New York

Brice Marden

Sperone Westwater Fischer

Brice Marden was discovered just when many were saying that painting seemed to be on its last leg. A certain rescue strategy was initiated that magnetized his work, attracting every possible influence and predecessor of the last 400 years. This made Marden seem to be the apotheosis of it all, the crowning glory, the last gasp, not just of the endangered species—painting—but Western Art and Culture itself. To me, this is undoubtedly the worst thing short of utter neglect that can happen to a painter and his art. These canvases exist solely as vehicles for critics to exercise their ability to explain them—not in the interest of the work itself, but in order to create an instant, synthetic history. The problem with approaching Marden’s new work is that we can’t really see it. The extraneous critical/historical support sprouts up like weeds, obscuring the objects and estranging our experience of them. The support system has made Marden’s paintings go from innocent to decadent without their changing in any appreciable way.

Marden’s work is always described as “physical,” and “physicality” is repeated as a pious term underscoring Marden’s interest in “sensual” handling of paint that has, in turn, led him to a certain ambiguous tonal quality of color. This brings out his “romantic” aspect. Obviously, his paintings are physical, but really no more so than a Johns, or for that matter, a Boucher. Marden is said to use one-color canvases to insist on physicality, and by color, primarily, he achieves his ends. O.K., but oddly enough, admirers can’t get past vague kinds of color descriptions (color being too subtle for words) and so they backslide into comparisons with other painters. (This is much like the formalists trying to explain Noland: they had no equipment with which to deal with color intelligibly, so they spoke only of structure. With Marden the structure is obvious, and not only derivative, but identical with other painters.)

Marden’s name is then associated with Cézanne, Newman and Johns (hardly a romantic trio!), but it is obvious to the viewer that Marden’s color is nothing like those three and a lot like late Rothkoand Reinhardt. The reason these two are not invoked is obvious: in comparison with Rothko, Marden shows an incredibly weak color sensibility, and has nowhere near the range that Rothko could get,even in the late, all-black work. As for Reinhardt, the comparison is enlightening because it shows how limited both painters are with color. Physically, Marden’s paintings are really close to Reinhardt’s. The critical strategy here: choose artists whose paintings don’t look too much like Marden’s so that Marden will appear to be forging ahead. This works well with color, because Marden’s is supposed to be unique, great, and inimitable. Next to Reinhardt, Marden appears to have the same limitations, share the same palette, and is uncomfortable with anything but minute differences in dark colors. (The morose, dark and moody color also reminds me of Nevelson’s contrived atmospheres.)

I remember an interview where Marden speaks of the red in Matisse’s Red Studio as not being too dark or too gray but “too dead.” This is, I think, a vaguely disguised self-analysis rather than a critique of Matisse, who certainly knew more about red than Marden appears to. (Along the same lines, Marden accuses Matisse and Picasso, in collaboration with Alfred Barr, of creating a “50-year stranglehold on art.” In much the same spirit, if you will, Marden’s supporters have created a stranglehold of Marden-type painting across the country, e.g. the dreadful one-color, one-panel San Francisco entries at last year’s Whitney Annual. In this regard, Marcia Tucker told me that Marden is not a “New York artist” but just “a great painter.”)

The latest work is the most reduced yet. The last vestige of painterly touch—really a painterly scrape—is a slight thin line around the edges, leaving some bare canvas and exposing the inner structure of the stretchers. This is refinement to the point of preciousness. The red/green painting is discordant, unsubtle, and looks suspiciously like bad Op art in its flickering complementaries. An all-gray painting (entitled, God help me, Tonto) looked like Marden working toward white and Ryman.

Perhaps to his favor, Marden included some drawings which were unlike anything else of his—although suspiciously like Stella’s (some are blown-up details of the black paintings). They’re also like Kelly’s (the comparison holds up better when Marden works in black and white than when he works in color). One cannot assume that these drawings are leading anywhere, or that they might become interesting paintings. Lizzie Borden once wrote, apropos Marden, that “uniformity can suggest a strong commitment to a set of ideas, although it can also indicate an inability to develop permutations from known solutions.” She placed Marden in the first category of convincing rediscovery rather than systematic repetition. Three years later, it is difficult to see Marden as Borden did. We can only guess what the critical line has done to Marden; but visually, the paintings strongly suggest that he is simply repeating his own decade-old conventions.

Jeff Perrone