New York

Brice Marden

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

Since Brice Marden first started exhibiting in the mid ’60s, it has been clear that he never felt comfortable with Modernism as it was defined and codified by formalist criticism and theory. Whereas Modernism started out as a search for symbols and an expression of faith, formalism dismissed this desire to reach the ineffable in favor of something concrete and verifiable—which, while it made the job of making art easier and safer, celebrated the triumph of the secular world over the spiritual realm. Consequently, the vulnerable, questioning approach of Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian was replaced by the materialist presentations and dogmatic stance of Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and a generation of critics influenced by Clement Greenberg.

To his credit, Marden found a way to undermine formalism’s positivist attitudes while seemingly accepting its proscriptions against drawing and spatiality. His strategy was to transform its rigid definitions into a personal expressivity. Marden’s paintings, in their opposition of physical and optical sensations, smooth waxen surfaces and rich dank color, embodied the chasm separating the earthly from the spiritual. At the same time, their references to alchemy, religion, and classical Greek architecture revealed a desire to address historical intersections of earthly and spiritual realms. During this phase of his career, Marden was a novitiate both looking for and demanding proof. His development was deliberate and thoughtful, and his elegant, vulnerable paintings suggested the possibility of a logical progression toward irreducible states of selflessness.

In his most recent exhibition of paintings and drawings, Marden not only goes against his own history but also sheds the last formalist vestiges informing his work. Rather than maintaining the separation between painting and drawing, surface and linearity, as he has done for almost his entire career, here the artist draws in paint. In doing so, he jettisons all the ways he was once conclusive—especially the rapturous, self-immolating sting of color married to the patient building up of a smooth ego-denying surface. More important, Marden has not moved from one kind of conclusiveness to another.

The paintings have smooth, mat surfaces as if the overlapping linear webs and abstract glyphs were pushed into the milky ground. Erasures of various kinds, including scrubbing down and wiping away, adjustments, and reconsiderations, are everywhere apparent. These are palimpsests, as open-ended as a page from a diary. Marden drew the discursive, interlocking lines with a very long brush, which registers every decision in the artist’s performance, his control or lack of control in each stroke. Here and there the viscous oil paint drips, obeying gravity. All of this adds up to something very different from gestural abstract painting as we have come to expect it. Contemplating these meditative works, we do not jump quickly from the smallest reckless arabesques to the overall painting, as we would with the late work of Jackson Pollock, but instead absorb the overall pattern until we differentiate the linear webs and flattened-out, splayed structures. In the process, our eyes take in the quiet hints of depth suggested by the pentimenti.

Marden’s recent change is more than what used to be called “taking a risk.” It’s an act of faith: one that is made without such safety nets as historical precedent, logical development, or formalism to fall back on. In this regard, Marden’s accomplishment is comparable to Willem de Kooning’s, Philip Guston’s, Jasper Johns’, and Malcolm Morley’s. Like them, he goes beyond all the established codes by which we have come to evaluate painting and makes us see anew, and, like Guston in particular, he has done so by going from the seductive and precious to the tough and gritty. At the same time, he rescues gestural abstract painting from history and proves its continuing vitality.

John Yau