PRINT October 2006


BRICE MARDEN CAME OF AGE amid the artistic ferment of 1960s New York, a context in which many eyed with suspicion the age-old practice of applying paint to a two-dimensional rectangular surface. Yet for more than four decades, he has remained unflinchingly committed to his medium and, largely, to abstraction, creating the singular body of work that will be celebrated this month in a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. To mark the occasion, Artforum invited Marden and Chris Ofili to offer the latest installment in the magazine’s series of conversations between artists—this, the first between two painters. While Marden and Ofili may initially seem an odd couple of sorts, subtle affinities reveal themselves in the artists’ carefully calibrated palettes, lithe arabesques, and finely layered surfaces. Above all, though, it is their obsessive commitment to the practice and process of painting—and to the life of the studio—that animates the following exchange.

CHRIS OFILI: I’ve been reading this book of Cold Mountain poems. It’s fantastic. You can open it to any page, and it’s like somebody whispering in your ear. You know, “Don’t worry. You’ll be OK.”

BRICE MARDEN: They’re wonderful poems. It was nice to read them when I was working on the “Cold Mountain” paintings in the late ’80s; it sort of helped the atmosphere. But now it’s hard to remember the original feeling of how I was working with it at the time.

CO: Do you see those paintings and the ones you’ve been doing since as a departure from the earlier monochromes? Before, you had a much more closed surface by comparison and more controlled statements. And then all of a sudden, to put it crudely, there’s no tablecloth. You can see the table. It’s like, OK, let’s just eat. How did that happen for you?

BM: Well, the earlier paintings started becoming very, very refined. I would begin with this color, and this color, and this color. But I had to keep working the colors up until I got them to really read the way I wanted them to. I’d make changes, but not very many. And then I just got tired of it. It seemed like I was just refining instead of discovering things as I went along. And I had been trying to get more drawing into the paintings.

CO: Drawing’s always ahead of the process, right? For me, drawing is first out of the trenches. The intimacy means it’s always a lot closer to you, so in a way it’s much more precise a statement. In painting, there’s this kind of oceanic lift and moonlight depression just to get the thing to move at times, whereas a drawing is like the wind brushing a leaf along the ground.

BM: There’s less between you and the image. You don’t have to wade through all this material.

CO: Yeah, the gunk. When you were doing the monochromes, were you working on a different type of drawing?

BM: With those paintings, I was very conscious of the scrape. I would put the paint on with a spatula, and I would have my finger in a certain place so I could get it to go straight. And then in the last couple of hits I would try to make these vertical strokes so you could really see more drawing in them. But it really wasn’t coming up. I had been doing much looser drawings based on things in the landscape and Chinese calligraphy, and I wanted to get that in the painting. So I finally just took out all these drawings and spread them around the studio, and I kept trying to make some kind of painting. But it took me about a year before I got something that made any sense.

CO: So you were searching for a new way.

BM: Yeah. I figured I had to do something else. I had just switched dealers from Pace to Mary Boone, and when I had my first show at Mary’s in ’87, I remember certain other monochrome artists hating that exhibition. And I kept telling myself, “It’s not that big a change.” But really it was.

CO: If you read Philip Guston he talks a lot about the changes in his work, moving from a type of abstraction to a type of figuration. He wanted to let life into the paintings and to relate them more to the world. In some ways, a lot of abstract art is about pretending there’s nothing going on outside the studio, whereas in your titles and interviews you talk about things outside the paintings, and I think they have much more human or organic references to them.

BM: Well, as opposed to realistic or abstract, I just consider them part of the humanist endeavor. But sometimes I think, How do people look at these things? I mean, I’ve always seen them as very clearly layered: If you follow this line all the way around, I bet it makes this kind of form. And then you follow this line. . . .

CO: When I look at them, I’m looking for figuration. I’m seeing process as well. And because it’s such a reduced way of painting, it makes me wonder what it’s like when you suddenly realize that what you’re doing looks like something. Is it, Where the hell did that come from?

