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High Museum to Host John Marin Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism

The High Museum of Art will host “John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism,” the first major comprehensive exhibition addressing John Marin’s (1870–1953) modernist achievements in the watercolor medium. Comprising more than 100 works, the exhibition includes a group of 40 watercolors from the collection of Alfred Stieglitz donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1949 and 1956 by his wife Georgia O’Keeffe, many of which have rarely or never before been on public display. Additional selections of oil paintings, drawings and etchings will showcase Marin’s experimentation throughout his career. Organized by and debuting at the Art Institute of Chicago, “John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism” will be on view at the High from June 26 to September 11, 2011.

John Marin. The Red Sun-Brooklyn Bridge (detail), 1922. Alfred Stieglitz Collection

“In 1948, a nationwide survey published in Look magazine celebrated John Marin as America’s number-one artist. This is a testament to Marin’s exuberant and improvisational paintings, and how they are recognized today as critical to the evolution of American modernism even through to today,” says Stephanie Heydt, the High’s Terry and Margaret Stent Curator of American Art. “Less well known, though, is the extent to which Marin pushed the limits of the watercolor medium, establishing for a new generation of artists its inherent suitability to avant-garde expression.”

The exhibition reveals Marin’s working method as it developed through etching and into watercolor as well as his development of the natural properties of the medium to craft a new avant-garde approach. The exhibition showcases important intersections between media, artistic character and the politics of modern art, shedding new light on the question of why watercolor became such an important instrument for avant-garde artistic practice in the hands of Marin and other American artists of the Stieglitz circle, including Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.

A notable aspect of the exhibition is the particular attention paid to the frames that Marin made for his watercolors. He felt strongly about the mode of presentation for the works, and his choices of frames and mounts departed radically from the ornate European styles favored in the late 19th century. The Art Institute collection—including the 40 works from Alfred Stieglitz’s personal collection via Georgia O’Keeffe—contains the largest surviving museum holdings of Marin’s original mounts and frames, thus providing essential information about the presentation and promotion of modern watercolor during the first half of the 20th century. The original frames and mounts have been researched and preserved, and replica frames based on these models have been built for the works without original frames, making the Art Institute’s presentation of these works as close to Marin’s intent as possible and showing, for the first time, how Marin’s innovation and originality extended beyond his painted compositions.

John Marin
Born in 1870, John Marin was raised in New Jersey. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the Art Students League in New York. He traveled extensively in Europe, where he initially began developing his watercolor technique. Marin turned to watercolor around the time he met and began exhibiting with Alfred Stieglitz in his famous Gallery 291 in 1909, showing regularly at Stieglitz’s galleries and nurturing a relationship that would last until Stieglitz’s death in 1946. Like Winslow Homer, Marin also worked extensively in Maine. The watercolors in this exhibition span Marin’s deep interest in urban architecture and the energy of modern New York, and explore his passionate relationship to the rough and dramatic Maine coastline. Marin enjoyed great success and visibility during his lifetime, both at home and in Europe, where his watercolors frequently represented the country’s avant-garde in international exhibitions.

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