Feature

John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism

Marin’s watercolor masterpieces reflect modern art’s shift from figurative to abstract painting.

Art Institute of Chicago
Through April 17

The Art Institute’s “accessible, gorgeous, and challenging” John Marin show delivers all the trappings you’d expect from an earnest tribute to a talented painter, said Laura M. Browning in Chicagoist.com. But it’s also much more. Through a compelling mix of artifacts, documentary photographs, and, of course, the watercolor masterpieces themselves, the curators have created a fascinating and vivid snapshot of modern art’s most fundamental transformation: the shift from figurative to abstract painting. Marin’s brilliant watercolors “walked the line” between the two and thus “paved the way for modernism, something that becomes clear as you move through this exhibit.” Throughout his influential career, the artist turned the watercolor tradition on its head, producing “radical, colorful testimonies to the urban architecture of New York City, the craggy shorelines and pine trees of Maine, and the mountainous forms of New Mexico.”

Marin was something of a chameleon, said Hedy Weiss in the Chicago Sun-Times. Thanks to his self-confessed love of experimentation, “his work could be as lyrical and sun-dappled as that of the impressionists, or as calligraphic and mist-shrouded as that of a Chinese painter working in pen and ink.” It could also be as dramatic and “geometrically fractured” as the work that was yet to come from the abstract expressionists. Marin broke new ground, too, for the traditionally mundane medium he embraced as a specialty. The “astonishing” and masterful Red Sun, Brooklyn Bridge (1922) “could easily be mistaken for an oil painting, with its blazing patch of crimson, its heavily smudged patches of rose, and its great, muscular strokes of black paint.” Show me another watercolorist who could do that.

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