a tough-minded structure and even a certain nonchalance and colloquial affectation in his irrepressible decorative elements produced a uniquely individual expression, yet in an authoritative modernist form.

When he used oil pigment, he could also handle it thickly and deliberately, or with an extraordinary swiftness and lightness, reconstituting those summaries, spontaneous indications of movement that seemed even more appropriate to his poetic watercolor etudes of landscape and the sea. Although Marin showed no profound desire to explore abstraction as such or the material possibilities of the weightier medium, he used oil paint with the same originality and flair he brought to the lighter watercolor medium. That was in itself a considerable accomplishment.

It seems that Marin's instinctive lyricism compelled him to feel least burdened by the paint vehicle, to wrest the mind and senses free from its material properties. Taking his cue finally from the incomparable Cézanne, he learned to use both oil and water- color to create original plastic structures, giving both these mediums a uniquely American integrity. At the end of his life, like Cézanne, he surrendered himself to broadly lyrical impulses based merely on rhythmic color phrase and accent, rather than the identifiable motif, and thus actually returned to the impetuous romantic mood of the great decade between 1910 and 1920 that defined his early genius.

Marin was in his seventieth year when he painted Pink Rocks and Green Sea, but he was as much in love with his wild, churning subject as ever -- and as eager to throw himself into her arms. The world was at war, but "The Ancient Mariner" still climbed the rock ledges near the top of familiar, jutting island pines, or whatever vantage point gave him the perspective he needed to get his impressions, and to sustain his visceral reactions to nature, on paper. "Are they good? Well, they are as good as they are," he told Stieglitz in the summer of 1940. "You cannot take that away from them -- nor can they look better than they are -- you can add nothing, you can take away nothing".

"I demand of them that they have the story. [I] demand [ of them] that they have the music of themselves so that they do stand of themselves as beautiful -- forms -- lines -- and paint on beautiful paper or canvas," he wrote. "Art is produced by the wedding of man and nature. When man loves material and will not under any circumstances destroy its own inherent beauty, then and only then can that wonderful thing we call art be created. " [14]

In his last works -- vibrant ideograms like Movement in Grey, Green, Red No.2, the 1949 oil, or Sea Piece of 1951 (Fig. 28), with its explosively fragmented planes and agitated brushwork -- Marin pushed his lifelong explorations to their most extreme and intense boundaries. It was, however, in the 1947 painting, Movement in Red, Yellow, and Green (Fig. 26), that he brought all his formal concerns into their most satisfactory balance. Like a latter-day version of the seminal watercolors he made in his inspirational early years in Weehawken, bold in form and tonality despite his use of earth's own hues, Movement in Red, Yellow, and Green describes nature in terms that vibrate with poetic emotion: thin washes of intense pure color: here thick and accented, there so attenuated that they seem about to vanish into thin air.

A seascape is partially concealed in Movement in Red, Yellow, and Green, although it is almost submerged by the flurry of impassioned grace notes that make up its emphatically painted surface, glinting jewel-like in a flickering natural light. The ocean, the sky and waves take form, and a shorthand rendering of shore and rocks. Sixty years after Marin was first entranced by the limitless nature before him as he sketched away diligently in field and orchard, he was still in pursuit of its mystery and power: actually he could now equate it with life itself -- with its irreducable presence, always in motion.

In a suggestive essay on Marin, Klaus Kertess speculates that his return to the sort of "writerliness he first enlisted in the rnid-teens was hastened by an interest in Oriental calligraphy and possibly even by a reaction to Pollock's new work"[15]. While the speculation is provocative, it is far more likely that Marin had already so clearly defined and circumscribed his own particular universe of signs that he was quite impervious to the new work being produced around him in the New York avant-garde, work which stemmed from such alien sources as Surrealism, and dealt with issues of monumental scale and ego-definition on a grand scale. The plastic and historical ambitions of The New York School could only have been an affront to Marin's essential modesty, and to the intimacy of his own dialogue with nature. Before his sea motif, Marin assumed his accustomed role of "The Ancient Mariner," always seeking a new way to express his overwhelming passion for nature, and for the American landscape in all its sublime but elusive vastness. This was definitely not the new American "sublime" which Barnett Newman and Rothko argued in the pages of Tiger's Eye, the publication of the forties that helped define the esthetic and moral viewpoints of the emerging New York School. Whether or not Marin's work really prefigured Abstract Expressionism, there is no question that it forms a logical link between the proto-abstraction of Homer and its full expression half a century later.

But Marin's work, like its virtual unitary subject matter of landscape-cum-seascape, was in continual evolution, growing and changing as constantly as the children to which he likened his paintings. In 1947, when he was 77, he explained his own rare, painterly near-abstractions such as Movement in Red, Yellow, and Green as part of a new intention, "to give paint a chance to show itself entirely as paint. Using paint as paint is as different from using paint to paint a picture," Marin said in a prophetic and memorable remark: "I'm calling my pictures this year 'Movements in Paint' and not movements of boat, sea, or sky, because in these new paintings, although I use objects, I am representing paint first of all, and not the motif primarily. " [16]

No one has better expressed the depth and defining specifics of Marin's painterly project than Macldnley Helm, In 1947, in Marin's seventy-sixth year, and six years before his death, he brought down the year's work from Maine to Steiglitz, some 29 paintings of varying character; there would later be an exhibition of them at An American Place, Helm enumerates the year's haul: "eight watercolor landscapes including the Saddle River (New Jersey) peach-orchard series; seven watercolor seascapes; five landscapes in oil including two views of the Tunk Mountains; and nine sea 'movements,' also in oil," He concludes: "The year's portfolio was a recapitulation in miniature of Marin's lifetime habit of work: the yielding, in moments of transport, to the direct impulse, the capturing of a look and an atmosphere; and the long, lonely ascent to the rarefied intellectual level with its preoccupation with the accents of paint " [17]

These spare, laconic words summarize perfectly Marin's profound sense of mission, his persistence and his edgy pictorial successes which had to be wrested from nature one at a time-and not incidentally, required an unerring eye and a pure heart.


End Notes

1 MacKinley Helm, John Marin (Boston, PeUegrini & Cudahy, 1948), pp. 101-103.

2 Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, American Art of the 20th-Century (New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.,1973). P. 127.

3 Ibid., p. 127.

4 Helm, p. 5.

5 Elizabeth Button Turner, In the American Grain: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: The Stieglitz Circle at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Counterpoint, 1995), p. 24.

6 Helm, pp. 8-9.

7 Hunter and Jacobus, p. 128.

8 Ibid., p. 128.

9 Ibid., p. 128.

10 Ibid., p. 133.

11 Ibid., p. 134.

12 Ibid., p. 134.

13 Helm, p. 80.

14 Turner, The Stieglitz Circle at The Phillips Collection, p. 36.

15 Klaus Kertess, Marin in Oil, (Southampton, N.Y.,, The Parrish Art Museum, 1987), p. 57.

16 Helm, p. 101.

17 Helm, p. 100.

* Not included in the exhibition


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