John Marin in his Studio
John Marin in his Studio, Photo by George Daniell

John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury

An exhibition of the work of John Marin at the Portland Museum of Art focuses on the innovative work which he developed after moving to northern Maine in 1933.  This is the period when his work was inspired both by the coast of Maine and by the architecture of Manhattan. During this time he developed the vibrant, abstract works which contributed to his significant reputation.

The exhibit shows the interrelationship between his watercolors, sketchbooks and oil paintings of the late period of his career. From early in his career (1917) Marin was influenced by the rocky shores and islands of Maine. But it was when he came to Cape Split in 1933 that he realized how this untamed terrain of northern Maine would be a major inspiration for a body of work.

The exhibition features 54 works and runs from June 23-October 10, 2011. Major loans from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C. and other museums and private collections have made this exhibition possible.

Cape Split, 1940. oil
Cape Split, 1940. oil

Marin was based both in New York and New Jersey and then followed a path to Maine, like many artists. But Marin came to Maine with a Modernist perspective, unlike many of his predecessors. When he was spending summers in Cape Split, he confronted a very raw and unspoiled landscape. He saw the possibilities of translating these ephemeral patterns of waves into visionary compositions which reflected upon some of the characteristics of mid-century American art.

Although Marin’s primary production was in watercolor, he also began to work in oil alongside his compostions in watercolor. With the oil offering a more viscous texture and intense saturation and the watercolor providing an immediacy and fluidity, Marin used both outlets to explore his abstracted compositions.

Top of Radio City, New York City, 1937
Top of Radio City, New York City, 1937

Even as the sea was a seminal focus for his work in the period after 1933, he still explored the New York skyline, and specific sites in New Jersey, and these compositions increased in abstraction as they utilized geometric patterns and a kind of calligraphic imagery.

In his book, “Art and Culture: Critical Essays” Clement Greenberg, an American essayist and renown critic of the Modernist era, wrote “It is quite possible Marin is the greatest living painter.”
Born in 1870, the artist died in 1953.
The exhibition will travel to the Amon Carter Museum in Texas.

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