Art: Fugues in Space

A few years before he died in 1953 at the age of 83, John Marin was voted "the greatest living American painter" by a poll of critics and museum men. What the cranky, salt-bitten old Yankee thought of this honor is uncertain. Marin loathed the idea that art should become a monument, freezing its maker in the pose of a culture hero. "Art is not great," he once scribbled in that looping hand with which he covered innumerable scraps of paper with misspelled, queerly punctuated aphorisms. "Music is not great. It's just that they...

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