Arkansas Arts Center shines new light on John Marin drawings

Author: Arkansas Arts CenterFiled under: Exhibitions, Museum

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The artistic evolution of an iconic American modernist is the focus of a new exhibition opening January 26 at the Arkansas Arts Center. Featuring never-before-exhibited drawings and watercolors from the Arkansas Arts Center Collection, Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work explores the artist’s transformation from intuitive draftsman to innovative watercolorist and etcher.

A revelatory new look at Marin’s work, Becoming John Marin affords a unique opportunity to see finished watercolors, etchings and oil paintings reunited with the sketches on which they were based for the first time outside the artist’s studio.

“Drawing was central to Marin’s artistic process, and he made thousands throughout his career,” exhibition curator Ann Prentice Wagner, Ph.D. said, “Becoming John Marin looks over the artist’s shoulder as he created and honed the private sketches he would interpret into completed watercolors and etchings.”

John Marin, American (Rutherford, New Jersey, 1870 – 1953, Cape Split, Maine), Woolworth Building Under Construction, 1912, watercolor and graphite on textured watercolor paper, 19 5/8 x 15 3/8 in., Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of Norma B. Marin, New York, New York, 2013.018.011 (catalog 101)

As the second largest repository of John Marin works in the world, the Arkansas Arts Center’s 290-work collection is surpassed only by that of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work features 79 works from this exceptional collection, donated to the Arts Center by the artist’s daughter-in-law, Norma Marin, in 2013, and recently conserved with support from The Henry Luce Foundation, Luce Fund in American Art. They will be shown alongside 33 distinguished Marin works loaned by outstanding public and private collections, including Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Colby College Museum of Art, and the Phillips Collection, among others.

Beginning with his 1909 debut exhibition of watercolors at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York, until his death in 1953, Marin was a major force among the cutting-edge modern artists who gathered around Stieglitz. The artist was best known for his lively, idiosyncratic watercolors, etchings and oil paintings of the disparate worlds of gritty New York City and coastal Maine.

John Marin, American (Rutherford, New Jersey, 1870 – 1953, Cape Split, Maine), On Mount Desert, Maine, 1920, watercolor and charcoal with graphite on textured watercolor paper, 14 x 16 ¾ in., Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of Norma B. Marin, New York, New York, 2013.018.142 (catalog 50)

In 1948, a Look magazine survey of museum directors, curators, and art critics selected Marin as the greatest painter in America. But Marin’s early years had not foreshadowed any such recognition. Until age 40, he was unsure of how he wanted to make his living. The young Marin shifted between working for a wholesale notions house, training and working as an architect in his native New Jersey, and attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and later the Art Students League in New York. From 1905 to 1909, he lived in Paris and made picturesque etchings of European architecture for the tourist trade. But one overriding passion was always there for Marin – drawing. He said, “I just drew. I drew every chance I got.”

​While in Paris, Marin was discovered by Edward Steichen, photographer and talent scout for Alfred Stieglitz. Settling in New York, Marin showed work annually at Stieglitz’s galleries – 291, The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place. Stieglitz became Marin’s dealer, promoter, mentor and friend. Marin’s drawings occasionally appeared in exhibitions, but most were informal, private documents made for his own creative purposes. In rural places, where he could work undisturbed and simply make a watercolor on the spot without a preparatory sketch, he made few drawings. But on the teeming sidewalks of New York, he often drew on inexpensive 8-by-10 inch writing pads the artist could afford to buy in large numbers. Marin accumulated piles of sketchbooks that he consulted as sources for finished works he made in his studio.

“These working drawings give us invaluable insights into Marin’s creative process,” Wagner said. “The on-the-spot sketches are priceless. They capture the artist’s initial ideas about subjects he went on to paint or depict in prints – like the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York skyline.”

Marin – who was trained as an architect – made unexpectedly precise drawings of Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers and bridges. Other drawings were experiments in visually fragmenting forms to creative expressive modernist compositions. But most of Marin’s New York drawings were quick, vigorous notations recording the forces and motions he felt in the buildings and figures around him. He caught fleeting glimpses of rushed pedestrians or flying trapeze artists performing under the big top. The exhibition also follows the artist to lesser-known places – the cliffs outside New York City known as the Palisades – and to lesser-known subjects – portraits of friends and family and charming drawings of zoo and circus animals.

John Marin, American (Rutherford, New Jersey, 1870 – 1953, Cape Split, Maine), Blue Shark, 1922, watercolor and charcoal on textured watercolor paper, 12 1/8 x 16 1/8 in., Arkansas Arts Center Foundation Collection: Gift of Norma B. Marin, New York, New York. 2013.018.085 (catalog 211)

“Most of his informal drawings and watercolor sketches have rarely been seen outside his studio,” Wagner said. “These very personal images let us travel with Marin through the crowded streets of New York, along the rocky shores of Maine, and into the cluttered creative space of his studio.”

Wagner, Curator of Drawings at the Arkansas Arts Center, edited the accompanying catalog and narrative website. The fully illustrated catalog features the complete, recently conserved John Marin Collection at the Arkansas Arts Center, and includes essays by Wagner, Josephine White Rodgers, Ph.D., Research Assistant, Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, along with other Marin authorities. The narrative website,, launching this month, will feature thorough analysis of Marin’s favorite subjects, from New York’s Woolworth Building to Small Point, Maine. The website will guide viewers through Marin’s life and work, exploring some of the artist’s favorite subjects – places he depicted time and time again – with a focus on how his work evolved throughout his career.

Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work was organized by the Arkansas Arts Center. Becoming John Marin: Modernist at Work is sponsored (at this time) by: The Henry Luce Foundation, Luce Fund in American Art; The Arkansas Arts Center Foundation; Windgate Charitable Foundation; In Memory of John R. Fletcher by Judy W. Fletcher; Laura Sandage Harden and Lon Clark; JCT Trust; Philip R. Jonsson Foundation; Holleman & Associates, P.A.; Barbara House, and Mid-Southern Watercolorists.

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