It amazes me that John Marin (pronounced "MARE-in", 1870-1953) is nearly absent from commercially available art books; you will probably have to go to the library to find him. The key publication on Marin's art (the 1990 National Gallery catalog by Ruth E. Fine) is out of print and extraordinarily hard to find. Reading this beautiful monograph shows the amazing imaginative range and technical spontaneity that Marin brought to etchings, oils, and especially watercolors — which comprise 80% of his known works.

Marin started his life in 1870 under the care of his maternal grandparents and two artistically talented maiden aunts in Weehawken (New Jersey); his mother died shortly after his birth and his father, a feckless public accountant, was always traveling on business. Marin began sketching at age seven and painting watercolors at age 18, and made many landscape paintings during summer fishing trips to the Catskills (New York) and sketching trips throughout the Midwest. He began work as an independent architect in 1892, but quit the profession in 1899 at age 28 to enroll in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1899-1901) and the Art Students League (New York, 1902-03). He launched his career in 1905 with his first trip to Paris, where he made many paintings and a beautiful series of etchings influenced by James McNeill Whistler. He exhibited in the annual Salon d'Automne from 1907-10, joined the New Society of American Artists in Paris, and met American critics and collectors, including the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) in 1909. Marin returned to New York at the end of that year but sailed back to Europe in the summer of 1910 to paint in the Tyrolean Alps. Stieglitz mounted exhibitions of Marin's watercolors at his 291 Gallery in New York in 1909, 1910 (Marin's first one man show) and five more times before the gallery closed in 1917. Marin married in 1912 and spent the following years painting New York City and in the Hudson River Valley and Adirondack and Berkshire Mountains, forging a highly individual landscape style from the precedents of Paul Cézanne, German Expressionism, and early Cubism. He made his first trip to Maine in 1914 and, struck with the Maine landscape, purchased a small uninhabitable island off Small Point Harbor where he camped and painted during the summers of 1914, 1915 and 1917; from 1919 to 1928 he summered at Penobscot Bay (Deer Isle and Stonington, Maine; now part of Acadia National Park). Throughout this period Stieglitz served as Marin's agent and arranged many exhibitions and sale of his works; this early financial support and business guidance allowed Marin freely to follow his artistic instincts. (From 1929 to his death in 1946 Stieglitz managed An American Place, a New York gallery devoted to works by Marin, Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand, Marsden Hartley and others.) Marin visited Taos (New Mexico) in 1929 and 1930, but bought a summer home in Cape Split (Maine) in 1934. Marin was included in dozens of publications and exhibitions throughout the 1930's, including the first (1933) Whitney Museum Biennial; he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1942 and the American Academy of Arts in 1943, and was the featured artist representing the United States (alongside Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock) at the Venice Biennale in 1950. Marin suffered a heart attack in 1946 and was hospitalized several times with prostate cancer from 1951, but continued working until his death in 1953 at age 73.

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Throughout his life, Marin's favorite themes were city and nature; he painted only a handful of portraits or still lifes. Marin was independent, largely self schooled and intensely methodical in all the techniques he used. He often composed paintings or etchings in series, variations on the same motif, with marathon stamina (four or more a day). This rapid execution of related designs seems to have nurtured his ability to improvise visual solutions to any imaginative challenge. Several series of works relate to specific New York landmarks or city views, in particular a fascinating suite of etchings and paintings of the Brooklyn Bridge (1912, 47x39cm). In this interpretation, Marin splices together dark color and white paper with energetic diagonal and transverse strokes; a later etching of this image shows how much this brushwork resembles the vigor of scribed lines. Yet this is an inviting energy, glowing with ultramarine and rose madder, the blues grayed slightly with burnt sienna to make the bridge seem bathed in new rain, pavement glistening with the light of clouds parting in the late afternoon. The whimsical street lamps and lightening sky remind me of Paris (where Marin produced many of his etchings), but the bridge's striding shape, its naive and unceremonious vigor, are grander than the academic Arc de Triomphe could ever be. The surrounding border of earthy grays is characteristic of many Marin paintings, which are often cropped by geometric edges or bands of loose color that suggest the indistinct peripheral field of vision that insulates and steadies our attention. These lend a sense of depth and focus to the central image, and allude to the cognitive and visceral turmoil that is always at the margins (and under the surface) of the world we see.

