PRINT October 1974

Brice Marden’s Painting

Anyone who saw me at work would think I was only interested in questions of form.
—Bertolt Brecht1

Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate with simplicity of experience. Unitary forms do not reduce relationships. They order them. If the predominant, hieratic nature of the unitary form functions as a constant, all those particularizing relations of scale, proportion, etc., are not thereby canceled. Rather they are bound more coherently and indivisibly together.
—Robert Morris2

IN THE SEVEN YEARS between Nebraska (1966) and the Grove Group (1973), Brice Marden established and explored a set of conditions through which to regenerate painting. For me the works that make up the Grove Group series are the first that fully realize the goal implicit in those of the preceding years: a reconciliation of the colors of landscape with a post-Johnsian insistence on the painting’s identity as a conventional—social—object that functions as a cultural sign of a certain sort.

That, I think, is what his work’s about. Marden has effected a reconciliation of aspects of pictorial experience which seem mutually exclusive to anyone whose sensibility has been educated by the Minimal and post-Minimal sculpture of the last decade. Like Stella—who is two years older than he and to my mind the painter closest to him—Marden is a decidedly atypical representative of his generation. Marden’s work evokes an internal space that is more than literal in the course of reconstitution of the multivalence of 19th-century painting. Manet and Cézanne placed painting itself at the intersection of several spaces: the physical space the object shares with the viewer; the space of the abstract continuum traditionally proposed by its terminology (“figure and field” is one example of that); and the historical space of the world at large. Marden’s work appeals to this concatenation of internal and external referents, but in his paintings “figure and field” has become “surface and support.” The pictorial object contains a space that is only “optically” accessible, but is itself seen to occupy real space.

That is the sense in which Marden’s work is both an extension and a contradiction of the critical biases associated with the milieu out of which he’s emerged. Considered as such, his painting gives one a new look at Johns and at the generation of American artists inspired by him. In Marden’s work one is reminded that painting seems to be an inherently conservative activity. But one is also reminded that—as Walter Benjamin remarked—advanced thought is necessarily conservative in its attempt to develop the argument it inherits without collapsing into an illusionary clarity.

Marden’s work cannot, for example, be accommodated within the paradigm advanced by Gregoire Müller to describe post-Minimalist sculpture.3 Müller describes sculpture as a metacritical art able to exploit the conceptual space of painting and the physical space of architecture. Marden’s work implies that such a paradigm is actually more limited in its scope, that it exhibits a nostalgia for the Renaissance and a simplistic faith in tautology—for propositions designed, like theological arguments, to confirm themselves—which is quite incapable of producing an adequate theory of painting. In resisting the move toward “dematerialization” that followed Johns, Marden has redrawn the terms of the argument that surrounds it. His work lends point to Johns’ reassertion of Duchamp through painting rather than sculpture. Marden’s work presents Duchamp as a reformist rather than an iconoclast, the formulator of an epistemological reform which depended on 19th-century modernism’s explication of the situational independence—within architecture or ordinary language—of the pictorial object and the poem.

MARDEN’S REFORMULATION OF THE scope of the pictorial object started—as it did for Stella—with a move into one-color painting. Marden began to identify a single color with a single stretcher in 1964–65. For a while he painted one-color paintings, like Nebraska, and then in 1967 made the Back series. These, seven paintings ranging in color from grayish to fleshy, and all the same size (69“ x 45”) seem to have summed up, for him, the previous couple of years’ experience with the relationship of color to a specific shape.

By 1967–68 Marden had begun to complicate this relationship, by making first two- and then three-color paintings. The application of a single—naturalistically ambiguous—color to one object had become the basis of an attempt to make separate—but physically and experientially united—stretchers refer to the sequential organization of landscape. Marden, having converted the abstract notion of “figure and ground” into a concern with the interaction of surface and support, proceeded to present the abstract terminology of landscape “foreground, middleground, and background” in the form of one, two, and three canvases—although, as Godard said about the related topic of whether a narrative must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, not necessarily in that order.

Godard’s artistic contribution seems important to Marden. Apart from Bob Dylan, he seems to be the one person outside of the visual arts to whom Marden feels inclined to persistently refer. In Godard, narrative proceeds within an explicit physicality—endless references to the film as a material accumulation of separate shots—which is not unlike Marden’s use of references to the painting as a thing in the world and also as the locus of a special kind of space. Marden used a still from Godard’s Alphaville (1965) as an advertisement for a show of his work in 1972—he complained to me that the gallery cropped it, here it’s restored to its original proportions—which has an obvious compositional reference to any of his two-panel paintings. But there is a comparison which interests me more because of the light it throws on Marden’s general attitude. If one compares the still with a 19th-century painting like Manet’s In the Conservatory (1879), one is presented with a transition from an ambiguous obliqueness to an analogously ambiguous directness. It is a transition that spans about 90 years of cultural history, and Marden seems preoccupied with it.

The figures in the Manet occupy the space of a conservatory, itself an example—poised as it is between the inside and the out-of-doors—of the tentative containment of the natural by the cultured. One is in no doubt that the man and the woman are in communication with one another, yet they are also clearly oriented toward us, and this prevents them from being completely engrossed in themselves. They are torn between looking at us and looking at one another, and the viewer is similarly—reciprocally—torn between an experience of the pictorial space as a self-referential system—cut off from the space of its audience—and the contrary implication that it’s addressed to the world outside itself.

