Marin finds his place in modernist landscapes

John Marin is captured as experimental, spontaneous, and composed.

By Constance Zhang

A blotch of blood red in the background, geometric buildings that are erect yet unruly, smears of yellow and blue split by thick black lines—this is a picture of New York rendered by the imaginative mind of the American artist John Marin (1870-1953), one of the pioneers of American Modernism.

John Marin Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism, now at the Art Institute, captures the artist in the moments when he was all at once experimental, spontaneous, and composed. The evolution of Marin can be witnessed in this collection, which traces his artistic journey from France to New York and from the coasts of Maine to the deserts of New Mexico. Predominantly featuring watercolors of landscapes, this collection is a visual narrative of Marin’s expressive relationship with nature. His artistic subjects range from the cathedrals of Rouen to the Brooklyn Bridge, from the sailboats tucked in between the blue sky and gray waters to the beating of white waves against the jagged cliffs of Maine.

An introduction of Marin and his influence upon American art at the entrance of the exhibition is reinforced by extensive explanations provided next to each work. The temporal development of Marin as an artist also figures in the arrangement of his watercolors, as the galleries are divided according to the significant time periods of his career.

Although Marin has experimented with a variety of media, including etching, watercolors, and oil painting, watercolors became both the foundation and the realization of his original and contemporary style. Watercolors allowed Marin to play with subjects and techniques that he later elaborated through oil paintings, but he ultimately encountered their perfected expressions in watercolors themselves.

Marin’s use of lines and colors examines the junction between representation and abstraction. Influenced by the spontaneous and even jarring color of the Fauvists, the geometric treatments of Cezanne, and the structural perspective of the Cubists, Marin coupled these with his own intense emotional response to his surroundings. What results is art that is simultaneously evocative of Old World traditions and inherently modern.

A central piece of the exhibition, "The Pine Tree, Small Point", Maine pays testament to Marin’s diverse use of media and techniques, as well as his profound relationship to his physical location. The ocean is a deep hue of blue, broken up in the foreground by a pine tree that extends in a geometric manner with bouts of green. The land is composed of shades of yellow, green, white, and black. What is perhaps most intriguing, though, is the gray border surrounding the tree, achieved by blotting the watercolor, that brings the tree to the audience’s attention while imitating the visual experience of a fleeting glance.

When the painting was completed in 1926, Marin had already settled comfortably in Maine, which he deemed his “spiritual home” and a place that became his most enduring subject matter. He had begun to shift away from the dramatic colors of his New York period to more subdued tones and more minimal depictions, but his fascination with his surroundings remained his motivation behind transferring his impressions to pictorial


The fascination and wonder that Marin held in the face of his subjects remained with him until the end of his artistic life. The intimacy between Marin’s art and nature can be summed up by a simple statement in a letter that he composed to Alfred Stieglitz, a New York art dealer who donated a significant amount of Marin’s work to the Art Institute shortly before his death in 1953: “It has been a beautiful world. It is a beautiful world.”