PRINT May 1963

Marin-Wyeth-Hopper at the University of Arizona

AT A TIME WHEN A CURTAIN of uniformity appears to have descended on so much of the art produced in America, it seems particularly valuable and reassuring to be able to examine the work of artists who have achieved recognition and yet have managed to sustain an intense personalism in their work. It is precisely this refreshing quality that lends great interest to the three major one-man exhibitions this spring at the University of Arizona Art Gallery in Tucson—John Marin, Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper.

Visitors to Tucson in February will have had the opportunity of viewing the most comprehensive grouping of Marin’s watercolors and oils since the large U.C.L.A. retrospective exhibition of his work in 1955–56. The examples included in this show were carefully selected from private and public collections around the country to insure a comprehensive coverage of Marin’s production throughout his career. The result is a re-affirmation of Marin’s stature as one of the most significant American painters of the first half of this century.

Among the most interesting and informative paintings in the Marin show are four small oil panels done in Weehawken, New Jersey between 1903–4. The habit of thinking of Marin as essentially a watercolorist is so ingrained in the public imagination that these early oils—from a series of about thirty—are an important reminder of Marin’s accomplishments in this medium. In the light of their date, these paintings are amazing illustrations of Marin’s drive toward originality and modernism before he could have seen the work of any other painter working in a similar manner. Painted loosely in broad, rich strokes of strong color, these panels show that Marin, painting at this time in virtual isolation, was moving towards a radical expressionistic point of view at about the same moment as the Fauves—whom he resembles—in Paris.

Curiously, with the major exception of a number of watercolors such as those of the Austrian Tyrol done in 1910, Marin’s work becomes more conservative while he is in Europe between 1905–10. The etchings done during this period, which represent his major effort in terms of quantity, reflect the romantic-realist attitude of Whistler by whom he was influenced. It’s difficult to accept that Marin could have moved through Europe at this time without having come into contact with, or at least having heard of, the revolutionary events occurring in Paris. Yet Marin has denied having been aware of any of these developments, and there is little in the work of this period to contradict him.

Marin’s art comes to maturity after his return to the United States. In the watercolors of 1911 through 1930 Marin evolved his characteristic, well-known style based on a subtle balance between the seen world and the symbols he created to express that world. During this period he appears to have produced very few oil paintings, but around 1928 he began a consistent output on canvas. (Why there should have been this gap in the production of oil paintings is a perplexing problem. It probably has something to do with the initial success he achieved in Alfred Stieglitz’s “291” Gallery with his watercolors and Stieglitz’s own determination that through Marin he would elevate watercolor to its rightful place as a major painting medium.) Marin’s contribution through his oils has only recently come to the attention of critics and gallery goers, and the inclusion of a large number of canvases in the University of Arizona exhibition is a reflection of this growing interest.

Too often Marin’s art is thought of as having stopped completely by World War II. Actually, Marin continued to develop and his watercolors and oils of the ’40s and first years of the ’50s demonstrate, if anything, that Marin was moving toward a new synthesis in his balance between art and nature. His late work becomes more lyric, more economical in its means, and in surface appearance at least, very much in the mainstream of the modern movement; at almost the same time Jackson Pollock was experimenting with his drip technique, Marin was experimenting with the possibilities of creating a line that would go “from a whisper to a shout” by using a hypodermic needle filled with ink or pigment. To the time of his death John Marin was still thinking of the future possibilities of his art. He remained always sensitive to and aware of the direction art was taking, but he consistently maintained his own individuality—to the end, he was “his own man.”

John Marin is dead; it is possible to view his work as a totality, a complete expression of his contribution. Andrew Wyeth is still very much alive and for this reason the Wyeth exhibition is only a paragraph on what has been accomplished up to now. That paragraph is rich indeed.

Realism in our time seems to have fallen into the hands of the amateur painter or still surviving members of the old academic tradition. That a young and gifted artist, such as Wyeth, should have chosen this direction is rather remarkable and, in a certain way, an act of courage as well as one of conviction. It should be admitted from the start that Wyeth’s work does tend to be “literary” and nostalgic in a romantic brooding way, but Rembrandt too was literary and romantic, and it is Rembrandt, Caravaggio—the realist Baroque tradition in general—that Wyeth seems to resemble. Yet, in his temperas, based on a meticulous realism harking back to the 19th century Dusseldorf approach popular around mid century, his means for achieving this baroque intensity is quite different from that of the 17th century. Nevertheless, the fact is that light, space, and an almost tangible sense of three dimensional form combine in his work to evoke that unique quality of inhabited emptiness that distinguishes the best of Wyeth’s work.

Wyeth’s drawings are closely related to the temperas in reference to their dependence on a sharp-focus type of rendering. We have often heard the drawings compared to those of Durer, whom Wyeth admires. There is in fact a resemblance in the precision of the technique and also in the kind of twisted Germanic sense of gnarled forms. But the watercolors stem from another tradition, from Winslow Homer, another artist he has admired and studied. Here, as contrasted to the temperas and drawings, we see a sense of the broad massing of form, an awareness of pattern and a generalized rendering of individual objects not to be found in the other media. In one way, therefore, these watercolors seem more modern than the temperas. But they seem also to sacrifice that rare quality of dignified quiet so appealing in an age that appears to specialize in chaotic clamoring.

Wyeth’s art centers around people—people as immobile and frozen in their attitudes as buildings. Edward Hopper, also a realist, has often made the same points as Wyeth, using architecture as his major theme. If Wyeth creates a quality of brooding intensity, Hopper often touches upon a poignant nostalgia—it is not so much the isolation of man enmeshed in the noble tragedy of the human condition that animates Hopper’s art (as it does Wyeth’s), but the sense of pitiful loneliness that is often the result of this condition. It is for this reason that Hopper shows us empty streets populated only by the monotonous facades of buildings; that we look through the windows of tenement flats to view the bleak and dingy interiors in which these human dramas are played out; that we are presented with large Victorian mansions silhouetted against an empty landscape as monuments to the temporality of this life; that people peer out at us from the dark corners of movie houses or the plate glass window of a restaurant. It’s interesting to note what a different effect the city had on John Marin than on Hopper. When Marin painted the architecture of New York, it jumped and moved, it seethed with an inner vitality. Marin’s city performed a kind of ritual dance of life; Hopper’s city is still, an unseeing backdrop to desperation.

Andrew Wyeth shaped his style upon consciously chosen prototypes that would allow him to project his subjective concepts objectively. Edward Hopper, on the other hand, came to his realism naturally, by reason of the period he matured in. His broadly treated canvases evolved out of the Ash Can School of Henri and Sloane, and his emphasis on native themes comes out of the American Scene tradition of the ’20s and ’30s. The tide of taste has turned away from what Hopper represents, but his position as an important American artist has not been damaged.

Underlying the vicissitudes of fashion in art is a broad, relatively secure base of historical judgment. But one needs distance before passing on historical evaluations. Marin has been gone almost ten years and his work is beginning to fall into place, to emerge from the arena of competition. With Hopper and Wyeth no final judgments are possible. But if the University of Arizona exhibitions are any indication, their future is secure.

Sheldon Reich is Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Arizona.