In the Godard still Anna Karina (Natasha von Braun) and Eddie Constantine (Lemmy Caution) share a space and address us directly. Here, though, the door—which serves a function like that of the bench in the Manet—physically unites the two but, as it does so, completely isolates them from one another. The price of direct address is mutual isolation, and outside the door is the darkness of a hallway rather than the sunlight of a conservatory. Independence replaces interdependence as directness takes the place of the indirect. A new ambiguity has grown from the old; a new opacity has arrived on the back of an endeavor committed to a heightened explicitness. One is shut off from Karina and Constantine by the screen as they are shut off from one another, and also united, by the door. The blurred discontinuity between foreground and middleground—the woman’s space and the space behind the bench, from which the man leans into hers—in the Manet, which reciprocates with, and qualifies, the viewer’s involvement in the work, has been replaced in Godard by a complete discontinuity that structures one’s response through a more overt reflexiveness. Constantine and Karina are united in our perception through their physical separation, they connect through being distinct. The still is invested with a mystery that comes from explicitness, the apparent paradox of a developed materialism: that it is the physical connection between things that keeps them distinct and isolated from one another. Marden’s work is, in my opinion, founded on that realization.

To appreciate Marden is to recognize that, as Victor Schlovsky said, in “Art as Technique,” art is primarily a means of defamiliarization, less concerned to invent than to slow down—or concentrate—the audience’s perception of the familiar, the system we ourselves inhabit.4 Johns’ defamiliarization of painting resulted in an increased awareness of its status as an institution devoted to the production of objects. Marden’s further deconstruction of that object has meant that, throughout the first ten years of his public career, he’s addressed himself to the problem of working with a pictorial space that doesn’t deny its function as a subdivision of real space. Marden’s paintings manipulate the space one shares with them, rather than an abstract—conventionally pictorial—spatial continuum that’s perceived as discontinuous with one’s own.

This connects Marden’s work to Johns’. What distinguishes the two is their use of color. Marden makes the painting’s skin exist in a way that informs the support without becoming a property of it. Marden’s attitude to the material construction of the surface, like his sense of color, is an indication of the depth of his feeling for Cézanne. His interest in paint as a material that—through the ambiguous spatiality of color—undermines one’s awareness of its own physicality is that which allows him to bring together Cézanne and Johns.

One painting from the Grove Group seems to me a very good example of his internalization of Cézanne. Specifically, it brings to mind Cézanne’s strategy of drawing with a bluish gray wash that contributes to the overall tone of the picture, as well as modifying the contours and determining composition in response to local color. In Marden’s two-panel painting, the colors are almost indescribable, fleeting combinations of greenish colors that approach an optical gray. It is this common tendency toward tonality that is the product of color working against itself—against chromatic purity—that unites the left and right parts of the painting. It is, to me, quite like one of Cézanne’s more frontal studies of Mont St. Victoire, where the opposition between ground and sky is established by the horizon, and where the colors respond to one another across that divide as they do across the gap between the stretchers in Marden’s piece.

Cézanne is said to have advised painters to look for the perspective of each object individually. Marden substitutes the edge of the stretcher for local perspective, and the color of separate panels for local value and hue. By this means he manages to apply Cézanne’s compositional procedure to the subdivision of real rather than fictive space. His achievement, in this regard, seems to follow from something fundamental about Cézanne’s technique. Cézanne’s way of working ensures that the growth of the abstraction within the pictorial space is paralleled by an equally dramatic change in the object that bears it—that every little dab of translucent pigment, every adjustment of drawing or color, is an addition to the surface that one reads as a crust on its way to completion. Cézanne made the surface’s potential independence from its support coincide with a sense of the painting’s conceptual realization. His paintings depict a methodology in which the inseparability of surface and support is on the way to being replaced by a synthetic relationship between the skin and what it is intended to replace as the work nears completion: the gessoed ground, Which anticipates labor and prescribes the format in which it will occur. Once surface and support are experienced as mutually intact, as they are not in Cézanne, what began as an addition has become an antithesis. Cézanne’s resistance to finishing work is, in this, an acknowledgment that synthesis is itself by definition speculative and provisional. As with his use of color, and in a manner consistent with it, Marden has taken the dialectic implied in Cézanne’s technique to be a characteristic of the pictorial object which can be used to clarify the issue of physical morphology. When Marden had his first show in 1966, the predominant mode was stain painting in which surface and support interpenetrated automatically. Reminiscent of the encaustic that Johns uses, the mixture of oil and wax Marden paints with allows him to manipulate a surface that replaces its support while remaining physically dependent on it, materially distinct but physically inseparable; a dialectic rather than a Gestalt.

