In 1931, John Marin shocked many of his admirers with an exhibition of oil paintings that were considered not nearly as beautiful as his vibrant watercolors. Nevertheless, he continued to experiment with oils, freely incorporating techniques that a more traditionally grounded painter would have feared to attempt. Marin thinned the oil paint to create translucent washes of color, similar to watercolor paints, striving to create luminous color harmonies.
It is a tribute to his infallible sense of design that Pertaining to Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street holds together as a composition when the surface reads like a sampler for methods of paint application. Marin first drew in either ink or very thick oil, and worked the middle section of the painting in washes, using patches of bare canvas to indicate white, as in a watercolor. Then he painted the background with a variety of brushstrokes and used a palette knife for the highlights in the sky. Marin created flat, interlocking forms, flattening the people against the buildings, painting everything on one picture plane, emphasizing the city’s constant movement and growth. Duncan Phillips remarked that Marin “gives us . . . the quickened sense of our intense modern life . . . he is frankly experimenting on the frontiers of visual consciousness . . . he is an impressive master of space and light, and of the dynamics of color. . . . New York is sensed as a world rocking with the throb of energy.”