PRINT April 1971

John Marin: Dynamism Codified

TAKEN AS A WHOLE, American painting from the late 1880s into the first decade of this century, set a fin-de-siècle mood: there were the hazy, silvery Impressionist works of Twachtman, Weir, and Hassam (and this, then, comprised the avant-garde); the remarkably modern, but still exquisitely delicate “Symphonies” and “Compositions” of Whistler; the society portraits of John Singer Sargent, done with great bravura, reflecting the taste of the new moneyed gentility; and the dark Impressionist still lifes and cloistered interior scenes of William Merritt Chase. The art of Eakins, Homer, and Ryder at this time was becoming remoter than it had been earlier. Eakins’ sitters, sharply individualized, were older people emanating a mood of quiet resignation; Homer’s seascapes now revealed man not as a combatant of the elements, but as a passive onlooker; and Ryder, becoming ever more eccentric, coming to live as a total recluse in Greenwich Village, turned out his carefully reworked scenes of a never-never world.

Different formally as the Ash-Can School was from the Early American Modernists, both epitomized if not a total buoyancy and optimism, at least a turning outward from the remoteness of late nineteenth century American Victorianism. Very broadly, the Ash-Can School, who showed the people of East Side New York going about their ordinary activities and pleasures, and the Early American Modernists, who in various ways removed the sense of symbolism and inwardness which veiled things, stood to this late Victorianism as the French Fauves stood opposed to both the recherché decadence of much of Art Nouveau and the quaint symbolism of artists like Gustave Moreau.

Among the Early American Modernists, it was John Marin who integrated Cubism, or better, Cubist idioms, most successfully within his personal outlook. Others, like Sheeler, Demuth, Weber, Maurer, Hartley, and Walkowitz, while unable to reconcile themselves to or even understand the ambiguities which were at the heart of European Cubism, nonetheless were unable to shake off their approaches during the second decade at transcribing the European esthetic fairly literally. What emerges in paintings like Max Weber’s Chinese Restaurant of 1915 is an uncertain mélange of Cubist passages which are never completely digested or integrated. The Early American Modernist’s evolution of Precisionism or Cubist-Realism, the term used by Milton Brown, around 1920, a style marked by severe simplifications rather than the inter-mergence of forms, may be explained partially as his discomfort with the double entendres which marked the European esthetic.

But for Marin, Cubism became not an attempt at the dislocation of form in the European sense, but a means of transcribing or codifying the hidden dynamic forces which he felt were at work within all existence, within the land and sea, as well as within the newly formed conglomerations of New York’s tall buildings. Yet Marin looked at the world directly, not through the delicate intervening mists found in the paintings of Whistler and the American Impressionists. The forces he perceived were like valences, directions and weights of mountain masses, directions of the flow of waves and the movement of wind, upward and outward movements of the thrusts of skyscrapers. In assessing Marin’s extraordinarily long apprenticeship as an artist, including his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1899, and his trips abroad to Paris, Amsterdam, Italy, and England from 1905 to 1909, when he came especially under the influence of Whistler’s work, and to the Tyrol in Austria in 1910–11, not enough attention is usually paid to his experience freelancing as an architect in 1893 as providing a direction for his later development. Marin’s modification of the Cubist esthetic into a means of transcribing hidden forces and dynamisms sometimes suggests the approach of a builder pretesting for weights and counterweights. In a passage not as publicized as some of the others, Marin, in describing his own picture-building process, observed: “Too, it comes to me as something in which I am curiously interested. I refer to weight balances. As my body exerts a downward pressure on the floor, the floor in turn exerts an upward pressure on my body. Too, the pressure of the air against my body, my body against the air, all this I have to recognize when building the picture.” And in this context it is worthwhile to recall Marin’s famous statement of 1928 regarding great forces at work: “I see great forces at work; great movements; the large buildings and the small buildings; the warring of the great and the small; influences of one mass on another greater or smaller mass. Feelings are aroused which give the desire to express the reaction of these ‘pull forces,’ those influences which play with one another; great masses pulling smaller masses, each subject in some degree to the other’s power.”

In the well-known Lower Manhattan (Composing Derived from Top of Woolworth) of 1922, the paper star-shaped motif sewn onto the bottom of the canvas coalesces in a single form the sense of outward radiation expressed in the buildings themselves, which impress the observer with their upward and outward thrust. The cacophonous interplay of the buildings suggests the actual excitement within the city. Yet the heavy black lines contain the upward thrust of the buildings, just as the circle about the star form contains its implied outward movement. (The paper cut-out had been inspired by the gold leaf on the old World Building which could have been seen from the top of the Woolworth Tower.) Glib comparisons have been frequently made between Marin and the Italian Futurists, but the distinctions between them are no less significant. The Futurists were far more programmatic and analytical in their attempts to visualize the process of movement, as may be seen, for example, in Balla’s Dog on a Leash. There is an overall aggressiveness and violence in most Futurist work which is avoided in Marin, partially through the setting up of passages of “eye arrest,” stable zones such as the circle surrounding the star cut-out at the bottom of Lower Manhattan. Marin may have been thinking of such zones when he wrote that “within the frames there must be a balance, a controlling of these warring, pushing, pulling forces.” Yet occasionally, in certain lesser known works, Marin somewhat approximates Balla’s distillation of the process of movement. In White Waves on Sand, Maine of 1917, one cannot be certain whether Marin is showing us several waves as they break successively upon the shore or the motion of a single wave traced through successive moments in time.