Marden’s involvement in a separation of surface and support—in the course of clarifying the terms in which they’re interdependent—seems at first incompatible with Johns’ articulation of the painting as thing. Barnett Newman once wrote that: “[It] is only the pure idea that has meaning. Everything else has everything else.”5 If Johns has engineered a demystification of conventionality in which Newman’s ”pure idea“ is replaced with the notion of the ”specific object," Marden’s subsequent development of that object is in a sense highly ambivalent about what Johns has done. His work engages one in a complication of the object’s—and therefore, the institution’s—morphology that reopens it to the possibility of self- or internal-contradiction, which is communicated through a surface that both informs and erodes one’s sense of its support.

There is a painting that precedes the Grove Group, Toward Brindisi (1972) , which suggests the kind of coterminality between individual spaces that I associated earlier with Manet’s In the Conservatory. But while the space of landscape and the space of the individual provide the parameters for his use of naturalistic color, one must turn to his earlier work—where this motivation is implicit rather than overt—to see how Marden has been able to harness that spatiality to the demands of deconstruction, a project that, as I’ve suggested, paradoxically restores mysteriousness to cultural signs while explicating their origins in physical (historical) experience. An earlier painting such as Nebraska is an object with a skin that one has no difficulty in reading as an accumulation of labor that’s involved the methodical suppression of gesture. This is made clear by a narrow band along the painting’s bottom edge, where splotches and drips gathered while the rest of the surface was worked on. This band has continued to be a feature of all of Marden’s paintings except for those in which the panels are joined together vertically, where it would distract from the interaction between colors. It gives to his paintings the look of a window with the blind drawn down most of the way. A blind shuts out deep space and turns the window into a useless object, and I’m tempted to say that it provides the paradigm for the defami I iarization of naturalistic space in which Marden’s engaged.

Be that as it may, there is something like the band at the bottom of Johns’ Tango (1955), which is perhaps where its origins lie. A drawing from around the same time as Nebraska, Untitled (1966) is revealing in its implication that Marden arrived at the band by thinking of it as a positive element. In this drawing, the band is drawn at the bottom of an otherwise empty sheet of white paper. In his paintings the band depicts the passage from underpainting to final skin that’s frozen—presented in a state of unintended diogesis—in the unfinished paintings of Cézanne. As such, it’s at the center of Marden’s equation of the picture’s internal development with the structure of the painting as a cultural object.

The color of Nebraska is recessive, but not yet as spatially ambiguous as it becomes in Marden’s later work. Its affinities to landscape coloration are apparent, but one’s eye is not pulled back into the space of the object with the intensity that it is in later paintings. At this stage, I think, Marden’s concern to find a way in which color could work as part of a pictorial object hadn’t reached a point where he could be as adventurous as he has been since. In Nebraska, I think that one sees Marden restraining color in order to focus on a newly discovered objectness. The painting presents tensions that—because of their unfamiliarity, the traditional suppression of one by the other—Marden can’t yet allow to be equal. Instead, what one sees is a simple reversal of their conventional relationship. At that time, Marden was as close to Johns as he’s ever been in his attempt to reduce the spatial ambiguity of the naturalistic color he employs in the interests of physical specificity.

From the vantage point provided by Nebraska, one has little difficulty in analogizing Johns’ demystification of Abstract Expressionism’s gesturalism—the myth of privileged intuition—with Cézanne’s wish to bring Impressionism under the constraints of Classical order. So I take it as significant that, although I’ve connected Marden’s sense of color with Cézanne and Manet, it may also be accounted for through his stated interest in the color of the Minimalist sculpture of Morris and Andre—the two artists whose extensions of Johns’ institutional deconstruction have resulted in a clarification of sculptural morphology, through temporality on the one hand, and an unprecedented emphasis on materiality on the other, that Johns’ work doesn’t in itself anticipate. Roberta Smith has noted this interest of Marden’s in an important essay on his work, and I think it lends credibility to my claim that Marden has projected into the contemporary situation the conditions for a deconstruction that can reunite the present with its pre-Duchampian past.6 A work like Dylan:Karina (1969), a large two-panel painting of colors made out of similar ingredients—grayish blue and bluish gray—recalls Morris’ presentation of the same object in two states, while Marden’s use of color as something that exerts pressure on real space has direct affinities with Andre’s creation of a “column of air” above the Work through concentration on the materiality of steel.7

Over the last seven or eight years the surface of Marden’s paintings has become a repository of labor capable of sustaining more and more decisions about color, and there have been more and more splotches to fill the band. Like a river filling with silt, it has been progressively less in evidence. As if in compensation for its partial disappearance, the separation between surface and support communicated by the band has been gradually identified with—or transferred to—a more materially insistent and spatially complex skin. Since Nebraska, Marden has elaborated the idea of physical interaction originally contained in the band, and made the pictorial object disrupt one’s perception of real space by means of a surface that qualifies and undermines the physical explicitness of its support. Constant attention to its physical context has reasserted and maintained the primacy of color in his work.

