John Marin’s conversion to modernism came early and completely. Following a trip to Europe in 1910, Marin studiously applied observations about European modernism — proto-cubism, fauvism, divisionism, vorticism, et c. — to his already unique renderings of city- and landscape. In the early years of the 1910s–scholarship remains divided on exactly when– Marin applied a vivid palette to nearly-abstract forms in his celebrated Weehawken series. While these works were among the earliest examples of abstraction in American art, Marin was even better positioned to render the rising skyline of New York in his animated line. These experiments with twisting forms, often in watercolor, are often compared to Robert Delaunay’s view of the Eiffel Tower (completed 1911, collection Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York), also presaging by several years Joseph Stella’s view of the Brooklyn Bridge (c. 1920, collection Newark Museum of Art, New Jersey). In contrast to Delaunay’s Paris, Marin’s muse sustained him for decades, as New York’s skyline continued to grow.
The subject of the present work was an early fascination for Marin. The Woolworth building was designed by Cass Gilbert and erected between 1910 and 1912. Marin must have been fascinated by its rise, because by the end of 1912, he had alread completed a parcel of watercolors taking the building as his subject. The catalogue raisonne lists five such works, but these Marin inscribed with numbers, (Woolworth Building No. 32, e.g.) suggesting there were many other attempts. Marin was working from the Woolworth Building around the same time as he was producing his most iconic views of other downtown landmarks, including his own rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge (collection Museum of Modern Art, New York), which rivals Stella’s for most recognized interpretation of the landmark. Such was Marin’s satisfaction with the views of the Woolworth Building, he included them in his entries to the 1913 Armory Show.
Marin revisited this subject on a very few other occasions: once in 1913, and at least once in the early- or mid-1920s. The latter is the present work, a vibrant evocation of the tower’s grand neogothic design. The rush of verticality is expressed in the animated strokes of blue and green, which allude both to the sky as well as the copper pyramidal dome of the building. The city continued to fascinate Marin all his life, but he seems not to have treated the Woolworth Building itself as his sole subject, although it would remain the tallest building in the world for another decade. Its construction, with its vertical thrust and cubistic cross-beams, must have fascinated the newly-minted modernist; just as fascinating as it must have been to return a decade later to admire its completed form.
The work is entered in Sheldon Reich’s definitive document of Marin’s work as entry no. 25.95 (Sheldon Reich, John Marin: A Stylistic Analysis and Catalogue Raisonne (1970), vol. II, p. 561, no. 25.95, illus.). The listing therein describes the work erroneously as “ns,” for “not signed,” but also conspicuously notes the signature at lower right. The work was likely not examined in person by the author, who concluded that the work was “probably done between 1921-1928.” The original label from the Downtown Gallery remains affixed to the backing of the work, dating it to “c. 1925.” In accord with the Downtown Gallery label and the catalogue raisonne listing, we have listed the date as c. 1925, although it may have been executed as early as 1921.
Reich’s catalogue also misstates the ownership history of the work as belonging to Lisa Marie Marin, John Marin’s daughter. It was in fact given from the artist to the neice of Edith Gregor Halpert, the owner of the Downtown Gallery.