New York

Brice Marden

Bykert Gallery

An artist’s drawings often bring us closer to him and his work. This is especially true if he lavishes the same care on them as on his larger works, or if his drawings, like pages from a diary, simply record more personal preoccupations with the landscape, with other art, with himself. Both extremes apply to the drawings of Brice Marden, sometimes both apply to the same drawing. An exhibition of 50 of Marden’s drawings from the past decade originated at Houston’s Contemporary Art Museum last January and has traveled to various museums throughout the country. As might be expected, it is a personal exhibition, one which encapsulates Marden’s strengths and weaknesses, reveals a variety of working methods, and traces the shifts he has made in his work since the early ’60s. Many of the drawings are studies for paintings or reveal the development of certain ideas which eventually end up in the paintings. Others exist very independently, almost small paintings in their own right.

The drawings lack both the color and the given physical format of oil (and wax) on stretched canvas. They range widely in technique, material and final surface in a way that the paintings do not. The absence of color only serves to stress this range and also makes it more completely physical, visually removed if not completely remote. Experiencing Marden’s drawings becomes almost entirely a process of deciphering his surfaces and the marks which form them, something which is only partly, and less and less, a consideration in the experience of his paintings. In the changing relationship between Marden’s mark and total surface, between his gesture and the piece of art being formed, it is possible to witness a romanticism, blending at times into sentimentality, at other times receding into hermeticism, which Marden seems to struggle continually both to discipline and to reveal.

In the beginning physical gesture is quite visible, as in the drawings from 1962–63 in which charcoal has been applied and erased, marked on and then off the surface. This process of addition and subtraction, of working out from, into, back through the surface characterizes the wider range of physical action which Marden brings to his drawings. Here the surfaces are divided into windowlike quadrants; their loose diagonal strokes are soft and misty, suggesting Monet. These marks are soon subsumed within a homogenous surface, first by Marden’s use of the grid and then by his use of beeswax. The blunt scale of the first grids immediately strengthens Marden’s drawings, as do the thoroughly worked surfaces. These squares almost curve inward, held forward only by the presence of the grid.

Drawing becomes increasingly a process of obliterating the mark to achieve an even physical surface. In several, Marden’s concentration becomes obsessive; a drawing seems finished only because further work would endanger its continued existence. These drawings look worn-out and used; not so rewarding as drawings, they simply reveal the nature of the artist’s involvement. As the mark becomes self-canceling, it sometimes becomes self-destructive and forms another kind of gesture. There is a strange progression in the surface which the amount of activity achieves. The range is from fast, open and personal to the opposite extreme which is hard and closed, but personal in a literary way—we are aware of Marden’s involvement with a surface which we cannot get involved with and which is consequently also “fast.” Marden’s attack on the drawing’s surface is often buffered by the addition of wax, a second physical surface to work up .or down and which better tolerates the incised grid. Thus, in between the two extremes is the degree of finish Marden seems most successful with: a closed but slightly absorbent physical surface, made porous by the wax and sometimes more accessible through his use of the grid, an additionally physical, negative line, often the most visible mark he allows himself. Time itself does not necessarily yield a closed remote surface. One of the exhibition’s best drawings is the 5-Year Drawing, a large horizontal rectangle divided into three vertical sections of different blacks, which Marden worked on from 1967 until 1972. Each black is minutely, physically different. Marden works on the distinctions between two blacks or two whites in various drawings throughout the exhibition, as if he is sharpening his and our perceptions for the close distinctions of color which he achieves in his paintings.

Recently it is possible to see Marden’s mastery of a harder surface, something also visible in his newest paintings. The five studies for the Grove Group might be the culmination of the black wax drawings. In any event, these drawings are taut and forward; neither worn inward nor reflective, they achieve a hardness which previously Marden did his best to avoid. Studies for a series consisting of a single-panel, two double-panel and two triple-panel paintings (one horizontal and one vertical each), these drawings are divided into sections accordingly. The black sections do not vary, their divisions are only remotely visible, but they emerge spatially from a surface which does not accommodate recession, somewhat like the divisions on a Reinhardt. Like Marden’s best drawings, they are condensed, physical and mysterious.

After this series two quite different kinds of drawings, appear, the Homage to Art collages and the pen and ink drawings. The first group is an ongoing project in which Marden juxtaposes postcard reproductions of past art with equal rectangles of his own, sometimes drawing on the reproduction itself. The three drawings included here use a Zurbarán crucifix, the Charioteer of Delphi, and Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. These drawings are probably the most finished and most sentimental in the entire exhibition; rather than making the reproduction part of a larger drawing, they tend to make Marden’s drawing look a little like reproduction. They reveal Marden’s reverence for the past as much as his competition with it. As with the drawings which seem closed or worn, I do not find these of lasting visual interest, but I welcome the information they supply about the working of Marden’s mind, and the way he identifies the surface and space of his work with that of art which has preceded him.

The pen and ink drawings are considerably more interesting, although they were most interesting in Marden’s drawing exhibition last spring at downtown Bykert. That exhibition takes up where this one leaves off. Several of the ink drawings here are also rather sentimental, briefly noting Marden’s travels and appropriately titled Bavaria, Bavaria II, and Venice. But between these are several in which Marden returns to a windowlike configuration and, more importantly, to a distinct, clearly visible mark. A centered rectangular space is crossed and recrossed by irregular lines and marks of Marden’s pen. These ink drawings seem to be an attempt to work beyond the surface, to get away from material, back to the individual mark, and to reveal stages in the process of drawing which Marden has not revealed for a number of years. After the thick hidden substance of Marden’s earlier drawings these seem thin, raw, much less comforting. In them, there is a sharper edge to Marden’s romanticism.

Both Marden’s paintings and drawings have moved toward an increasingly closed surface, achieved with greater ease and confidence. In painting this confidence has granted him new freedom with color. In drawing it results in something which may be too closed or simply too much like painting. It is interesting that as he moves toward more open color in painting, Marden makes the effort in drawing essentially, to begin again, but with a method which is, in its own way, also more open. Marden has always deliberately limited himself; it is his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. (Although as a weakness, this also reflects his view of the options open to painting at this point.) The persistence with which Marden seems not to change, with which he tries to make our concentration equal his, has become a very moving, if slightly nostalgic, element in the work. And the deliberation with which, at certain points, he will alter, maybe tighten, the limits of the work, in order to force his further development is similarly affecting.

Roberta Smith