A NEW THEORY OF PHYSICS can be proved because calculations connect the idea or meaning of it with standards of measurement already common to all men. It is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. A successful work has the strange power to teach its own lesson. The reader or spectator who follows the clues of the book or painting, by setting up stepping stones and rebounding from side to side guided by the obscure clarity of a particular style, will end by discovering what the artist wanted to communicate. The painter can do no more than construct an image; he must wait for this image to come to life for other people. When it does, the work of art will have united these separate lives; it will no longer exist in only one of them like a stubborn dream or a persistent delirium, nor will it exist only in space as a colored piece of canvas. It will dwell undivided in several minds, with a claim on every possible mind like a perennial acquisition.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Cézanne’s Doubt”8

Like Robert Smithson—the artist with whom he ought, I think, finally to be compared if one is to properly apprehend his importance9—Marden was born on the fringes of New York City in 1938; in his case, in Bronxville, N.Y. Astrologers may care to note that he shares a birthday with Friedrich Nietzsche, October 15. At the time of his first one-man show at the Bykert Gallery in 1966, Marden had been living in New York for about three years. After a faintly eccentric education—Florida Southern, Boston University, and Yale graduate school—he’d moved to the city where, in 1964, he worked as a guard at the Jewish Museum’s retrospective of Johns’ work—a thoroughly institutional encounter. After that he went to Paris for a while, came back, and—somewhere in there—decided to eliminate the grid with which he had been working. Or rather, to relocate it. A drawing from the period, Untitled (1964–65), shows the grid being first displaced, in order to allow for the band, and then modified by a surface contained by line but spatially convergent with it. In this drawing, Marden anticipated his subsequent identification of the grid not—as is traditionally the case—as an abstraction, but as an internalization of the stretcher. Having identified the grid with the physiognomy of an object existing in the world, Marden was free to make line into an exclusive property of the stretcher as the surface became more completely the province of color. This is the implication of Untitled (1966), mentioned above, where white paper stands for the painted surface, and the drawn band for the absence of paint, an inversion of the pictorial object’s morphology which establishes drawing as that which color and surface cannot address. At about the same time that he relocated the grid, Marden developed the painting technique he’s used since: oil and wax put on with a brush and smoothed down while hot, and then—with greater and greater ease as the years have passed—scraped off and reworked over and overagain. It is a matter of historical fact, then, that the elimination of the grid in Marden’s work coincided with the arrival of a method of applying color in which the object is completely transformed—made into a different physical thing—by the addition of a surface that’s independent of its support in terms of materials and procedures. It must be fairly obvious that Marden’s rejection of stain painting involved a different use for the stretcher from that of a painter like, for instance, Jules Olitski. Olitski, too, identifies the stretcher with drawing. But where he uses it to crop an implicitly infinite space, Marden uses it to establish a space that is explicitly limited.

Marden’s relocation of the grid involves one in a discussion of his work’s relationship to Frank Stella’s, through which he seems to have approached Johns before the Jewish Museum show. Manet and Cézanne and the tradition to which their work refers had begun to engage Marden’s attention while he was a student, as had the work of those American artists of the fifties who employed spatially expansive color—Newman, Kelly, Kline, Rothko. But it’s to Stella that Marden’s earliest work seems most directly addressed. If one can say that Untitled (1962–63)—a little drawing made around the time of his arrival in New York—is responsive to a painting like Stella’s Die Fahne Hoch (1959), with which it shares a quadrivial division of surface, then one can also say that the relationship between the two artists has been one of shared concerns and antithetical solutions from the start.

Stella’s indebtedness to Johns is common knowledge, as is his regard for Velasquez, a central figure in the tradition that Cézanne and Manet sought to restore. In seeming to respond to Stella’s work at the outset of his public career, then, Marden responded to an attempt at synthesis similar to that he was about to undertake himself. And, if one compares the directions the two have taken since, one sees that Marden’s has been an attempt to make the surface a vehicle for optical recession perceived as being in tension with its support. Stella at the same time has developed a literalization or pictorialism, which is more directly continuous with Johns’ in its eschewal of spatial ambiguity, and which uses line to make surface and support into simultaneously accessible manifestations of one another. Untitled (1962–63) is a 14” x 18” sheet of paper divided into four rectangles. Two of these—diagonally opposed—are filled with compressed charcoal that Marden rubbed on with an eraser. Die Fahne Hoch’s subdivision of the rectangle works through line rather than surface, to the extent that a linear schema embraces the morphology of the object: the bands of paint are as thick as the stretcher, a literalization made explicit at each of the painting’s four corners.

Marden, too, has used deep (2 1/2”) stretchers from early on, and said some time ago that he thought of his paintings as shaped canvases for this reason. But, if Stella defamiliarizes the pictorial object through an insistent banality—the interposition of everyday materials between the viewer and the work, with associations from the world at large that affect one’s experience of the piece as do those of the flag in Johns’ paintings of it—Marden does the reverse. From his earliest work to Ostropol III (1973), Stella’s defamiliarization of the institution’s special syntax has employed everyday or utilitarian materials, first in the kind of pigment he used, and lately in the ingredients of his reliefs. By contrast, Marden’s analysis of the institution is predicated on an almost precious regard for materials associated with painting alone—in keeping with his conservatism. The color on the front of a painting like Join (1973) hovers within the object with an effect quite unlike the literal and iconographic presence of the felt and Masonite in Ostropol III. It pulls one into the space of the object without—as Stella’s paintings do—putting its conceptual apparatus in tension with every kind of surface except painting’s. Because Stella’s surfaces demand this tension, they place the institution of painting within a cultural context of banality. It may be that Marden assumes the achievement of that kind of defamiliarization, as Stella’s work began by taking for granted the Johnsian demystification of the institution through content at its most vernacular. Marden is able to make the pictorial object maintain a different set of oppositions than it does for Stella because his work entered the debate on institutional morphology at a different stage, as Stella entered at a different point from Johns.

