"A work of art is full of perhapses and maybesos. Where the perhapses are found, something has to be done about it. And since art deals wtih the perhapses and maybesos, and why not call it the consummate science...which gets its perfection from seemingly imperfection."
- John Marin
For some, moving from two films about Marsden Hartley to a film about John Marin would seem a move in a different direction...maybe even the wrong direction. Marsden Hartley's devotees are that: enthusiastic and, in some cases, fanatical lovers of Hartley's work and of what I will call the Hartley mystique. About John Marin...some people have said they are puzzled about why I bothered to make a film about an artist whose reputation isn't what it used to be.
For me, there is less difference between Marsden Hartley and John Marin than meets the eye. Yes, they were both American Modernists. Of course, they both came under the great influence and, to a large extent, the patient sponsorship, of the remarkable Alfred Stieglitz. It's also true that they were both self-taught, and like all true intellectual autodidacts were filled with ideas that came from a combination of deep and transcendent personal experience and a simple daily quiet commitment to self-improvement.
It's also true that they both came of age in the last third of the 19th century. America was a different place then. There is ample evidence that the America of Whitman's final years was an America filled with ambition, enthusiasm, urbanity, and a certain wonderful "can-do" feeling...a feeling that permeated both the commercial world as well as the world of arts and letters.
It's true as well that John Marin was a late bloomer, as was Marsden Hartley, and both spent some years in their early middle age absorbing the European artistic and cultural experience and legacy. There the paths diverge, however. Hartley would return to Europe again and again. He was an absorber of styles and was the ultimate and consummate observer of life. John Marin returned finally and forever to the United States in 1910, and burst on the scene through the intervention of Stieglitz as a fully committed artist. John Marin became a family man. He was a hunter and fisherman as well, and enjoyed the outdoors in ways that Marsden Hartley could only have imagined.
Hartley became a good, sometimes great writer. Marin liked to write but felt the need to communicate in the simplest possible terms. He may sometimes be puffed up with aphorisms, but underneath each statement lies always the kernel of truth.
I make these comparisons between these two giants of American painting for only one reason... and that is to highlight their slight differences rather than their apparent similarities. It is also to state what seems obvious to me: they were both original American geniuses of the first order whose works breathe a very different aesthetic...but send, ultimately, a very similar message to the viewer.
Everywhere you look these days John Marin's reputation has gone into some sort of eclipse. Among certain hipsters he is the Modernist who simply failed to perform. At the end of his life he pushes Abstraction to its ultimate limits...and then disappoints the intelligentsia by sticking a gaff-rigged schooner in the upper right-hand corner of the canvas, as if to remind himself and us not only of his roots, but of the importance of capturing things from life. Things not imagined; but things really seen and felt. This is why in some quarters he is undervalued. Some people really hate it when a perfectly good painter is just having too good of a time...and they especially hate the idea that the artist's joy might actually be palpable to the viewer.
Marin was prolific. He was what we would have called in today's vernacular a "monster"...someone who created each day with an intensity, fervor, and quality not only difficult to imagine in 2009, but difficult by any stretch to replicate. In a very real sense, making a movie about John Marin is infinitely harder than making a movie about Marsden Hartley. Marin's middle class existence suited him fine and suited his gentle but penetrating art. There was very little angst about Marin. He went out and did, and he did miraculously and magnificently from about 1910 until his death in 1953. The works he created in watercolor and oil, as well as his many etchings and drawings, command our continued respect and admiration. They also represent something extraordinary: as true Modernist works, they also hang consistently well on the wall. There are people who find Marin an enormously uncomfortable painter because of this. We want our early Modernists to make us uneasy, to be outspoken, to be controversial, to inflict, perhaps, a little pain on the eyes as well as the soul. Marin will have none of this. He wants us to rejoice. He wants us to enjoy in the old-fashioned sense of that word, which is to derive a simple and visceral pleasure by looking at his stuff on the wall and understanding that what you see is not only part of a larger vision, but part of a larger whole...a perfect whole, embracing more than 50 years of intensely luscious creative activity.
I've said in this film that John Marin is one of the most overtly communicative artists I've studied. John Marin appeals to me and appeals to many, I think, because of his deep need for and passionate commitment to simple communication. He wants you to see; he wants you to feel; he wants you to explore; and I think, most importantly, John Marin wants you to connect with the outside and visible world with an active, instinctual, and complete commitment. He knows, somehow, that if you do this, you'll be the better for it.
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