‘A shouting Spread-Eagled American’

By Jonathan Spies
February 25, 2020
John Marin, Autumn, 1923
John Marin, Autumn, 1923

“Sooner or later,” observed a critic for The Wall Street Journal, “everyone who writes about John Marin gets around to mentioning the 1948 Look magazine poll of 68 critics, curators and museum directors who, when asked to name America’s greatest living painters, put him at the top of the list” (Terry Teachout, “How a Great American Artist Vanished From the Critical Scope,” in The Wall Street Journal, August 5, 2011) — and the time has arrived for me to join that chorus. There are many lessons to be drawn from this oft-cited poll – the most common being the mildly aggrieved disbelief that Marin isn’t held in such brimming esteem today – but I wish to highlight instead what this says about taste in 1948. Marin was bold, prolific, an insatiable innovator, and indefatigably poetic. But he was not many of the things that we today associate with the temperament of a Post-War painter.


He dabbled in abstraction but never fully left the practice of painting what he saw, most often the landscape. He painted in oil, sometimes very expressionistically, but his output is dominated by intimately-scaled watercolors. He had a passionate and personal voice, but he wasn’t a haunted recluse. His work was loved by the Abstract Expressionists, and he was undeniably a serious artist of the highest order – but he wasn’t troubled, tortured, or depressed. Narratives of the lives of artists are often tales of struggle – think of The Agony and the Ecstasy, or the recent Red, dramatizing the final days of Mark Rothko. Marin, by contrast, seems to have found his voice and expressed himself to the satisfaction of himself and others.


And not least the 68 critics, curators, and museum directors, whose collective judgment shall live on in perennial quotation.


It’s worth noting that, on the eve of the triumph Abstract Expressionism, Marin was held up as the ideal American artist. He was an exceptional voice, but he wasn’t entirely alone. Other painters who contended top accolades worked primarily in watercolor and realism, like Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper. In the years after a second World War, with a certain weight to the decision, the nation had not yet decided what modern American art would be. European modernism was in many ways a settled affair, but in America, it was an open question.


Marin stepped into the breach.  The New York Times tapped him, as early as 1927, “‘A shouting Spread-Eagled American’—the aptness of this characterization of John Marin . . . is the forcible impression derived from a view of his recent watercolors, now being shown at the intimate gallery in the Anderson Galleries (Nov. 13, 1927). It wasn’t a new observation: since the advent of Modernism in America, critics from the Ashcan to the Oval Office were carefully parsing modernisms: chaff from wheat, European from American. When Theodore Roosevelt weighed in on the 1913 Armory Show, he circled his wagons around the American painters, and explained why their steps into modern art were worthy, where European Modernists were not:


“In some ways it is the work of the American painters and sculptors which is of most interest in this collection, and a glance at this work must convince any one of the real good that is coming out of the new movements, fantastic though many of the developments of these new movements are. There was one note entirely absent from the exhibition, and that was the note of the commonplace. There was not a touch of simpering, self-satisfied conventionality anywhere in the exhibition.”


In short, American modernists are mavericks: not outlandish, but unabashedly true. Critics from the President a century ago to influencers today have all highlighted Marin as authentically American. Roosevelt didn’t see him “simpering” with “self-satisfied conventionality,” and, when “a famous art critic,” Julius Meier-Graefe, offered “A Few Conclusions on American Art,” he thanked “Stieglitz for acquainting me with the water-colors of John Marin.” He then confirmed Marin’s status as “the representative of art in America.” This is no small thing for Meier-Graefe—George Bellows and a dozen others fail to rank as distinctly American, and Marin is cited as a tier above Charles Demuth and Man Ray and “the banality of Sargent.” He rounds out with a comparison, again, to Whistler: “Whistler’s reputation would be less in danger if he had always kept to paper.” This distinction as uniquely American carried all the way through Marin’s life, finally as he was selected as the artist to lead America’s pavilion at the 1950 Venice Biennale—alongside Arshile Gorky, Pollock, and de Kooning. Across his career, Marin kept being understood as more American than the average American artist—even more American than the exceptional American artists.


And therein lies evidence of at least a factor in this shift. The generation before Marin, an American painter went to Europe to study for a few years before returning stateside to establish himself (almost invariably “himself,” though not always). The after Marin saw the Europe differently. They saw Europe through military service, through news of two World Wars; they were educated here and abroad on GI Bills; they were Europeans coming to the US fleeing the war, or were educated by Europeans fleeing the ravages of the Third Reich. They would be thoroughly international in their outlook and would find support in international collections as the century progressed. In between these two generations, there was Marin, a modernist that Teddy Roosevelt could find a way to admire.


Decades later, a Times critic mused, “John Marin was perhaps the most admired American artist in the United States at mid-century. I’d wager that Marin today is no more familiar even to an art-savvy European than Francis Gruber and Cornelis Corneille are to us.” Robert Hughes noted, in 1971, that the wave had crested over this “cranky, salt-bitten old Yankee.” “A few years before he died in 1953 at the age of 83, John Marin was voted ‘the greatest living American painter’ by a poll of critics and museum men,” he observed. And then? In some ways, what crowned Marin at Venice crushed him over the following decade: while the younger generation of American painters belonged in a way to the world, Marin was first and last an American.


That classification was also important as the role of the critic shifted. By mid-century, New York had become the center of the art world. Its ministers in the capital, therefore, had a responsibility to the sere the provinces of the vast fine art empire. Art in America and ArtForum, for instance, cover the global art world. If “John Marin was as American as American pie”—or worse, “a salt-bitten old Yankee”—a Marin show is just one of many that must compete on a global stage.


In 1948, to be the favorite painter in America was to be especially American in contrast to Europe. For better or worse, the painters that followed Marin didn’t have to be “shouting Spread-Eagled Americans.” It is a rich irony that perhaps the puckish painter would have enjoyed – Marin established himself as authentically American, and in doing so, he developed the critical space in which the following generation could just be authentically themselves.


An exhibition of oils and watercolors by John Marin is on view at Menconi + Schoelkopf through April 24, 2020, and at the ADAA Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory, February 27 through March 1. A hardbound book in full color, Marin + the Critics, is available from the gallery.  An expanded and altered version of this article was published in Marin + The Critics, 2020.