For this reason, Stella calls the viewer’s attention to the physical identity of the pictorial object in a way absolutely different from Marden’s. Ostropol III is self-consciously built as a relief. The separate pieces of its collaged surfaces perform metaphorically across the plane of the work: the laminated action of materials sandwiched on top of one another from the plane of the stretcher against the wall outward toward the uppermost surfaces of the picture. This reciprocity between the surface and depth is not the reciprocity of Old-Master illusionism—although it reminds one that perspective was an invention of sculptors, not painters, engaged in architectural ornamentation—but of a real object in space. Ostropol III obliges one to look at it not only from the front but also, relevantly (for the first time in painting) at its side.

Marden’s use of oil paint and beeswax, canvas, and wood precludes an evocation of the everyday such as that which results from Stella’s use of banal materials. Marden’s work is in comparison a retreat into the institution, to what looks like the security of another kind of customariness. In his paintings one is led back into the object, and also into confrontation with a newly achieved deconstruction of institutional syntax at the zero degree. One does look at the sides of Marden’s paintings, and sees the layering that records the work’s development in a way that—as Stella suggests the systemic character of the surface at the object’s core—reciprocates with the information contained in the band. But one really wants to look at the back, which is to say—with Benjamin—that a highly conservative regard for the institution’s grammar leads to work that makes one think the conventionally unthinkable.

This is the sense in which Marden, as he’s developed his ability with color, has maintained the independence of surface from support. He’s done so by making drawing’s traditional role as the pictorial space’s infrastructure analogous to the literal function of the stretcher in the pictorial object. While Stella uses line to penetrate the object, so that drawing and color—surface and support—may be simultaneously perceived, Marden implies that they must, finally, be mutually exclusive, and presents them as unable to share the same subjective space. Marden has made the grid a property of internal structure mediated by surface while Stella—who, drawing on graph paper, treats it as a readymade like felt and Masonite—has used it as an agent of externalization. In a Marden painting, the stretcher reads as immanent in the surface but not accessible in its original state. Instead, the support is rediscovered through color that draws one into the shallow space behind the surface and invests the pictorial object with an ambiguity—or, as Marden might prefer to say, a “shiftingness” that subverts its specificity as a thing. As he buries the support—the literally measurable—with color that’s a property of a materially explicit surface, Marden moves toward the paradox noted earlier in the Godard still, the possibility that secrecy is an inevitable product of a determined quest for explicitness.

GEOFFREY HARMAN HAS NOTED THAT de Saussure talks about a kind of poetry that’s generated by a collection of sacred words.10 Such words are secretly distributed throughout the developed grammar of that poetry, and provide an anagrammatic motivation for the text—the secret content of a public communicability.

As Rosalind Krauss has remarked in reference to Stella, who began his career with cross-shaped paintings like Die Fahne Hoch and Ouray (1960), there is a rather unavoidable anagram buried in the history of the pictorial object in this culture—a paradox that in this case follows from a pun.11 If painting began in Siena, with an altarpiece that was hung on the wall instead of being stood on the floor, then it was initiated by an equation of an object with a suspended—crucified—figure. One might add that, in the northern Renaissance, this equation soon became a way of making the portable canvas independent of architectural constraints. Physical discontinuity with architectural support, the difference between painting on canvas and working in fresco, led in its turn to a pictorial syntax—such as Rembrandt’s—in which figures don’t stand in one unified space but are rather presented each in her or his perspectival continuum.

Unlike an artist such as Smithson, whose concentration on the natural led to the geological and the prehistoric, Marden and Stella insist on a technical (or technological) signification that’s inherited and limited—a conventionalized epistemology. They present painting as an entirely historical institution, an instrument of—and circumscribed by—culture.

Marden’s work reminds one that painting has an institutional history in which a technology—oil paint and the transportable canvas—forged under the gloomy skies of northern Europe, in an atmosphere of nascent capitalism, persisted for several hundred years in tension with a Classicist pictorialism—the Idealist imperative expressed in monocular perspective—that had its origins in a social situation dominated by a medieval church and bathed in the infinitely clear light of the Adriatic. That, I think, is the sense in which the history of painting as a social institution describes the decline and transformation of Renaissance Idealism. It’s a history that has a built-in capacity for self-contradiction.

In Stella, the anagram at the source of the cultural sign is restored to operational credibility—is demystified—through the agency of the banal, as Joyce restored Homer through Bloom and Dedalus. But beyond that, it is an anagram that posits an absolutely reduced architectural mediation (the cross) between the figure and landscape—between nature and human psychology, the presence of culture. This is, perhaps, why Hegel described painting as one of the two Romantic arts. In Manet, as has been observed, the cross has been replaced by a conservatory.

