New York

Brice Marden

Bykert Gallery

While, of course, the cultural vernacular is such that the capacity to engage in a kind of illusionism that counters its own materiality is understood to come as it were naturally to paint, in particular, to paint on a flat vertical surface. The question for painting, for quite some time and in terms dictated chiefly by the work of Brice Marden and Robert Mangold, has been how to bring that innate capacity for illusionist or “optical” signification to bear on real space.

In an article on his work that was published last year in Arts Magazine (May–June, 1973) Roberta Smith noted Marden’s interest in Andre’s work, and I think it’s correct to say that a large part of what Marden has achieved has been in response to Andre’s activation of the real space above the sculpture. Marden has looked for a way to make the surface of the painting affect one’s perception of the space in front of the piece, the space between you and it. There are two, sequentially related, ways in which Marden’s paintings may be said to do this, and thereby to amount to a reconstitution of the morphology of painting that’s based on Andre’s example.

Marden uses colors that are recessive, while at the same time they’re completely identified with a literal shape because there’s only one color to a canvas. Marden produces a surface that pulls back from the eye but remains in tension with the sides of the stretcher,which are clearly visible and to which one’s attention is frequently drawn for another reason that I’ll discuss in a moment. The result is an “optical” recessiveness put in opposition to literal constraints—the sides of the stretcher—which I’d describe as a surface that pushes back against the wall and seems to want to squeeze out the air between them. The first move reminiscent of Andre is that as color is brought to bear on real space in this way the verticality of the painting is made continuous with the verticality of the wall. The second, which proceeds from it, is that the pressure the color brings to hear on the space behind the surface produces a perceptual disruption of the space in front of it.

Marden, then, has made color work as part of a pictorial syntax that affirms, rather than denies, the objectness of the painting.

Marden’s radical deconstruction of painting’s traditional discontinuity with real space is founded on what is an otherwise extremely conservative attitude to the history of the discipline. I believe it was Walter Benjamin who claimed that major art was always the product of a jealously guarded reverence for tradition, and one can see what he meant. Marden’s conservatism insists that, while the painting must become an object in order to remain a credible experience for a sensibility educated by a materialist esthetic—an esthetic directed toward the demystification of conventions that would sublimate one’s consciousness of the painting as a thing in the world—the surface must remain the focus of attention, the element in the work that triggers off one’s response to it. Therefore, the surface is made into something which explicitly represents more labor than the stretcher. This is the feature of the surface that—to refer to the point made above—obliges one to continually look at the edge, where one can see what’s almost a cross section of the layering that’s gone into the production of the painting’s skin.

I’ve said before that Marden’s paintings, many of which—those that don’t, as the most recent ones do, involve vertically adjacent panels—have a little margin at the bottom that reinforces this impression, always suggest to me a methodical reduction of gesture from the beginning to the end of the painting process. I’ve also said that this is experienced in a way that’s analogous to one’s experience of the passage from underpainting to final skin in the paintings of Cézanne. The new, vertically ordered paintings that Marden has made—two of which are included in the current show—reinforce this affinity. As John Coplans remarked some years ago of Cézanne’s watercolors, his use of color is calculated to make any part of the surface as good a point of access as any other. Marden seems to want to use this idea to maintain an equivalence between panels that are stacked on top of one another that will prevent them from assuming an interrelationship which might otherwise be sculptural in appearance. I believe that, in his use of layering, and in his identification of color with literal area and separation, Marden goes beyond Andre to connect with ideas that have recently become overt in the work of Frank Stella. Marden concentrates on a gradually achieved skin that comes to cover the support in a way which puts the overall coherence of surface in tension with the object signification of the stretcher. This concern with the internal development of surface identifies him with a larger tradition that sees surface manipulation as the repository of meaning in painting, the tradition to which Stella himself has seemed to appeal more and more openly in his work of the last several years. Andre remains the seminal figure in any comparison of these two, but the contemporary figure with whom Marden might be most usefully compared is—once again—Jean-Luc Godard, whose juxtaposition of film’s materiality with cinema’s capacity for narrative complexity seems directly analogous to Marden’s opposition of a frank objecthood to an implicit, and internalized, complexity of surface.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe