New York

Brice Marden

Bykert Gallery

Brice Marden is the guy who sat on Cézanne’s tombstone, as anyone who reads the ads in this magazine knows. When I first saw the photo I thought it would be much more interesting if nobody was sitting on the tombstone—that solid, crisp chunk of stone, the neat flagstones, the weathered tones of the dressed masonry behind. To have a bloke sitting there seemed to spoil the effect. Then again, was it merely flippant or insulting: is it nice to sit on somebody’s tomb, particularly (if you are an artist) that of a man who probably painted himself into heaven?

Now that I have seen Marden’s new paintings perhaps I can appreciate why the picture bothered me a little and, maybe, why he did it. What insult there is, is I think, against Cézanne as the new Old Master, the academic hero who kept alive all the occidental sweat over space in painting; Cézanne the conservative prophet, who handed on to the Cubists the possibility of keeping painting like an illusion of sculpture (even if of hipper sculpture), and who, for their assistance—although he didn’t need it himself—renewed for them the lapsed license of chiaroscuro; the Cézanne who enabled second-string Cubists to talk new (nobody had to tell Gauguin that a painting is in itself an object) while painting old.

Marden’s paintings are Paintings of Nothing: all that they “have” is color, and one color per canvas, but they are not paintings of color. Each piece is an upright oblong, and a number of them comprise ensembles in which three or four relate to one another in a linear, spectral sequence of hues or monochrome tones. They are made out of oil and wax encaustic, and are very flatly worked, so much so that their flatness seems deliberately and carefully achieved, like that of a pool-table top. However—and here is where the real respect for Cézanne comes in, as against the possible swipe at Cézannolatry—the color stops just shy of the lower edge of the canvas. This keeps the painting absolutely and really flat, because it holds back “the potential spatiality of color from actualizing, and the control of this effect must surely be the greatest gift and lesson of Cézanne.

The pictures recall Ad Reinhardt not only for their structural minimalism but also in their contracted but respectful attitude toward color: both respect even the grayness of gray and the blackness of black as much as they do the real, remnant formality of the most denuded rectangle. They are more pleasing to look at than any black Reinhardt, but not as rewarding as Reinhardt when, after the ascetic and purgative experience of the denial of color and form, he moved on (not back) to putting back into a painting some of both. It is more a question of Innocence and Experience than of Less is More. These are paintings which say next to nothing, but which still don’t mind being good-looking and solid.

Joseph Masheck