When Manet was working, painting and poetry (Hegel’s other Romantic art) were intimately connected institutions. They were both seen to possess an innate capacity for ambiguity—the juxtaposition of signifier and signified—that confirmed but also contradicted the ideological and historical priority of Classical logic (of tautology). Their importance to the avant-garde lay in their ability to communicate ambivalence, to be cultural signs that undermined certainty. The relationship between them is to some extent explicable through linguistic analogy, through comparing them with the way words work.

De Saussure—in talking about the relationship between words and the things they represent—says that the name for a thing mustn’t be such that it resembles the shape of the thing it denotes, that the word “horse” is discursively useful because its shape and sound is unlike the presence of a real horse, and therefore evokes it only abstractly.12 The idea is distinguished from the reality it calls to mind by an explicit artificiality, which reduces the uncontrollable allusiveness possessed by things in the world and thereby makes them schematically manipulable. They become elements in discourse rather than things in themselves.

But, while it may be true that logical language aspires to the arbitrariness of mathematical signs, it seems to me that poetic language doesn’t, and doesn’t in a way that’s analogous with painting’s use of physical suspension. Poetic language wavers between the arbitrary signification described by de Saussure and its opposite, onomatopoeia. This is illustrated very clearly, I think, in the French poetry written at the beginning of what has been called the second—or scientific—industrial revolution.13 In the work of Mallarmé—Manet’s friend—and Verlaine, this wavering is encountered as a conscious ambition. Mallarmé’s “Letter to Whistler,” for example, is a poem in which the demands of a strict metricality—located in syllabic distribution and the duration of line—compete with a naturalistic descriptiveness that equates things with states of mind." It is this consciously achieved blurring of the objective with the subjective, of signifier and signified, that Marden has sought to reintroduce to painting. He has taken Johns’ specific object as the starting point for a restoration of the ambiguity eliminated in much of the art that follows Johns.

He has done so by a use of the object which reminds one of Mallarmé’s description, in “The Book, Spiritual Instrument,” of the newspaper as the institutional basis of literature:

A newspaper remains the starting point; literature empties itself into it according to our desire.
Folding is, with regard to the large printed leaf, an almost religious sign: which is not as striking as its packing together, in thickness, offering, indeed, the soul’d minute tomb.

In the same passage Mallarmé locates the basis of syntax in the relief from the blackness of ink provided by the whiteness of paper. In most respects widely divergent artists, Cézanne, Manet, Mallarmé, and Verlaine seem united in the view that artistic communicability occurs by making the work converge with the world of things, that art’s status as an object—more than its apparent motivation by a particular psychology—determines whether and how it will be intelligible to us. If materialism is that which refuses to give absolute priority to either object or idea—preferring to find itself somewhere between the two, in the uncertain space occupied by people and historical events—it is in the 19th century that one first comes upon a consciously materialist art. And also when the mystery story gets to be invented. Duchamp’s further reform of modernism involved a withdrawal of conventional motivation which identified the pure idea with the space of institutions and customs, social and, therefore, linguistic. Irony creeps in everywhere. The banal is persistently employed to connect the work with the world: a urinal; the American flag; felt and Masonite.

Irony and banality defamiliarize inherited ideas by subjecting them to the kind of critique one ordinarily extends to people and things. One is left with what’s credible. A recent drawing of Marden’s, from the Homage to Art series, has a reproduction of a Zurbarán crucifixion next to a rectangle that seems to suck out the color from the Spanish painting in order to restate it as a slab of suspended, spatially ambiguous, material. Another pairs Broadway Boogie-Woogie with a black square. An abstract continuum has become a physical thing, materially accountable perhaps, but still recessive, intensive, mysterious. One might say that the epigram, the instrument of an estheticism founded in skepticism rather than belief, has collapsed the anagrammatic.

Earlier this year, writing about some of his recent drawings, I said that Marden’s work reminded me of Brecht’s desire to engage the audience in an argument. Instead of identifying with the characters as if they were real people, he wanted the spectator to care about the protagonists as representatives of positions in a debate. The fictive space of drama is meant to defamiliarize the world, one is not supposed to forget one is looking at a play, as one is not meant to forget that one is looking at an object in the case of Marden’s paintings. Marden’s art is obligatorily ambivalent toward its own suggestion that, lodged in a common culture, all institutions are metacriticisms of all others. His work implies that ambivalence is generically fundamental to the art made within the historical space bracketed by Manet and Godard. Marden’s art is an argument about a historical transition in which art—increasingly a victim of its own sophistication—makes us aware of the destructiveness of the analytic while reaffirming our dependence on it. We are constantly reminded that the search for credibility is inclined to dismember that which it seeks to preserve. Baudelaire tells Manet, by way of a compliment, that he is only the first in the decline of his art. Epistemological demystification yields R. Mutt. In our own day, a sculptural enterprise concerned with a synchronic disinterral of prehistory finds its format in entropy, the final expression of simultaneity as a diachronically accomplished exhaustion. Similarly, restoring to pictorialism that capacity for ambiguity which distinguishes open-ended speculation from tautology has led to the title Marden gave to his published sketchbook for 1973, Suicide Notes. Recalling Balfour’s remark about Churchill, that "Winston’s written an enormous book about himself and called it The World Crisis,” one might observe that Suicide Notes would be an apt title for any analysis of a culture that proceeded through one of its own institutions. Another advertisement for a Marden show featured Maillol’s monument to Cézanne.

