I just bought a copy of John Marin’s 1921 etching “Downtown. The El,” and it’s a beauty–a nervous cubist spiderweb that captures some of the sheer excitement of this crazy city in which I insist on living. It’s already taught me a lesson, which is that the ultimate test of the quality of a work of art is whether you can look at it every day without getting bored or irritated. So far, so good.
I never thought I’d be able to afford a Marin, but this one is a fluke, reprinted in 1924 in a special edition of 500 copies as a premium for New Republic subscribers, meaning that surviving impressions are comparatively easy to find and thus a hell of a lot less expensive. I’ve been trying to imagine a modern-day counterpart of such an offer, without much success. (Perhaps O could offer its subscribers tubes of Vaseline signed by Matthew Barney?)
When I first moved to Manhattan, nearly two decades ago, I’d see etchings and small lithographs by well-known artists hanging on the walls of the apartments of older middle-class New Yorkers, and say to myself, “Gee, that is so cool.” I innocently supposed such things were simply part of the New York package, something you did when you got old enough, like drinking coffee or getting married. I’m old enough now (to put it mildly), but I notice that New Yorkers of my generation are no more likely to own inexpensive high-quality art than they are to go to the ballet. If you’re rich, you buy rich people’s art, which too often means expensive signatures; if you’re not, you don’t buy anything at all. I wonder what happened to us. Could it be it that baby boomers and Gen-Xers are less interested in art? Or do we not know that you don’t need a lot of money to own something beautiful, so long as you don’t care whether it’s trendy?
Whatever the reason, Downtown. The El now hangs on the south wall of my living room, and I look at it lovingly every time I pass by, marveling at the chain of coincidence that brought this exquisite little specimen of prewar American modernism into my home. I’m lucky to have it–and lucky to have wanted it. I hope somebody else will want it just as much, someday.
Not just yet, though.