New York

Brice Marden

Bykert Gallery

Brice Marden’s current set of gradations from charcoal grey to deep mauve at the Bykert Gallery, pushes his concern with edge to the very brink of inconsequentiality. And yet, one hesitates to admit that as a group these paintings still have a certain appeal. All together, their effect is like the kind of overwhelming quiet which fills an empty, darkened room, or like the contemplative starkness of a monk’s cell. One’s attraction to them, then, is on the order of such a subdued, though slightly pleasant sensation. At the same time, their insistent greyness flatly denies a response even as strong as “attraction.” The paintings are uniform in size, rectangular, and all coated with several thin layers of some tinge which hovers between an ashen grey and a dense, smoky pink. The bottom edges, however, are half-inch wide strips which have been left unpainted, except for various drips and runny streaks, revealing a record of the series of pigments which have been applied (as if to say “by hand”) to the rest of the canvas. As compared to previous versions of this same idea, where a wider line of deliberately uncovered ground seemed to have some real compositional and visual importance, these recent works have made the edge into something more precious, almost to the point of an anecdotal superfluity. Now, they neither delimit the field, nor suggest some kind of non-painterly expansion beyond it, as did the earlier treatment of these boundaries.

It is all a matter of relative scale and proportion, and just how one’s eye perceives and weighs these values. For instance, the surfaces were more obviously varied and brushy in last year’s canvases, while color tended to be deeper in contrast to the bare dripped width. This year that narrowed band, because it draws less attention to itself, is more integrated into the painting as a whole, and a restrained, almost completely matte surface allows the richer color to say more about the concepts at work, than does the lower edge.

If Peter Gourfain, one of Marden’s contemporaries, who showed at the Bykert a few months ago, is concerned with a subtle kind of linear luminosity within the field, as Sidney Tillim has suggested (Artforum, Feb., 1967), then Marden is involved with a total lack of light in that sense—although both share a common interest in how to deal with a reductive idiom. The very careful chalkiness of his colors resists an absorption of light as much as it denies reflectance, or even a vague emission of it. To the broad fields of multi-bright colors and patterns which have come to dominate so much post-Abstract Expressionist painting, or to the sensuous pastel clouds of say, Olitski, Marden poses a flat-footed, non illusionistic alternative. His are very slow paintings: easy to overlook on first inspection, and difficult to savor because of their odd recalcitrance, and a near effectlessness, which is implicit in the very studied way they are made.

Emily Wasserman