Marden’s work is intentionally open-ended. Awkwardness is built into a matrix otherwise closed off by its own elegance. Marden’s sense of proportion provides a support that blurs the work’s relationship to human scale as the band—like the whiteness in Mallarmé’s book—provides relief from the absolute suppression of accident and idiosyncrasy elsewhere on the surface. Marden’s continuing commitment to the pictorial object is symptomatic of a sensibility reluctant to place ultimate faith in that which is merely known.

One drawing in particular from Suicide Notes interests me here. Like the dullness of surface he insists upon, the oddness of Marden’s sense of proportion blurs the specificity of the object. This as it were prepares the object for its fragile reaffirmation through color. As with Manet, coterminality with one of Marden’s paintings is both an explication of the work’s relationship to the world and an invitation to imagine a greater uncertainty in the connections between things. I’ve said that Marden’s paintings look a little like windows, and one of the drawings in Suicide Notes is titled Window for Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, but the one I want to talk about looks more like an elongated door. And this shift from one simile to another parallels Marden’s interest, in the work he’s made since the Grove Group, in moving from the space of landscape to something more like the space of the figure.

Accordingly, the drawing looks a bit like a door standing ajar—because of the gap on the right—and also—because the rectangle is open at the bottom—a bit like a standing figure, which is consistent with all that’s been said so far in this essay about Marden’s juxtaposition of signifier and signified. The drawing illuminates the thinking behind a 1974 painting like First Figure (Homage to Courbet) shown at the Bykert Gallery; the crosshatching in the middle initiates a feeling of anthropomorphism as it establishes the densest part of the rectangle as the place where the figure’s torso would be.

This correlates with one’s sense of the drawing as a model for a pictorial object, and of the crosshatching as a model for the subsequent accumulation of a colored surface. One sees that it is this explicitly manufactured void—a space impenetrable but of apparent depth—which disengages that part of the drawing from the ground plane suggested by the openness at the bottom of the page. For Marden, direct confrontation with the viewer seems to mean that the work must be responsive to the ground plane it shares with its spectator. Stella’s oblique presentation of the picture’s core in Ostropol Ill goes hand in hand with a fragmentation of surface that’s very like the exaggeration of planes that occurs if one looks up at a standing or suspended figure. In this sense, Stella juxtaposes the anagram with contemporary banality in a way that insures the priority of a conventionalized spiritual elevation. Marden buries the support in order to bring about a direct, rather than oblique, confrontation with painting’s historical space. First Figure has the rectangularity of a figure viewed from straight on rather than below; it occupies a person’s space through a modulated verticality not unlike our experience of one another. Color reconstitutes the notion of suspension in this piece as in all his work, and provides a weightlessness that appears to exert pressure onto the wall, into the object. In paintings like this, objects that correspond to human size, Marden has made landscape color affect the space around the object because of its manifest effect on the space within it. This, to me, recalls the continuity between psychology and physiognomy, the voice and face which hide and reveal an interior space, that one attributes to people in ordinary perception.

With these paintings, the series of reconciliations established in the first works he exhibited—and in a way already realized in the Grove Group—has begun to turn up new concerns. The metaphysics of pure color have begun to emerge out of a decade-long involvement with the institution’s physical morphology. If the color at the middle of First Figure suggests the solidity of a torso, and the beautifully indeterminate greenish gray in the bottom panel invokes the blurred and provisional connection that legs have with the ground when one’s looking at somebody’s face, the top stretcher, as it comes closest to pure color, suggests the clarity of the intellect of ideation—an intellect aware of its connections with the world. Marden has recently started to make paintings which use colors like pure red and yellow, which will inevitably cause comparison with Barnett Newman’s articulation of the Romantic notion of the sublime. Newman towers over American painting and sculpture, and it is appropriate that Marden should invite comparison with him. But I shall say little about this here because, at the time of writing, none of these paintings is complete. Only that Marden, like the sculptors who are his contemporaries, is already related to Newman through the physically achieved verticality of his work, and that his way of working—and identification of the pure idea with physical methodology that I’ve described as a reconciliation of Johns with Cézanne—has always been directed to a deconstruction of the sublime. Marden differs from Newman in his insistence that metaphysics be immanent in the physical. In his case the sublime is to be found not within monumental scale, but in the endlessly discoverable parameters of human size, the ultimately impenetrable space of the well known.

Marden’s articulation of institutional morphology begins and ends with color’s inherent independence of gravity. He defamiliarizes that weightlessness by making it push into a physical thing, an object syntactically informed by cinematic addition rather than architectural subdivision. Surface and support are as separate as the painting and the wall on which it hangs. As pressure is exerted in the former one’s assumptions about the space one is standing in are disturbed and dislocated, and thereby reordered. Marden has been compared to Ellsworth Kelly, who has also used more than one stretcher. But the analogy is for the most part misleading. Kelly is concerned with an idea of composition where balance refers to subdivision in an object where surface is identified with its support as fresco is welded to a wall. In Kelly, color stands for a entirely conceptual and abstract space. In Marden, it denotes things, and also brings them together.