BM: Well, a lot of them are figurative. “The Attendants” [1996–99] were based on Chinese tomb figures, and when I did the “Cold Mountain” paintings [1988–91], I saw that the vertical couplets I was painting from the poems were starting to look like figures. And I thought, Well, I can do this. And so “The Muses” [1991–97] were all started as nine figures.

CO: So sometimes you’ll lean into it?

BM: I go into it, but I don’t want to go too much that way or you get judged on whether the wrist reads right with the hand. You don’t want to start making it illusionistic. For me, abstraction is the real way of the twentieth century because you’re not leading the viewer too much. One of the great things about abstract art is that it allows the viewer a different kind of experience looking at a picture than, say, The Marriage at Cana. At one point I thought it was better, but I don’t necessarily think that anymore.

Sometimes the paintings start out seeming more abstract, like the ones I’m working on now upstate. They’re really about these Chinese scholars’ rocks and the forms the stones take. But still, you put the first lines down, and then the second, and I always end up thinking of them as a figure. It comes out of this tradition of paintings that are about the size of people. I don’t know if it’s a New York thing, but it’s a very de Kooning thing. He liked to make them people-size. I mean, if you make something that’s six feet high, it seems human, and if you make it seven feet high, it starts going into another realm. The two new paintings are each made up of six four-by-six-foot panels. In one, there’s a color progression between the panels, and that painting faces another one where the progression is reversed. There’s an inside/outside aspect that’s very similar to the studies I did in the late ’70s and ’80s for a project for cathedral windows in Basel. And then when I saw your painting installation The Upper Room [1999–2002], I realized that you had also made a group of paintings that were the exact same size, and I was wondering how you were playing with the panels opposing each other. What was the background of it?

CO: I suppose it’s like one long meditation. There are things in it I would never try again, because so much of it had to do with going further and further into something. Before that, I was making work, then I’d exhibit it, and then it would disappear. I wanted to find a way to extend my relationship with my own work, to have the work around me, to have it actually enrich the process of making things. So I stopped the process at making and kept everything in the studio. And I just had a whole load of canvases that were the same size, and I allowed them to start to speak to one another.

BM: So it wasn’t set up? It evolved?

CO: Yeah. First it was one painting, an incomplete painting, but it was something with energy. And then there was a second one. And once I had three, I thought, Well, let’s carry on and just see what the possibilities could be. There was a certain point where I was pretty sure it was going to be a work that would be a complete room. The journey up to that point is the most interesting thing. The least interesting is, in some ways, the image at the end.

BM: I’ve done groups of paintings, and it’s the same thing. You make the group; you show it a certain way; and then, boom, it just breaks up. So I thought I’d say the group of paintings I’m working on now is one painting, and it would have to stay together.

CO: Right. Up until the point that I showed The Upper Room, I always saw the paintings as individual pieces. But once I put them together, it was a bit like finishing a painting. I said, “Oh, wait, the minute I break this up it’s actually breaking the whole energy.” It would be like smashing up one of these scholars’ rocks and trying to say it’s still the same thing, you know?

BM: In China during the Cultural Revolution they actually did break up a lot of the scholars’ rocks. Now they’re trying to put them back together, but so much of the energy is just gone.

CO: How did these rocks come together? Was it just nature?

BM: There was a lake outside of Suzhou, which is a little south of Shanghai, and the rocks in the lake had these very peculiar formations with holes in them, and people just started pulling them out and collecting them. So, a painter would collect these rocks as a kind of meditation aid. The bigger rocks were used in gardens, and they consider them sculpture. It’s a little hazy, but they would enlarge the holes, or they would even make holes, and then they would just throw a lot of the rocks back into the lake and leave them there for a hundred years to naturalize before pulling them back out.

CO: Actually, it reminds me of how I think about you making paintings—this kind of pulling something up, doing something to it, and putting it away. I’ve always seen your paintings as remnants of process rather than as completely straightforward. I don’t mean that in a judgmental way. I was just trying to understand why they look like you’ve beaten them up a little. They look like they’ve been through something, like they’ve been soaked, or dyed, or argued with, or insisted upon.

