Marin and Strand: Pair of Opposite Yankee Modernists

The current exhibition at the Richard York Gallery, John Marin and Paul Strand: Friends in New England , is said by its organizers to constitute a “dialogue” between these legendary Yankee modernists. Yet despite their long friendship (both lived into their 80′s) and their common debt to Alfred Stieglitz, who launched both of their careers at his “291″ gallery early in the 20th century, this new show of their work has the effect of underscoring the profound differences in style and sensibility that characterize their respective achievements. The result of the juxtaposition looks a lot less like a dialogue than a confrontation of opposites.

In the paintings and watercolors of John Marin (1870-1953), everything derived from both nature and the man-made environment is transformed into vivid action, commotion and syncopation-a variety of lyric upheaval that is larger than life in its intensity of expression, while remaining firmly tethered to the lineaments of our earthbound experience. “Fast” was the key word used by Paul Rosenfeld to describe Marin in his classic study of the American avant-garde, Port of New York (1924), invoking at least two of this word’s several meanings: speed, of course, but also what Rosenfeld characterized as “rooted in good ground.”

The excesses of his overripe prose notwithstanding, Rosenfeld’s description of Marin’s painterly dynamism at the height of his powers has never been bettered. Marin, wrote Rosenfeld, was “restlessly, unconsciously busied transforming the materials amid which he stands, dayshine and moisture and minerals, pigment and water and white sheets of Watman paper, into the fresh, firm, savor some pulp of his art. Each year he gives himself anew in liberal windfalls, strewing on the soil about him his explosions of tart watercolor: slithering suns and racing seas of the coast of Maine; wet, fishy poems of headlands and pine-pinnacles and rain-gusts in which the rocky strength and almost Chinese delicacy of a sensitive and robust nature have been completely, miraculously, released.”

With the photographs of Paul Strand (1890-1976), we encounter a very different sensibility. In this pictorial oeuvre , nature is devoid of disturbance, action is suspended in the interests of observation, and the man-made world is likewise made to conform to a certain order and etiquette-at times, indeed, a certain geometry. Even the sea is often becalmed, landscape acquires some of the attributes of still life, and every closely observed subject-whether a horizon-line dividing the sea from the sky or something as delicate as a cobweb in the rain-is rendered with a preternatural clarity and precision, enabling us to savor the clean contours and fine detailing of every object. This is equally true of Strand’s iconic portraits, in which concentration and candor are given priority over intimacy and sentiment-a strategy that, in Strand’s case, anyway, endows every portrait with the weight of a penetrating character study.

They belonged to different generations. Strand, the younger by 20 years, was closer in his generational affinities to precisionist masters like Morton Schamberg (1881-1918) and Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). When, as a young man, Strand first brought his photographs to Stieglitz for criticism, the master is said to have been so impressed by the abstract patterns to be seen in the pictures, whatever the subject, that he promptly gave the young photographer his first solo exhibition at “291.” That element of precisionist abstraction remained a hallmark of Strand’s style for many decades.

Marin, for his part, was by temperament a headlong expressionist-exuberant in invention, impatient with finish and indulgent of repetition and improvisation-but an expressionist held in check by a countervailing devotion to Cubist structure, which he blithely bent to his own purposes.

Call this confrontation of opposites a dialogue if you like. John Marin and Paul Strand: Friends in New England is a wonderful show-a show, really, of three major American artists, if you add the genius of Stieglitz’s aesthetic perspicacity to the roster of talents on display. It remains on view at the Richard York Gallery, 21 East 65th Street, through Jan. 17, 2004.