Color unites his paintings as, in film, editing brings together ontologically distinct shots. It is never specific, but always precise. The dislocation it engenders is far reaching, causing a new effort on our part, a reorientation to a space that affects our own because it’s part of it. Like the thickness of Mallarmé’s book, the space of a Marden is a physical volume that one recognizes as able to conceal and, therefore, to reveal anew. One remembers that Zurbaran lived in a country economically enmeshed with northern Europe and ideologically centered on Rome. As if to invite comparison with Gravity’s Rainbow which discovers America in its—primarily 19th century—European past, the Grove Group was painted after a trip to Greece, where the Ideal clarity of the Adriatic is a naturalistic fact of life.

YOU HAVE GOOD STRETCHERS, good paint, good canvas and everything’s just great.
—Brice Marden (in conversation, 1974)

Brecht made his remark about appearing to be only interested in formal questions in the course of a lengthy reply to Georg Lukács, a Communist intellectual who’d railed against the avant-garde’s propensity for innovation. Lukács is to be remembered for his rejection of Joyce, in favor of the psychological development of fictional characters that was—for him—the central achievement of 19th-century “realism.” A little later, the American essayist Robert Warshow denounced Eisenstein for his films’ lack of concern for individuals, and did so in terms that shed light on Lukács’ popularity in the Western world. More recently still, Stella was admonished for his work’s “anti-humanism,” as part of a plea for a “limited intentionalism” in art criticism. And at present one can still find academics and buffs earnestly engaged in rediscovering Godard’s earlier films in order to beat him over the head with them for subsequently abandoning the cinema of heroes.

In short, throughout our century there’s been a consistent demand that advanced thinking bear the stamp of liberal orthodoxy. It’s a position indicative of a reluctance to accept art - or anything else - on its own terms, of an insistence that there be a necessary discontinuity between the physical and the metaphysical, which is expressed in the subjection of all phenomena to an a priori morality. If one insists that all important decisions have already been made, it’s easier and more satisfying to anticipate than to describe. And for this reason it is in practice the antiformalists who regularly treat art as an affair of the “merely formal.” Theirs is an attempt, tinged with pathos, to contain art by making of it no more than a device through which received wisdom may be ritually confirmed. Art itself teaches a different lesson, that significance is the product of brilliant synthetic minds, not of good thoughts. In its concern to depict the ambiguity of things in the world, serious ambition prefers the compromised and provisional measurability of facts to the illusionary certainty of belief, the uncertainty of the material to the security of myth. Brice Marden’s is such an ambition.



1. Bertolt Brecht, “Against George Lukács,” translated and reprinted in the New Left Review, March–April, 1974.

2. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” Artforum, February, 1966.

3. Gregoire Müller, The New Avant-Garde, New York, 1972.

4. See Victor Schlovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917) edited and translated in Russian Formalist Criticism, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1965, p.7.

5. Barnett Newman, The Ideographic Picture, New York, Betty Parsons Gallery, 1947.

6. Roberta Smith, “Brice Marden’s Painting,” Arts Magazine, May/June, 1973. Smith’s essay, which I have drawn on here for a number of points of information, is mostly concerned with Marden’s work up to and including the Grove Group. Mine is an attempt to formulate an argument primarily built on the work he’s made since.

7. I’ve discussed Morris’ relation to Johns in an essay published in the September, 1974, issue of this magazine. I think it’s also worth mentioning, in view of the connections made here, that Andre—unlike Marden—studied with Stella for a short time. In an interview in this magazine a few years ago, Andre said: “I don’t think of [my sculpture] as being flat at all. I think, in a sense, that each piece supports a column of air that extends to the top of the atmosphere” (Artforum, June, 1970).

8. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Cézanne’s Doubt,” translated in Sense and non-Sense, Evanston, Illinois, 1964, pp. 19–20.

9. As makers of cultural signs, Smithson and Marden seem to me to represent two sides of the same—entropically preoccupied, Romantic—coin. In one the ideated or cultured (the spiral) is subjected to constant erosion by nature, which it signifies. In the other, the onomatopoeic conversion of the natural (the colors of landscape) into the syntax of a recently demystified pictorialism, undermines the certainty of an otherwise specific object. Both ambitions seem obliged to Mallarmé’s observation that the world exists to end in a book.

10 See Geoffrey Hartman, “Structuralism, the Anglo-American Adventure,” in his Beyond Formalism, New Haven, 1970.

11. Rosalind Krauss has anticipated me in at least two themes touched on here. Her discussion of the anagram in connection with Stella appears in “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum, November, 1973. There is a discussion of the same painter that juxtaposes him with Godard in her essay “Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” Artforum, November, 1971.

12. See Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, New York, 1959.

13. See Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History, London, 1967, pp.43–64.

14. For example, the following lines:

TourbilIon de mousseline ou
Fureur ésparses en écumes
Que soulève par son genou
Celle même dont nous vécûmes . . .

(A whirlwind of muslin or rage scattered in the foam, which she by whom we live raises with her knee . . .) From Mallarmé, edited and translated by Anthony Hartley, London, 1965, p. 80.

15. Ibid, p.190.