I’ve looked through a lot of books of your work, and one really struck me because it shows pictures of the evolution of the “Epitaph” paintings [1996–2003].

BM: Well, the starting image was taken right from the epitaphs on Chinese tombstones. It’s a very formal kind of calligraphy. I would do a quick drawing from one and then put it up on the canvas and start joining up the lines.

CO: Can the epitaph only ever be a beginning? Do you know it’s going? Or is it ever gone? You know how sometimes you look at a great Matisse and you see some of the marks that were there right in the very beginning, and he’s just kind of let them be?

BM: There’s always the chance it can be done right away, or at any point along the way. But some are just worked much more, and you sort of lose the first gesture. As you repaint and repaint it, it slows down, but it’s always there. It’s just evolved into this other thing. And the image kind of gets locked into an evolving process. I never have an idea that it’s going to end up a certain way. It’s a dialogue with the thing itself. It forces you to do stuff, and then you’re not satisfied with certain things, so you force it to do something else. You keep going, and finally, there’s just no conversation anymore.

CO: I was just thinking about how a Matisse charcoal portrait is full of all these erasures, and then you’ve got the final mark. And the reference point for all the adjustments is always the model, so it’s an external reference point. And when I’m looking at a painting of yours, I’m tracking the motion from this line to that erasure, but I wonder what that reference point is?

BM: Well, it’s what makes sense. You know? What makes sense is an idea of form. And I think my idea of form comes from observation of nature. To me, that’s true form, or the best reference. You just try to keep it as interesting as that. And so you make these corrections, and sometimes you choose to leave them. At one point, I used to turn them into a counterimage, and the erasures would become another figure. But then I stopped doing that, because sometimes you just make up your mind to not do something anymore because it’s become too easy. Or at another point, I would go back in and rework the lines, and I would say, “Well, I’ll try to exaggerate the outside, and I’ll narrow this line to give it more rhythm.” But then you can’t do that throughout the whole thing, or it just becomes kind of an inert cliché.

CO: Then it’s a form of refinement?

BM: Yeah, but it’s a search for form. And it obviously becomes a personal expression. It’s your idea of form. I’ve always felt that a certain thing about my paintings is that the color’s a little off. It’s a little too dark. And I always thought that came from the fact that my training was really mixing colors, you know, painting from a model and the guy wanting you to get the flesh tone right. You take a yellow, and you can make twenty yellows, rather than being stuck with having cadmium yellow pale. But then instead of taking the color up, I’ve kind of taken it down, so sometimes it just looks twisted or inhibited. I always think, Well, that’s the way I am. That’s why I wanted to take it that way. And then there’s also a certain repression. You know, the whole thing of taking the color down becomes some sort of cliché. So you have to stop mixing umber into the ultramarine all the time.

CO: I understand. I also wonder if it’s possible—and I’m sure it is—to just get there quicker. Because there’s a certain degree of agony to the process, right?

BM: There’s all sorts of stuff you can do to make it faster. But I don’t want to use photography, and I don’t want to project. I want a damn handmade, old-fashioned painting. And I don’t know if I’m just stubborn or maybe it’s silly. The painting over here was almost finished, and then something happened. I made a correction and the paint dried in a certain way that’s messed up. Now I’ve got to bring the whole surface back up because of that one little spot. It’s a long process.

CO: But this idea of agony—this feeling of, Fuck, man, I fucked it up—is there a value to that in the making of the painting? Is the residue of that agony important to its character? What if there were no agony, after all?

BM: Lots of painting is like that. You don’t see a lot of agony in, say, Picasso, whereas in Cézanne or Matisse you do.

CO: It’s funny, though, because Matisse doesn’t depict agonizing subjects. Everything’s in repose.

BM: But I just read his biography, and the guy was in constant agony! [laughter]

CO: Yeah, but he doesn’t want to let on. It’s like, This is very easy.