In 1914 Marin "discovered" Maine, and for three decades after spent many summers painting the austere beauty of New England. Almost all these images portray the meeting of sky, sea and rocky coast — the combination of northern light, surging movement and stony mass that are also themes in Marin's New York cityscapes. The early paintings done at West Point (Casco Bay), Maine (1914, 41x49cm) show Marin's brushwork at its most lapidary and also capture the romantic ardor of Marin's first response to Maine. Each mark seems to have an expressive relationship to all the rest, and the many brush textures — from sky wide washes to pine needle scratches and stony drybrush scrapes — are more evocative than descriptive of the textures in nature they represent. The technical subtlety of the color mixing on paper, and the contrast in color temperature between the warm land and sky and the cool sea, makes the simple image more striking. The quality of light radiating through the shadowing clouds, across the dark sea to the pale foreground beach is sophisticated and subtle, yet the childlike literalness of the downward shafts of light and curvy waves conveys how innocent and spontaneous our attachment to nature really is. To appreciate Marin you must examine the technical details of each painting in the same way you might linger over the words of a poem. In each of his watercolors, Marin seems to invent new visual codes for his emotional response to the scene, organizes these codes as elements of pictorial representation, and transcribes the result in direct, energetic and easily legible brushwork.

Marin's grandest paintings approach both city and wilderness with a soaring reverence, often by recording his evolving responses to a new environment. Woolworth Building No. 28 (1912, 47x40cm) is one of a sequence of over 30 paintings that Marin made of this building as construction on its tower — for almost two decades the highest in the world — neared completion. Marin had just returned from many years abroad; the Woolworth and the already completed Brooklyn Bridge were the New York landmarks that most captured his attention. Each painting in the series shows the Woolworth at different stages of construction and with increasing excitement, lyricism and abstraction. The brushwork seems spontaneous, almost hasty, but the overall emotional impact is marvelously in focus. The tower ascends through the finished white stone exterior and the gray terra cotta sheathing to the rusty peak of new iron. The street level churns with life and productivity, which flow along lines of perspective into the roots of the tower. The sky vibrates with every possibility of dawn and the building glows with the breathtaking ambition and newness of the accelerating modern age. The effect is blissfully romantic, and shows how much Marin was struck, on his return from several years in the Old World, with the fertile bigness of America.

Three pictures cannot begin to suggest the range of visual effects and techniques Marin brought to his art. By the late 1940's, the influential art critic Clement Greenberg had singled out Marin and Jackson Pollock as the two greatest living American painters, but — suffering by comparison with the expansive canvases and cant of Abstract Expressionist painters and the hip and youthful coolness of Pop Art — the popularity of Marin's small format and technically miniaturist works dwindled quickly after his death. No matter: the sheer range, emotional directness and technical command of his vision ensures he will someday again be ranked with the most original artists of the 20th century. Once you have seen the scope and ardor of his paintings, nothing will seem too sincere or too audacious for you to try in your own work. I urge you to seek out and study the inexplicably neglected art of this ardent American master.

The authoritative study is John Marin by Ruth E. Fine (Abbeville Press, 1990). Currently out of print and hard to obtain (it took me eight months and $150 to snag one), your library may have a copy. The Richard York Gallery in New York has published a superb small catalog (John Marin: The 291 Years) with a perceptive essay by Barbara Rose. In 1987 the Kennedy Gallery published a lovely small exhibition catalog, John Marin Watercolors 1929-39 with an essay by John I.H. Baur. A recent addition, Sam Hunter's Expression and Meaning: The Seascapes of John Marin (Eaton Fine Art, 1999) is limited but worth having; his comparative selection of watercolors and oil seascapes is instructive. John Marin's Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism by Martha Tedeschi and other contributors is a marvelously detailed look at Marin's artistic career and painting techniques, although nearly all paintings are reproduced at the size of index cards. There is a biography of Marin online at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.