In Marin’s later work of the 1940s and early 1950s, planar Cubist elements appear in seascapes and some landscapes as occasional geometric foils beside the looser brushwork describing the water, hills, and parts of the sky. These planar elements serve as distillations of the dynamisms of the scene, sometimes as codified metaphors of the mood of nature, as in Related to the Hurricane of 1944. Here, in an unusually tightly wrought painting for the period, the small rectangles in the sky literally suggest brooding clouds, standing poised, ready to suddenly burst apart. The large rectangle containing, imprisoning, as it were, the churning waves, implements the pent-up mood, reinforcing the impression that Marin has caught the moment before the storm. The entire painting is built of motifs of containment. The idea of the rectangle enfolding the waves may have developed from the enclosure device found in such paintings of the 1920s as Maine Islands and earlier in works of the second decade. In Movement: Seas After Hurricane, Red, Green and White, Figure in Blue, Maine of 1947, the brushwork is looser than in Related to the Hurricane, and the boundaries between sea and sky somewhat less clearly defined. At the same time the planar elements are less prominent and the lines describing them are broken and incomplete. More diagonal elements are introduced, which help convey the feeling of instability. Here is not the sense of brooding containment, but of furious resolution, the moment just after the storm has broken. But the planar elements in Marin’s later paintings cannot be approached monistically. In the Fog Lifts of 1949 (a painting not in the current show at the Whitney), the rectangles of bare canvas apparently floating above the painted rocks and sea work as metaphors conveying the idea of the solidification of areas of atmosphere.

Marin’s sense of einfühling, however, is different, say, from that of the German Expressionist, who seeks an intermergence, like Marc, Macke, Klee, and others, with a nature which is perfect and archetypal. His world is one of flux. There is in his work a sense of becoming, of process, of the transient; while with the German Expressionist, Cubist means are used to suggest an intermergence between man and nature, or, with Marc in particular, between the animal and nature. Usually with Marin, the spectator stands outside the scene; he is involved, but not totally, as an onlooker, who does not become drawn completely into the scene. (Perhaps this idea may be seen as a kind of extension of the formal restraint one finds in Marin, through the provision of passages of “eye arrest,” as opposed to the total dynamism of the Italian Futurist.) For example, his Cubist planes, used as an enclosure device, as a frame within a frame (suggesting here the influence of Whistler), sometimes function as a kind of window glass through which the observer views the scene. In the Maine Islands of 1922 the observer feels himself passing small islands which he views through the windows of a boat or plane. In the catalog of 1923 for the show in which the painting was exhibited, Marin, in his notes, seems to have conceived of the spectator passing over the islands while high in space: “Speed. We advance upon distance and the oncoming rush of distance meets us and greets us. Aware of the impetuous flight of our senses in space the clouds almost open to let us pass through. Islands of our desire are drawing near but they will not detain us. We will push the horizon back. We will come to the open, where there are no islands to push us.” The painter sees himself as being in motion, the land masses or islands as being static. This notion is visualized in the Maine Islands. The Cubist plane serves as a kind of viewing lens, not as a means of achieving an intermergence of man with nature, or of the total intermergence, in a pantheistic sense, of the various aspects, sea, sky, and islands, which comprise nature within the scene. Yet Marin’s comments are noteworthy for their sense of exultation. The painter, while sensing himself apart from the islands, seems able to have experienced their pull kinesthetically as he passed over them.

Anyone even vaguely familiar with Marin’s work knows that there is not to be found there any consistent progression, any clear-cut stylistic evolution leading from one point to another. In a single year, 1932, for example, he could do something as tightly constructed, as reminiscent of a rendering of an architectural draftsman, as Mid-Manhattan, No. 1 and something as spasmodically poured forth and as apparently structureless as Rocks and Sea. The Weehawken Series of 1903–04, which contains roughly one hundred small oils done on canvas board, includes a few totally nonobjective works, thus predating the 1910 beginnings of non-objectivity of Kandinsky and Dove. Sheldon Reich, in his recently published two-volume monograph on Marin (1970, University of Arizona Press), has pushed these into the middle of the second decade. Whatever their date, it is obvious that Marin did not systematically pursue a non-objective course, but only on occasion, like Dove, come out with a nonobjective or nearly non-objective effort.

Yet one major change is discernible. The tendency begun even in the 1920s and 1930s—the Rocks and Sea of 1932 is an illustration of this—of having the movement and churning of the paint itself evoke the sense of movement of natural forces becomes, in the 1940s and until the artist’s death in 1953, a constant approach. The dense, frequently found Cubist passages of the 1920s, as in the Lower Manhattan of 1922, thin out into an occasional rectilinear motif, often effectively used, as in the Related to the Hurricane of 1944. It is the actual handling of the paint rather than the kaleidoscopic arrangements of diaphanous and partially diaphanous zones, and the placement and relative denseness of these zones, which are made to serve as equivalents of the dynamic forces within nature, as is seen, for example, in Movement in Light Red, Cerulean Blue, and Umber of 1950. For a while, in the late 1930s, the watercolors were more carefully composed and tightly structured than the oils, but by the early 1940s the extraordinary freedom and expressiveness are to be found consistently in both media. This was a change of which Marin was obviously aware, as he observed in 1947 that “Using paint as paint is different from using paint to paint a picture. I’m calling my pictures this year ‘Movements in Paint’ and not movements of boat, sea, or sky, because in these new paintings, although I use objects, I am representing paint first of all, and not the motif primarily.” Was Marin becoming aware of Abstract Expressionism and Changing his own approach to keep pace with or offer his own response to what was then most adventurous and sustaining in American art? Or was the new freedom typical of the varying subjective, visionary directions which can be found in some artists at the end of their careers (Michelangelo, Titian, Monet, etc.)? It is certain that Marin had produced something analogous to action painting, and that to consider the flavor of his work as wholly predating Abstract Expressionism, as is usually done, is inaccurate.

Abraham A. Davidson