But I’ve always felt like you begin one of your paintings by taking an empty bag, and then you shake the bag and nothing comes out, and then you shake it again and nothing comes out, and you continue to shake this bag. And then you start painting with what falls, and there’s nothing there. And it’s like why are you shaking the bag? You know there’s fucking nothing there already, Brice. It’s like you’re trying to get to this nothingness, but you actually start with very little anyway, or close to nothing. Eventually, though, you let go, so you can just kind of free-fall, or glide.

BM: Well, I wish I could do it really fast, but I just can’t. There’s a film of you working, and you have this great fluidity—no hesitation, really positive. I totally love the way you lay on the glue and put the glitter down, and you still have this total confidence.

CO: It goes in spurts. Maybe it looked good on camera. [laughter] But there’s this painting of yours at the Tate [Couplet II I, 1988–89] that I’ve seen millions of times, and it always looks to me like, This guy is totally relaxed. I think there’s a bit in it where the brush looks like it fell out of your hand. So, there’s actually a kind of innocence as well to what you do, right? You’re a sophisticated guy, a connoisseur of certain things. But then in other ways you’re like a kid; you’re just making some colored lines on a surface in a way that feels right to you. There’s a certain nonconnoisseurship to what you’re doing. It’s like this is actually pretty basic stuff. There are no hidden extras.

You know, I’ve been wanting to ask you, what kind of music do you listen to here?

BM: I used to listen to music all the time. I had this studio on the Bowery, and I was always trying to keep the street noise out. Then it was a big deal to get started on a bunch of paintings with the right music. I did a whole group of paintings just listening to Toscanini’s Beethoven symphonies, and I ended up with these really heavy paintings. I tend to listen to country rock and country-and-western music, but all the new country is so pedestrian—it’s too poppy. Now I’ve been listening more to Jay-Z and Tupac.

CO: You have? That completely surprises me.

BM: Me too. I would probably listen to more if I knew more about it. Like all the stuff in your “Blue Rider” catalogue. I’ve never listened to Kanye West.

CO: Compositionally he’s really incredible. His rap style is actually quite left-handed. It kind of comes in off the beat, and it’s slightly awkward. When you listen to Jay-Z, the flow is just so laid-back. It’s like it’s just coming out of a syringe. He’s trying to deliver it in a way that sounds completely effortless, always on time. Lyrically he’s known for putting the song together in his head. He’ll listen to the backing track, and then he’ll get into it, and he’ll say, “OK, I’ve got a song. I’ve got it.” And then they record it right there. It’s like going straight into the painting. He’s really in control of things. And then there’s the whole process of retiring. You know, he did his last album, and he said, “That’s it. I’m out.”

BM: I love that whole thing. It’s like with Dave Chappelle people would say, “How could he walk away from a $50 million contract?” And at the time he was on Anderson Cooper on CNN and he said something like, “If they’re paying me $50 million, can you imagine the kind of money they’re making off this program?” You know, he had a revelation, and his walking away was one of the most realistic things I’ve ever heard of. I totally get it.

CO: Actually, this is an interesting point to talk about. I mean, you sell paintings, and it’s for large sums of money, right? And how does it affect things?

BM: Well, you think about it. It’s not as though you can just blissfully ignore it. And you get into a strange situation about the audience. I always considered the audience to be basically other artists and art students. They’re the ones who know what they’re looking at, and will think about it the most, and maybe even attack it. But I don’t really know how it all affects me. And I don’t even know whether I should try to figure it out.

CO: Does it make you more confident? What if you make paintings for the next five years, and you can’t sell any of them? People don’t mind the price, but they don’t want them?

BM: In the beginning they really didn’t want them. But then it wasn’t long before they did. And I’m very happy that they do, but I’m also thinking, I’m going to do this show at the Modern, and then I’m going to move to the country and just start painting these rocks. And maybe they’re not going to want this stuff. Does it become like a brand? I don’t know.

