Thursday, October 26th, 2006

Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings Museum of Modern Art

Through January 15, 2007
11 West 53 Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues

A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, October 26, 2006 under the title “A non-linear path”

Brice Marden Study for the Muses (Hydra Version) 1991-95/1997 oil on linen, 83 x 135 inches  Private Collection © 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Brice Marden, Study for the Muses (Hydra Version) 1991-95/1997 oil on linen, 83 x 135 inches Private Collection © 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

However much Brice Marden was a child of Minimalism, the true character of his work is something superficially similar to but distinct from reduction— namely, simplicity.

Minimal art was about eschewing excresences, asserting primary, linguistic structures, constantly questioning the definition of art.  What comes across in Mr. Marden’s lyrical, sumptuous paintings and works on paper is something quite opposite—an epicurean principle, an art born of rich aesthetic memories, of manifest pleasures in making.

His MoMA retrospective, curated by Gary Garrels, launches with stark, sleek monochromatic canvases of the mid-1960s, made in New York after he graduated from Yale and returned from a year in Paris.  Several rooms later there is an abrupt shift in style, as wayward linearity takes over from sheer planes as his principle means of expression.  But there’s consistency, too, as pared down means, depersonalized markmaking, and restricted palette continue to prevail.

In whatever period of his work, or medium, however, what comes across is a honing of sensual forces, not their denial. He is a subtle lyricist, which gives sustained energy to a remarkably satisfying display that progresses through various shifts in mood and mode.

His images are hand made and hard won: An early source of inspiration, Cézanne, remained his touchstone.  However easy on the eye, his work isn’t shy to let us know that they are the results of intense, accumulated labor.

Take the early monochromes, for instance.  They might initially perplex in their blandness—or have invited a cheer from a 1960s iconoclast, eager to cheer on the “death of painting.”  But they invite closer reading, which soon reveals surfaces that are alive and kicking.  It is frequently apparent that the final, defining color — the foggy green of “Nebraska” (1966) or the midnight gray of “The Dylan Painting” (1966/1986) —harbor underlying hues, accomplices, so to speak, in their arrival.  These early pictures often have a strip at the base that offer clues of the multilayeredness of the flat plane above, almost like bar codes of effort.

And then there is the kind of color he goes for, which is about tone rather than chroma—which means it is the kind of color that is earned rather than elected.  His surfaces were worked obsessively—brushstrokes would be fastidiously erased with a spatula. He mixed molten beeswax into his turpentine to achieve a particularly muted, matt quality—while his color sings, various strategies ensure they do so sotto voce.

Brice Marden For Pearl 1970 oil and beeswax on canvas, three panels, overall 96 x 98 1/4" Private Collection © 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Brice Marden, For Pearl 1970 oil and beeswax on canvas, three panels, overall 96 x 98 1/4" Private Collection © 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In 1964 he had worked as a custodian at the Jewish Museum during Jasper Johns  first retrospective, and this artist’s strategy of worrying surfaces into minute grades of differentiation clearly rubbed off on Mr. Marden. “Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns” (1970) a belated homage, a polyptych of three panels in warmer and cooler grays, is a tour de force in the way it sustains a tension between sensuality and retraint.

From single, monochrome canvases with lots of barely repressed life under their surfaces, Mr. Marden progressed, by the end of the 1960s, to multipanelled compositions where singly colored canvases extend and contrast with their neighbors.  Frequently, the titles would refer to life, or art, experiences—his family, or great paintings that inspired him, like a Goya in the Louvre in “D’après la Marquise de la Solana” (1969).  The mauve panel to the right fuses, perhaps, the light pink chemise and salmon pink hair ribbon of Goya’s noble sitter.

In itself, Mr. Marden’s attitude towards the past singles him out as an artist of accretion rather than elimination, although sometimes his minimal approach leaves ambiguity.  The “Homage to Art” series from the early 1970s, for instance,  included in the galleries of drawing on the museum’s third floor, place multiples of postcards (Goya, Fra Angelico) in grids worked up to near blackness in graphite and beeswax, somehow managing simultaneously to threaten and venerate.

Increasingly, however, his art reveals layers of influence from the past, with Chinese calligraphy and poetry and Greek civilization (he purchased property in Hydra in 1973) joining old master painting as his sources.  At two moments in his career his work references the muses—indirectly, in a series of planar polyptyches called the Groves Group of 1972-73, taking their olive colors from the sacred grove where the muses dwelt, from which our word “museum” derives, and explicitly in an all-over linear work, “Study for the Muses (Hydra Version) (1991-95/1997)—acknowledging a sense of memory and multilayeredness, if not indeed a classicism, at odds with a prevailing disdain for tradition in the artworld of the day.

