John Marin

Downtown, New York


Not on display

John Marin 1870–1953
Watercolour on paper
Support: 679 × 552 mm
Purchased out of a sum of money made available from the Bruern Foundation 1956


Downtown, New York is a semi-abstract painting that captures the energy and growth of a modern metropolis. The scene shows New York’s financial district and is made up of strong linear elements. Beginning at the bottom right-hand corner, a diagonal line brings the eye towards the centre of the image, while the contrasting verticals of the buildings stretch upwards beyond the confines of the picture, indicating their towering height. The fragmented quality of the painting’s composition, with its proliferation of coloured blocks and jagged black lines, suggests the fast pace of city life. Partially rendered objects, such as the windows of buildings and the zig-zagging fire escape on the lower right, anchor the scene in a recognisable reality. Colour is used minimally at points around the periphery of the main architectural structures, which also enhances the sense of fleeting observation.

This work was created by the American artist John Marin in 1923. The artist painted parts of the surface with watercolour and then drew lines in charcoal over these coloured areas. There is an evident dynamism in the application of both mediums, giving the work a feeling of immediacy and energy. The colours are muted and translucent, while the white paper remains visible in parts. An area of light blue paint in the top left-hand corner indicates sky seen through the towering buildings, while the addition of pale yellow and red acts to separate the uppermost part of the image from its darker, more frenetic lower half, which is closer to street level. While the translucent nature of watercolours can imply an ethereal quality, Marin has contrasted these with the dark charcoal, using it to reveal the city’s solid structural elements.

From 1890 to 1892 Marin had worked as a draftsman for a number of architecture firms and his topographical etchings, such as Portal of St Mark’s Venice 1907 and Chartres Cathedral 1910 (both Museum of Modern Art, New York) show an understanding of architectural structure and the interaction of forms within space. Downtown, New York was produced at a time when the city of New York was undergoing a burgeoning period of construction. In a letter to the art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, written in 1911, Marin had proclaimed:

I have just started some Downtown stuff, and to pile these great houses one upon another with paint as they do pile themselves up there is beautiful, so fantastic – at times one is afraid to look at them.
(Quoted in E.M. Benson, ‘John Marin – “and pertaining thereto”’, in Museum of Modern Art 1936, p.27.)

In 1922 the photographer Paul Strand, who along with Marin exhibited at the influential 291 Gallery in New York, praised the artist’s ability to capture the ‘Americanness’ of the city:

To Marin that something which we call America lies not so much in political institutions as in rocks and skies and seas. He has begun to find it, in his etchings, as well as his latest watercolors, in nervous, towering New York. To him they are essentially placed and he would seize upon that placeness and hold it.
(Paul Strand, ‘John Marin’, reproduced in American Art, vol.5, no.3, Summer 1991, p.110.)

Later in his career Marin moved towards abstract landscapes painted in oils, such as Sea in Red (Version 2) 1948 (Hirschl and Adler Modern, New York). In a 1948 review of Marin’s exhibition held at the New York gallery An American Place, the prominent critic Clement Greenberg singled out Sea in Red (Version 2) as a highlight of the show, describing Marin as ‘certainly one of the best artists who ever handled a brush in this country’ (Greenberg, reproduced in O’Brian 1988, p.268).

Further reading
John Marin: Watercolors, Oil Paintings, Etchings, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1936.
Sheldon Reich, John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonné, Arizona 1970.
John O’Brian (ed.), Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 2: Arrogant Purpose 1945–1949, Chicago 1988.

Lucinda Towler
January 2017

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Display caption

Intersecting forms give this watercolour a sense of the hectic interconnectedness of New York City. Lines sweep up beyond the edge of the painting, echoing the rapid construction of the skyscrapers they depict. The zig-zag form of a fire escape on the lower right is another detail of Manhattan’s urban environment that still seems emblematic of the city almost a hundred years on. This painting is from a portfolio containing selected works which Marin put aside as of special importance and refused to sell during his lifetime.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

John Marin 1870-1953

T00080 Downtown, New York City 1923

Inscribed 'Marin 23' b.r.
Watercolour on paper, 26 3/4 x 21 3/4 (68 x 55.5)
Purchased from the Downtown Gallery out of a sum of money made available by the Bruern Foundation 1956
Prov: With Downtown Gallery, New York (purchased from the artist's estate 1956)
Repr: John Rothenstein, The Tate Gallery (London 1966), p.258

This watercolour came from a portfolio containing twenty to thirty works of all periods which Marin put aside as of special importance and refused to sell. It has never been exhibited. The scene is in the vicinity of Nassau Street and the New York Stock Exchange.

In the following two years, Marin made six rather similar etchings of street scenes in this same area: 'Nassau Street, looking South' 1924, 'Street Scene, Downtown, Nos. 1-3' 1924, 'Downtown Synthesis' (preliminary) 1925 and 'Downtown Synthesis' 1925 (Carl Zigrosser, The Complete Etchings of John Marin, Philadelphia 1969, Nos.135-40).

Published in:
Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.486, reproduced p.486

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