CO: I think in relation to other artists I studied with, my situation is completely unique in terms of the opportunities that were offered to me relatively early. I’ve been able to be quite laid-back about what I do and how much I do and how quickly. And it’s been absolutely wonderful to be able to do that, because money has not been a big problem. Making art’s actually quite a decadent process anyway. It’s time-consuming; it’s space-hungry. And I’ve been able to indulge in it. And that’s allowed me to make changes in the work, to develop the work, to be kind of fetishistic about it. Because it’s come relatively young, I’ve not had to fear time but could allow it to be a part of the work. I can be not quite cavalier but almost a bit perverse about time, to actually use it as part of the palette rather than just fear it and think, Oh, shit, time’s ticking.

BM: I remember seeing your show in London at the Serpentine, and that’s the reason I showed there. It read so well, and it’s such a great space, and I sort of thought, Maybe I’ll be as good if I show at the Serpentine. [laughter]

CO: That was my first big show, and somebody said to me the other day that that was only five years after I left college. I thought, Really? And then I thought, Actually, when I left college I just kind of went into a cave of fear. You leave college, and suddenly you’re cut loose from the support structure. There were people coming in and telling you you’re bad or telling you you’re good—but at least they’re telling you something.

And then you leave college, and nobody’s telling you anything. You’re just in your studio, and a kind of weird nervousness sets in. I felt, Shit, I’ve got to accelerate this process so that I can be something. It’s all right having all these ideas of what you want the work to be and how you want to challenge what exists out there. But the only way to really exist is to produce something that has a dialogue with the world. So I think for five years I just really went for it, went for broke. That doesn’t continue now, but I remember that feeling, the feeling of having more energy than paintings.

BM: I have this studio up in the country. I totally love working there, but there are just no artists. I mean, a million artists live around there, but you’re alone in the studio. And so there’s this odd kind of isolation like when you just get out of school. I remember back in the ’60s when I was making these paintings on the Lower East Side and finally someone comes in and says, “Oh, there’s a guy on the other side of town doing things a little bit like this, you know, who’s trying to make things disappear.” And suddenly every night you’re having these discussions with other artists in the bar.

CO: But is that important to an artist who’s been painting for all these years? Because from the outside it appears like, Yeah, Brice is cool; Brice knows what Brice is doing. The guy’s been painting for, what, forty years and I come into his studio, and he’s not thinking about my work. He’s just getting on with being Brice, you know?

BM: Well, you get to a certain point where it’s hard to follow what’s going on the way you used to when you were one of those art students that . . .

CO: . . . consume everything.

BM: But now you’re spending time in the studio, and still, sometimes you just get to a point where it seems incredibly difficult to work. And you’re sitting in a chair looking at this thing, and you’re just like, What the fuck? I don’t understand what the hell’s going on. And then maybe the next day it’s a little bit better, and you do think you know what’s going on. And now that I’m trying to get these two big paintings ready for the show there’s this enormous amount of pressure I’ve put on myself. But then it’s like that with every show. You know? I’m always painting until the last minute, and it’s always a nightmare because some trucker’s standing there with a shipping form.

CO: And you accept that pressure?

BM: Yeah. I think I sort of set it up.

CO: Right, that’s a really fundamental point, because I don’t think people get that. The way the work’s presented is like, Now it’s finished. Now it can leave. Rather than, Oh shit, I need to finish this painting because the show’s here.

What I did was decide not to schedule any exhibitions. I really needed to change the whole process completely, because before, it was about making to exhibit. It all seemed so external. Sometimes to develop, you don’t want any other eyes. You just want to be able to allow that thing to get really ugly and exist that way without judgment. You try to adjust things so they go in or out of line. But you also just accept things for what they are. I might try to make a beautiful painting, but I also want to make a painting that’s true to the time or true to where I am. And that might be a certain type of ugliness.

BM: I’ve shown a painting two times before I thought it was finished. I’d take it back, rework it, put it out again, then take it back and rework it again.

