San Francisco

John Marin

M. H. de Young Memorial Museum

I have just seen the John Marin retrospective at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and it brought back an adolescent thought I used to have when I was growing up in the Museum of Modern Art: how awful it must feel to be an artist and know that almost everything had been done long ago by John Marin or Man Ray or somebody like that. Since then I have learned that many things really weren’t done in the olden days, but after seeing this retrospective I think I was almost right the first time. John Marin was as good as a minor artist can possibly be, and his work is consistently more pleasing and instructive than the work of some artists who are historically more important.

Marin was born in 1870—the show celebrates the hundredth anniversary of his birth—and lived until 1953. In the first decade of the 20th century he was doing commendable, genteel landscapes in watercolor; they were, if not exactly in tune with Paris, the going thing in American painting. After living and working in Europe, and coming into contact with Alfred Stieglitz and the “291” circle in New York, Marin introduced Cubist and Futurist elements into his work, and soon found himself an eminent painter. This flowering of his career took place when he was past forty, and Marin continued to grow almost until the day he died.

The retrospective includes a large number of oils, and after growing up on Marin’s drawings and water-colors I was not prepared for the freedom and even wildness he achieved in oil painting. His work does not lend itself easily to photographic reproduction, and the physical presence of these works commands belief and alters judgment in a way that can hardly be matched by the written word. Finally, I should mention the calligraphic quality that can be found in Marin’s work throughout his career. By the end of his life he was using gestural abstraction in ways that establish him as parallel to, if not historically a precursor of, Abstract Expressionism.

This show, which is scheduled to travel to other museums, originated at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and was selected by Larry Curry, to whom we are further indebted for an unusually thoughtful catalog essay.

Jerome Tarshis