John Marin’s watercolors are so atmospheric that if you have only seen them online or even in a book, they might seem a bit insubstantial, lacking in punch. But thanks to two years of work, both in the conservation of the Arkansas Arts Center’s collection of works on paper by the artist and because of painstaking research into the artist, the exhibition “Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work” that opened Friday at the Arts Center shows these modernist works to be as powerful as they are ethereal.
In 2008, Norma B. Marin, the artist’s daughter-in-law, promised a gift of 290 works on paper owned by the family to the Arts Center. (She approached the Arts Center at the suggestion of curators at the National Gallery, which received more than 900 prints and drawings.) The promise became reality in 2013, and a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Windgate Charitable Foundation
Wagner selected 79 works, including a newly acquired Marin, for this exhibit and managed to obtain the loans of 33 significant Marin drawings, paintings and etchings from the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (which has the country’s largest collection of Marin etchings), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and other major collections to match them. This is not a small, breeze-through show. It fills both the Jeannette Rockefeller and Townsend Wolfe galleries with works created between 1888 and 1952. Fortunately, it’s free, so one can return time and again to soak it all in.
It is surprising to recall that modernism was the metier of artists born in the 1800s. Marin was born in New Jersey in 1870; there are two little watercolors in the show that he made as an 18-year-old. And though these works clearly intimate the artist he would become, he was not “an early bloomer” on the American art scene, Wagner said. Marin spent his 20s and 30s drawing and studying architecture and art; he moved to Paris at age 35, selling etchings to tourists but still unsure of his career. It was there that photographer and painter Edward Steichen saw his work and decided to arrange a one-man show at the New York gallery 291, founded by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1909. Four years later, Marin’s work was chosen for the famed Armory Show of 1913, credited with introducing European modernism to America with such works as cubist Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and impressionist Henri Matisse’s “Blue Nude.” Cubism began to insinuate itself into Marin’s (and everyone else’s) work, combining with the artist’s own passion for movement, rhythm
In “Becoming John Marin” we see finely rendered city buildings, such as St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan, devolve into sketchy, animated foregrounds; quirky pink nudes against a Cubist sea; gestural landscapes; lines drawn in the dark of the circus tent capturing the action of aerialists. Sketches of bears and lions at the Central Park Zoo, a painting of a dead bear. Portraits of his Maine neighbor. A roiling sea that recalls Japanese art; jittery images that recall the work of his contemporary, Charles Burchfield. Marin’s palettes are sometimes brilliant, sometimes subdued, his color applied both in washes and opaque, but untamed, oil. Marin became draftsman, painter, architect, abstractionist and modern master, and the proof is in this show.
Marin’s modernist eye saw the abstract form of
Marin’s many drawings and paintings of buildings, both as background to the bustle of humanity and nature and as characters in and of themselves, surely was underpinned by his architectural understanding. The Metropolitan Museum’s “Municipal Building, New York,” one of his several iterations of the construction of the 40-story building at 1 Centre St., is one of the tremendous loans on exhibit. It’s accompanied by sketches of the building; Wagner said Marin made sketch after sketch until he internalized the building, then returned to the studio to translate the image into watercolor. The standout etching — perhaps the star of the show to those who love printmaking — is the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Woolworth Building, No. 1.” The building sways heavenward in a sky of curving parallel lines; a wash of gray and dark smudges made by the artist’s fingerprints mark the foreground.
In “Woolworth Building, No. 1,” Marin makes
The Arts Center has installed “beacons” by certain of the works that viewers can access with the free
Wagner has edited a collection of essays about Marin in the book “Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work,” published by the University of Arkansas Press. The book, which includes 300 illustrations in its 430 pages, has gone to press and will be available soon for $50.
The exhibition runs through April 22.