CO: Is it a shock when you see that it really isn’t done, or are things that you doubted about it just exaggerated?

BM: Well, sometimes you get it in another context, and something becomes quite glaringly apparent.

CO: That could happen at MoMA, right?

BM: Oh, yeah. I had two big paintings I started in Greece that were in the Whitney Biennial [Study for the Muses (Hydra Version), 1991–97; Study for the Muses (Eaglesmere Version), 1991–94/1997–99]. Basically, there was no reaction to the paintings at all, so I said, “Nobody cares,” and after the show I sent one back to Greece and one to my studio in Pennsylvania.

CO: How is it to shift locations? There seems to be a lot of discussion of time and location within the work, in terms of the way you move paintings from one studio to another.

BM: The work sort of responds to the place. The things that are made in Greece really look like they were made in Greece, because there’s so much light. You bring the color up to the light. And then when you’re working in the woods in Pennsylvania, it’s this really dark studio, and you get these darker, moodier paintings. So the painting that went to Pennsylvania became very dark, while the one in Hydra retained this real Greek feeling. I mean, it’s like Italian painting looks like Italian painting, and French painting looks like French painting.

CO: And French football looks like French football. And German football . . . it’s the same game, but it’s played entirely differently. With you it’s the same practice, but then the paintings turn out differently because of the location. The whole thing of painting in different studios is quite a deliberate act. It’s not a casual act to move a painting from one place to another. It’s a bit like throwing it up in the air again.

BM: I think of the New York studio as my professional studio, and I think of the others as my amateur studios—amateur in the sense that you’re in love with painting and you just have to do it. When I first went to Greece, there was no studio and I had to work, so I ended up painting on the terrace. In New York, it’s a different thing: You’re stuck in galleries, and there’s the art scene. But in Hydra it doesn’t even exist, or if it does, you’re really not that conscious of it.

CO: I’ve actually found that in some ways being in Trinidad’s quite a challenge. I know what you mean in terms of professional and amateur, because when you’re away from it, the reason for the work gets further and further away. If your studio is close to where you exhibit, then there’s a connection somehow; you can understand why this thing is on the wall and how you’ll eventually exhibit it. But when all that system, support, and scaffolding are gone, then you’re really left with that thing. Just you and it. And the criteria for it being good or bad or finished starts to get chipped away.

You know, the yellow in that painting across from us has changed during the time we’ve been talking here.

BM: No, it’s the light. But it’s a weird yellow. And that green, too, it’s a technical thing; it’s just the way the paint went on. I would rather not have it look that way.

CO: Oh, right. I’m glad you said that, because I’m looking at it and thinking, He might change that green, because there’s stuff going on there that he’s probably biting his nails about.

BM: But at the same time I’m thinking, Maybe I should try to keep that, because I would rather not have it look that way. You know, my wife, Helen, she knows my work probably better than anyone else. And there are certain things she says like, “Don’t kill it.” I don’t quite know what that means. And she doesn’t really explain it. But I go in and there are almost automatic ways of bringing a painting to a certain kind of finish, and they’re not necessarily right all the time.

CO: Yeah. Yeah.

BM: I mean, it’s like feeling compelled to rework the whole surface of a painting because I’ve got one glary spot. Maybe someday that will just be there.

CO: It goes back to what I was saying before about acceptance, that sometimes a lot of the process is about just being able to accept and unlock—or untie—certain knots. You say, “You know what? This is fine.” And that’s where exhaustion comes in, because I think sometimes you’re working on something for what can feel like a relatively long period of time. It could be a week or just a couple of hours but for some reason it feels like you’ve been on it too long. Sometimes you can just give up. Right? It’s like you’ve won. You’ve won.

BM: Well, people always ask, “How can you tell when it’s finished?” Easy. You just can’t figure out anything else to do with it.

“Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings” will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Oct. 29, 2006–Jan. 15, 2007. The exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 17–May 13, 2007, and the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, June 12–Oct. 7, 2007.