In 1948, Clement Greenberg, the champion of Abstract Expressionism, wrote in The Nation:
John Marin has the reputation , earned in the course of forty years, of being the greatest living American painter. He is certainly one of the best artists who ever handeld a brush in this country. And if it is not beyond all doubt that he is the best painter alive in America at this moment, he assuredly has to be taken into consideration when we ask who is [“Review of an Exhibition of John Marin, The Nation, Dec. 25, 1948].
Greenberg wasn’t stating the obvious. Marin had, from his time with Stieglitz in the early years of the century, sold well and consistently. But his peers in early modernism had suffered – both commercially and critically in years since the explosion of modernism at the Armory Show in 1913. Many had lost relevance by mid-century; not a few turned away from fine art altogether as the Depression ravaged the already fragile market for the avant garde. Those that had succeeded – Georgia O’Keeffe and Stuart Davis, for instance – did so by thoroughly remaking themselves and their art form, often several times over. John Marin stands, perhaps entirely alone in a generation of artists as a voice that clarified, intensified, and grew in strength. Partly this consistency obscures the radicalism of his work: when he undertook the (so-called) Weehawken Sequence, in 1910-16, he was crafting the most daring canvases on the continent. He gave up oil painting, at least in any volume, in favor of watercolor, but for two other periods in what would become a long and venerable career: around 1920, and again from 1947-53. The consistency of the vision between oil and watercolor is important, but notably he used the two for different purposes. Clearly, these two ends informed one another, as he thinned oil to watercolor-esque translucence or daubed on watercolor in globs straight from the tube. All of these practices informed this singular voice: a ragged semi-abstraction that embraced geometric and calligraphic designs into an organic, explosive, whole.
Greenberg’s plaudit is surprising coming from Greenberg, iconoclast extraordinaire, but it is exceedingly apt: John Marin set the stage for Jackson Pollock.
In that review in The Nation, Greenberg goes on to single out a painting that proves his thesis: “There are . . . some good canvases in the show: Sea in Red – Version No. 2,” and describes its virtue: “The oils are stronger, ampler, more temperamental, and this is not altogether because their medium is heavier . . . The evidence here is of great mastery. The artist still lays his oil pigments on with a good deal of the purity and thinness of water color and, again like a water colorist, uses the bare canvas as another color. But the oil pictures has a much more emphatic presence, and Marin’s emotion is bodied forth more variously, broadly, and palpably” [Ibid.].
The work Greenberg mentions is a later version of the present work. Its name is somewhat curious in the second version, which uses the same composition, down to the seagull at upper right, but quirkily exchanges the titular red for blue in many areas. The present work is an extraordinary achievement with all the “emphatic presence,” various, broad, and palpable, that Greenberg admired – presented here in its original frame by Marin himself.
The artist; to His estate, until the present
An American Place, New York, John Marin, December 7, 1948-January 31, 1949 //
American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York, John Marin, January 15-February 14,
1954, no. 23
Sheldon Reich, John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, Vol. II, Tucson:
University of Arizona Press, 1970, p. 763, no. 48.26, illus.