Rugged individuals call for rugged environments. John Marin (1870-1953) does not render the mythological status in art history of Picasso or Pollock, but his work might be a missing link between those two behemoths and the eras they respectively symbolize. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s current exhibition John Marin: Moderninsm at Midcentury offers work from the final 20 years of Marin’s life – a masculine vision of city, sea, and landscape and a profile of an artist who dabbled in and experimented with cubism and abstraction but never let an influence turn him into a follower.
Since Marin’s later years were spent between the seashores of the New Jersey coast and the rocky bluffs of Maine, the show marks a victory of the solitary man raging against his own dying light by taking on no less an opponent than nature itself, leading to the creation of the 60-plus paintings on display. He did not fall victim to mental or physical decline in these years, and the art shows it. He uses shocks of unnatural color for figuration; a tiny lone person at the corner of a seascape might be a smudge of bright blue while the violent sea intent on consuming the poor little guy colors up like a deep bruise, and that bruise reappears throughout the show in Marin’s depictions of hurricanes. They are, in spirit, pure violence. Marin’s brushwork projects those rages and, curiously, they are sporadic over the 20 years the show covers, rather than being contained within a year or two after a hurricane might have occurred. (It is possible a violent sea was a common sight for Marin, if not for me; when I think hurricane, I think Katrina, and it was with that reference that I viewed these paintings.)
Where the work borders on abstract expressionism, Marin maintains remarkable control that eschews the randomness of splattering ways. White blobs dead center of Movement in White, Umber, and Cobalt Green (1950) invade the canvas like a drunken party guest who got lost on the way to Pollock’s floor. There’s a tilted grid at work which fractures the imagery, which must be the sea, and an ugly one at that. The painting has an arresting ugliness. I kept walking back to it.
Marin also tested his hand at designing and building frames for several of his pieces, reinforcing the Americana craft byway that drops into every one of these paintings. Even the works depicting perennial artist’s muse Manhattan have been supported by the energy and ambition of Marin’s uniqueness, mixing ingredients from passed and building movements while staying loyal to none.
John Marin: Modernism at Midcentury was curated by Debra Bricker Balken. It runs through January 8, 2012, at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth.
Betsy Lewis is a Dallas writer who likes to be inside.