The polyptyches of the 1970s got increasingly complex in their arrangements, taking his work in a confounding direction.  “Thira: (1979-80) has a complex architecture—in three equal parts, the composition is actually made up of eighteen panels, with an almost theatrical sense of dramatic spaces, with stark, bright color contrasts and competing horizontals and verticals.  This is more the territory of other artists (Frank Stella or Ellsworth Kelly come to mind) and feels like a cul de sac in Mr. Marden’s development.  Indeed, it is from this place that his art makes its dramatic turn, shedding plane for line.

The way the show is installed, you literally turn a sharp corner into this new direction, slipping into a back gallery for what feels like an illicit indulgence rather than a new chapter.  The only transitional work between “Thira” and its attendant multi-panel monochromes and the gesturally expressive compositions that mark his work from the mid-1980s of awkwardly painted, open linear structures set against rough, spatially ambiguous grounds are a few odd paintings on shards of marble.

But if you look at the catalogue, which mixes drawings and paintings in strict chronological order, rather than in hanging order, a different narrative emerges.  The real transition occurs with drawings that, although still tight with the grid, admit deviation in the form of dripped ink and gouache, as in the “Melia Group” (1980-81), or with a sense of deep space implied by overlapping types of line of different color and scale, as in “4 and 3 Drawing” (1979-81).

The linear Mardens might seem more complex than the planar ones in terms of gesture and expression, but arguably they restore simplicity in the way they reconnect with intuition and bodily presence.  But if the new work looked more like Jackson Pollock and less like Barnett Newman, there is no sense of Mr. Marden suddenly becoming an action painter.  He still found ways to distance overtly personal touch from his work.  He would attach his brushes to long sticks, for instance, which had twin effects—making the calligraphy intentionally awkward, thus eschewing his own handwriting; and establishing a distance for the artist from his pictorial surface that kept it in focus while he worked.  This meant he didn’t separate making from seeing.

Chinese art became his new touchstone.  His “Cold Mountain” series from 1989-91 is undoubtedly a high point in his career, and paid homage to the mythic Tang Dynasty poet Han Shan.  Nine-foot-by-twelve-foot canvases present  continuous loops of sometimes fluent, sometimes stilted line.  Often, as they change direction, they get drippy; othertimes they seem to run out of juice, just like the brush of a master calligrapher.  The grounds are white, or steely gray, and while there might be an underlying web of pale blue, the top layer in black, marking these pictures as chromatically abstemious.  Like calligraphy, they are apparently inscribed top to bottom, right to left, and also like their oriental source, the artist encourages readings in multiple directions.

While initially these linear structures might bring nets or webs to mind, the fluctuations in intensity and abrupt changes in direction inevitably has one reading figures into the mass—in some works more overtly than others.  This sense of an identity parade of totems or personages, prevalent in the paintings and drawings of the early 1990s, might have something to do with the vertical modus operandi.

Figural misreadings recede, however, as Mr. Marden’s line gradually thickens and his pace of application slows up, as frenetic spindle gives way to gracious loop.  Again, according to the artist, focus was the cause for a change of scale.  But if we view his painting career as a totality, in the way Mr. Garrels encourages, with the monochromes of the first twenty years as the thesis, and the calligraphic linear webs as the antithesis, then his most recent work is a synthesis of line and plane.

The last room is a blaze of hot colors and muscular rythmns.  The lush turns and sinous kinks in “6 Red Rock 1” (2000-2002) has an almost Art Nouveau sense of organic deliberateness.  Two examples from a series of six-panelled friezes, “somewhat pretentiously” titled (according to the artist himself) “The Propitious Garden of Plane Image,” orchestrates color sequences of overlapping lines in a ludic spectral sequence.

But, as I’ve intimated already, neat sequences and dramatic turns alike are undermined by consideration of Mr. Marden’s drawing.  While there are a few key works on paper in the grand sixth floor galleries, drawings are mostly confined to an intimate display on the third floor (and printmaking, alas, is entirely excluded).  Drawing tells a different tale—parallel rather than contradictory.  It seems more about risk, intensity, and experiment than the paintings, which even at their most calligraphic are always characterized by even-tempered finesse.  Where his drawings are about discovery, his paintings are about distillation—and at MoMA we are all modernists, hungry for discovery.