The Zimmerli Museum’s exhibition “Becoming John Marin” provides an opportunity to look anew at the groundbreaking artist and reflect on the creation of modern art in America — as well as the fickleness of reputation.
Looking at the latter first, the influential high priest of mid-20th- century American art criticism, the influential Clement Greenberg, wrote, “If it is not beyond all doubt that [John Marin] is the best painter alive in America at this moment, he assuredly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is.”
That was high praise for a New Jersey-born artist (1870-1953) from the critic who embraced abstract art as a historical and aesthetic progression and championed its practitioners, most notably Jackson Pollock.
The praise was also part of a series of such praise from several major proponents of 20th-century American modern art.
Take, for instance, Marin’s first solo exhibition. It was organized in 1913 in New York City by Alfred Stieglitz, another New Jersey native who “played a pivotal role in the introduction of modern art into America and its subsequent development over the course of the first half of the 20th century,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
For Stieglitz, who advanced photography as an art form and ran a gallery for new art, Marin represented a contemporary and free expression that was strong, modern, and American.
Then there was Marin’s 1936 Museum of Modern Art retrospective. As museum director Alfred Barr wrote at the time, “Not many American artists while they were still alive have had such extravagant admiration and so devout a following; and none perhaps has had such a persuasive advocate as Alfred Stieglitz. Indeed, though Mr. Stieglitz would not wish it said, this exhibition is in no small part a tribute to his devoted championship of Marin’s work.”
But it wasn’t just curators. Fellow artists also praised Marin. For example, 20th-century modernist Marsden Hartley said, “Marin has saved my life in the past because he has brought esoteric release to me by some of those strangest and completely revealing (watercolors) that have ever been done by anyone.”
That Marin — the first American to be given an exhibition at the prestigious Venice Biennale (in 1950) — now draws blanks stares when his name is mentioned ironically reflects the use of public relations to bring artists and movements to the attention of both the art establishment and the general public.
Stieglitz saw Marin’s 1913 exhibition as an opportunity to advance modern art, and “Marin’s introductory text for the exhibition was strategically published in newspapers on February 13, under the title ‘The Living Architecture of the Future.’ Stieglitz reprinted it in his journal, Camera Works,” notes the Zimmerli exhibition’s catalog, also called “Becoming John Marin.”
The catalog continues that Stieglitz successfully linked the Marin exhibition with the opening of the art-game-challenging International Exhibition of Modern Art at the 69th Regiment Armory in New York City.
While Stieglitz’s goal “to garner attention for a specific vision of the New York avant-garde” was a success, it was just one moment of series of continuous “revolutionary” or nominally progressive art movements and an ensuing multitude of art “isms” promoted through journals, newspapers, and now online magazines.
In a sense the star quality of Marin and other artists was eclipsed by both innovative movements and arts-audiences swayed by the “tyranny of novelty,” as the late American abstract artist and New Jersey arts writer Walter Darby Bannard called it.
Now “Becoming John Marin,” both the exhibition and expansive 400-plus page catalog, provide the occasion to examine Marin. The exhibition comes from the Arkansas Arts Center’s collection of works on paper, donated by Marin’s daughter-in-law, Norma B. Marin, and follows a more expansive Arkansas exhibition. Yet with 70 works on paper, the Zimmerli show is as hefty as the catalog.
Ann Prentice Wagner, exhibition curator, curator of drawings at the Arkansas Arts Center, and catalog editor and contributor, puts Marin’s artistry in fine perspective.
In her essay, “The Desire to Draw,” Wagner says, “The most essential qualities Marin felt impelled to capture in his drawings roughly divide into structure and a universal force he termed ‘movement.’ But often ‘divide’ is the wrong word — the very lines that describe structure also are charged with gesture. And the ‘movement’ side of the duality is complex. It includes three aspects Marin discussed in his letters and other writings: the physical motion of things; the essential animating force Marin felt in this subjects (whether or not they actually moved in space); and the energy of the working artist himself.”
Wagner says Marin’s watercolors of the then-new Woolworth Building — the world’s tallest building at the time — reflect his attempt to visually describe his connection to his environment. Or as the artist put it, “The whole city is alive — buildings, people, all are alive — and the more they move me the more I feel them to be alive. It is the moving of me that I try to express.”
“Drawing for John Marin was the medium he explored first and most continually throughout his career. He said of his youthful efforts, ‘I just drew. I drew every chance I got,’” writes Wagner, before continuing with the following biographical background: “The boy’s mother died a few days after giving birth to him in December, 1870, in Rutherford, New Jersey. John Marin grew up under the care of his maternal grandparents and then of his unmarried aunts, Jennie Currey and Lelia Currey. Marin’s father traveled to make a living wherever he could as a textile salesman and a public accountant. Meanwhile, little John spent hours on his own, wandering the woods and fields of New Jersey with a sketchbook and pencil in his hands.”
Other quick biographic notes include studying engineering at the Hoboken Academy and Stevens Institute of Technology, where he produced tight and precise architectural renderings. Giving up drafting and architecture in 1889 he studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Arts Students League in New York City. An academic prize for his Weehawken closely observed sketches of wild fowl and river boats reinforced his decision, and he mixed techniques, such as those in contemporary illustration, to free his approach and help create works that vibrated with movement.
Wagner says Marin’s recordings of the details of the works he created while traveling around Philadelphia, New York, and New Jersey “show his deep interest in the visual personalities of places” and “introduced a new element of repeated lines that created a rapid rhythm. In this way, movement entered Marin’s drawings.”
Marin’s description of his approach also involves movement. “As I drive a good deal I am conscious of the road, the wonderful everlasting road, a leading onward, a dipping, arising, a leading up over the hill to the sea beyond. To nail that, to express that, to find the means to clutch, so that there it is, that’s what torments me, to show with startling conviction. So I make the attempt.”
Becoming John Marin, Zimmerli Museum, Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 26. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. Free. 848-932-7237 or www.zimmerli.rutgers.edu.