New York

Brice Marden

Bykert Gallery

Over the past few years, painting has been moving away from the classicizing work of the ’60s toward a more painterly involvement with material and gesture—thick paint against stain, matte against reflective, strident against lyrical color. In comparison, much of the work of the last decade, in which concept equals or surpasses materialization, looks chaste and retiring. Brice Marden, whose paintings share the reductive literalness of Minimal work, has, however, always been interested in the palpability of surface. The sensuous quality of his work links him to current concerns, even though he has remained within a restricted area of activity: neutral objects resolved to an ultimate system of information—one, two, or three panels in predominantly grayed colors. While the colors vary in juxtaposition and intensity, the shapes and sizes are relatively constant.

The reductive attitude visible in Marden’s paintings can be related to the Minimal art of the ’60s, by such artists as Sol LeWitt, Don Judd, Agnes Martin, and Robert Mangold. Their work moved toward clarity of intention, cleanness of surface, and impersonality of form and execution in order to allow for the independent literality of the object, purged of literary content and metaphor. Important precedents for such thinking were Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, whose monochromatic paintings emphasized the singular, holistic, and serial, and whose ideas were explicitly articulated in both written and spoken statements. For example, Reinhardt asserted that: “The one work for a fine artist now, the one thing in painting to do, is to repeat the one-size canvas—the single-scheme, one-color monochrome, one linear division in each direction, one symmetry, one texture, one formal device, one freehand-brushing, one rhythm . . . painting everything into one overall uniformity and non-regularity.”

While Marden’s paintings clearly show an impetus toward literalness and uniformity, his work has never been as cool or impersonal as strictly reductive art. Instead of eliminating surface involvement, he has centered on the sensuous particularity of surface through the unification of color and texture so that the work often seems to be about smoothness and tactility in themselves rather than as aspects of other qualities. In this respect, Marden also differs from the Minimal interest in perceptual phenomena. For example, while the use of primary or basic geometrical structures emphasizes the objecthood of the work, the relationship of the object to the viewer creates a tension between what is expected and what is actually seen. Similarly, in structural Minimal painting such as that of Stella, Mangold, and even Martin, internal divisions subterfuge the absolute literalness of the painting, creating an interplay between what is known of the depicted form and how it affects actual shape. In contrast, Marden’s focus on surface is reinforced by the absence of all division. The variable elements—color changes from panel to panel—are experienced as shifting light on a uniform substance. The tactility of the work is increased by the metaphor of clay or stone which results from Marden’s use of beeswax, oil paint, and turpentine. This technique of painting, which must be worked slowly from point to point around the canvas, seems to indicate that the act of painting is for him an experiential rather than a conceptual process—he intuitively moves toward color and surface instead of proceeding with a priori ends. He smooths each panel with a spatula until the texture is uniform, modulated by variations in light, working on each one independently before making color connections between them.

Marden’s interest in physicality of surface may be seen in relation to the work of Jasper Johns. This is particularly apparent in Marden’s paintings of the mid-’60s such as Nebraska, 1966, which contain a field of gray with a section marked off at the bottom where the drips of previously applied colors have accumulated. Many of Johns’ paintings also preserve a row of drips, similar in function to the crosshatching in his work, emphasizing the act of painting as well as the literalness of the object, feeling out the surface from point to point around the canvas in the manner of Cézanne. Readings of depth are both created and destroyed—while the signs and images are frontal and literal, they must be read simultaneously in and upon the surface.

While the drips in Marden’s early paintings are similar to the graphic elements in Johns, they work toward even greater literalness. However, the interaction between the white canvas and the solid color prohibited complete unity of the work, and Marden eliminated all but a trace of the drips in later two- and three-panel paintings. The juxtaposition of panels, another evidence of Johns’ influence, allowed Marden to increase the number of elements in his work without internal subdivision. In several paintings of the late ’60s, he hung the panels with a slight separation between them, creating the effect of independent objects brought into subsequent unity. The abutting of panels in later works permitted color interaction without destroying the holistic sense of the painting.

By eliminating all events except color and texture, Marden has identified color and surface as a single substance. He works with neutral colors often on one side or the other of chalkiness or mud, urban and grayed like the colors of Morandi. The paintings seem to generate an internal light, particularly when a dark panel is placed next to one higher in value. The poetic intention of color is confirmed by his statement: “I begin with some vague color idea; a memory of a space, a color presence, a color I think I have seen. A dark black green seen after a foggy dusk . . . Colors losing identity, becoming color.” The colors are less optical than tactile, seemingly absorbed into the surface instead of reflected from it.

Marden’s recent show at Bykert includes four paintings, Grove Group, and five graphite drawings. Two of the paintings are single panels, one has two panels, and the fourth has three, all in variants of green ranging from deep gray green to light blue green, creating a vague metaphor of foliage. The single panels are most like objects—without relation, the color is curiously chameleon, of shadow and light rather than of a specific hue. While these paintings contain a vestigial line of drips, no canvas is visible underneath. In the two- and three-panel paintings, each panel receives its identity as color through its relation to the others rather than existing as discrete color as in some of the panel paintings of Ellsworth Kelly.

The neutrality of Marden’s paintings seems to result from the absence of intense color and the unaggressive size of his canvases. The particularity of shape and proportion is crucial though invisible when most successfully realized. He often works with a rectangle of two parts to three, each two panels forming a square, capable of being seen as a whole without requiring peripheral vision. External shape as an element of drawing has always been important to Marden’s work, and he has filled many notebooks with sketches of shapes varied minutely from drawing to drawing. His graphic work, particularly the etchings, have centered on division and proportion, often more varied than his paintings. The pencil, chalk, and oil crayon drawings combine such investigations with an involvement with the medium for its own possibilities of surface texture. For example, the graphite drawings in the show at Bykert explore slight changes in grain and reflectivity, working against the roughness of the paper to create a smooth surface.

While Marden’s paintings seem personal and reflective, it is legitimate to question the evaluation of artists whose work has changed little over many years. On the one hand, uniformity can suggest a strong commitment to a set of ideas, although it can also indicate an inability to develop permutations from known solutions. In this respect, Marden’s paintings are problematical. He has managed to sustain a restricted format for some time, the works continuing to command space long after one believes they will be able to do so. Perhaps this is a result of the relative intensity of the work within the framework he has chosen: each painting seems to be rediscovered rather than approached systematically, allowing the variable qualities of color, light, and surface to grow steadily in density and conviction.

Lizzie Borden