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Watercolors As You've Never Seen Them

By Laura M. Browning in Arts & Entertainment on Jan 28, 2011 5:00PM

Watercolor is a notoriously tricky medium: it’s unforgiving at best, since you can’t paint over mistakes or change colors once you’ve applied the paint. And yet it’s also (oddly) associated with amateurs, from paint-by-numbers to “Sunday painters.”

The Art Institute has put together a stellar exhibit with John Marin's Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism, and Marin’s work is surprising on both planes. He defies traditional watercolor methods to produce paintings that are radical, colorful testimonies to the urban architecture of New York City, the craggy shorelines and pine trees of Maine, and the mountainous forms of New Mexico. The New York paintings are extraordinary—the buildings and trees sway together like dancers, no small achievement for a painter who had no formal training in watercolors. Marin’s exuberance comes through both in painting and in word: “There come days when I am glad to be alive and just to see the wonderful city in its different aspects and then say I will! I will! I will!”

Marin was friends with photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a relationship the Art Institute examines through a handful of photographs that nicely complement the watercolors (40 of the paintings in the exhibit are from Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s personal collection). O’Keeffe’s influence on Marin is subtly apparent, especially in his watercolors that walk the line between abstraction and representation.

As one of Stieglitz’s inner circle, Marin exhibited at his New York galleries, receiving excellent exposure during his lifetime, and was even named “America’s Number 1 Artist” a few years before his death in 1953. Marin’s nontraditional use of a traditional medium paved the way for Modernism, something that becomes clear as you move through this exhibit, which does an excellent job of highlighting the breakdown of boundaries between representative and abstract painting. An exhibit that is radical and accessible, gorgeous and challenging, John Marin’s Watercolors: A Medium for Modernism should be on your must-see list this spring.

John Marin’s Watercolors is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., until April 17. Adult admission is $18, and the entire museum is free on weekdays through February 4.