Today we kick off a new regular feature on MAN: Best books. Each week, MAN will feature one recent book about art, be it a biography, an exhibition or collection catalogue, a university press-published think-piece, or something else.
“John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism” by Martha Tedeschi with Kristi Dahm, Ruth Fine, Charles Pietrazewski and Christine Conniff-O’Shea (Art Institute of Chicago, Yale University Press). John Marin’s watercolors may be the pinnacle of early 20th-century American painting. In an extensive, detailed, illustration-filled new book, the Art Institute of Chicago reveals the range of Marin’s achievement by focusing on its own fantastic collection of Marin’s work. It’s an early candidate for best art book of the year.
The catalogue was recently published on the occasion of this Art Institute of Chicago exhibition of 110 Marins. The show included mostly watercolors but also oils, etchings and other works on paper. The book zeroes in on Marin’s watercolors, studying 59 of them in depth. With 92 color plates and 124 illustrations, “John Marin’s Watercolors” is a must-read for anyone interested in American art, in American modernism or in watercolors.
The book’s essays are uniformly strong: AIC curator Tedeschi contextualizes Marin’s watercolors in relation to then-emergent American modernism and rounds up the critical response to his work. In other essays, she explains how Marin’s time in Europe in 1905-10 impacted his work, especially his watercolors (short answer: a heckuva lot), and how he painted New York City and Maine. AIC conservators Charles Pietraszewski and Christine Conniff-O’Shea explain why frames were important to Marin and how he often made frames that were as much a part of the art object as the watercolor itself. (They also made this video.) The book also includes an introductory essay by National Gallery of Art curator Ruth E. Fine.
AIC paper conservator Kristi Dahm chronicles Marin’s materials and technique, removing the mystery from how Marin achieved his unlikely effects. Her description of how Marin made the sea in Ragged Island, Maine (1914, at left) is particularly thorough, a watercolor-geek-gasm (you can zoom in on Ragged Island here to see many of these details):
“[T]he artist combined a grainy blue pigment with green and red in a poorly mixed wash, which he brushed and poured onto the paper while keeping the surface level. The water penetrated the well-sized paper slowly, which allowed the particles of pigment time to deposit in dark clusters at the lowest points of the sheet. Marin then blotted the surface with a damp rag or blotting paper to lift pigment away from the high points, producing a speckled pattern across the ocean. Next, he manipulated the wash further by brushing on clear water at the upper left, breaking up the clusters of pigment and extending the color. The blue wash tapers off at the top edge, giving a convincing sensation of the sea receding into distant clouds and mist. At the top right, the wash appears to flow upward, while at the lower right it clearly moves downard, indicating that Marin rocked the sheet back and forth. He also tipped the right edge down, encouraging the wash to collect on all sides of the rock formation fo the lower right.
“John Marin’s Watercolors,” is also a reminder that when museums conduct research on their collections, they aren’t necessarily doing it to save money. It’s just what serious museums with serious scholars and dedicated researchers do. When the result of that work is this special, it’s a reminder that more museums should focus on their own collections more often.