New York

Brice Marden

Though Brice Marden’s programmatic series of compositions entitled “The Grove Group” echoes the tautological artistic practices of his Minimalist progenitors, the paintings also evoke classical idealism. Executed between 1972 and 1976, the series consists of five rectangular canvases of equal size and dimension. Each work is systematically divided into one of five possible variations on a single bisected or trisected canvas. Grove Group I, 1973, consists of a single monochromatic panel, and the rest of the compositions (Grove Group II–V) are either bisected or trisected horizontally or vertically. Here Marden’s methodological approach to the structuring of paintings reads like an illustration to Polykleitos’ Canon or to Plato’s claim in the Philebus that “Measure and commensurability. . . are everywhere identifiable with beauty and excellence.” In fact, these associations are not incidental but directly inspired by Marden’s travels in Greece.

In the notebooks reproduced as part of the exhibition catalogue, Marden recorded his thoughts about Greece along with his original sketches for the series, and here his taste for classicism resounds in phrases emblazoned with the urgency of a manifesto. In his journal entries Marden claims that “AS A PAINTER I BELIEVE IN THE INDISPUTABILITY OF THE PLANE” and “The rectangle, the plane, the picture, the structure, is but a trampoline to bounce on spirituality.” In this limited arrangement of divided rectangular fields, Marden has built his “trampoline.”

It is in this respect that Marden separates himself from the Minimalists and Conceptualists who built their art on the remains of the putatively dead medium of painting. Marden resists claims, such as Carl Andre’s, that “there is no symbolic content to my work,” and instead, he employs color in order to infuse his abstract system with symbolic resonances. The limited palette of grayed greens and blues used in “The Grove Group” was inspired by the colors of the Mediterranean landscape—the groves of olive trees, and the clear sky. Marden collapsed the systemic with the intuitive in an effort to create a more synthetic art, and his intention to do so is clearly stated in his notebook entry: “Stop making obvious series. Only interesting when intuitive change broadens the obvious impact as series.”

While Marden’s artistic project may appear to take its logical place in the history of art as a critical response to the uncompromising precepts of Minimalism, like the artistic products of that self-reflexive movement, his paintings lack legible external referents despite his subjective use of color. In each case, the work internalizes its signifying potential, and Marden’s admission of intuition as a façade of emotive color is arbitrary and thus formal.

In a collaged composition of five vertically stacked rectangles entitled Grove Addenda III, 1973–74, the top three images in the sequence are based on reproductions of a sculpture depicting three Greek goddesses, originally set into the east pediment of the Parthenon. As a figural group, they create a formal triad that shares the same properties as Marden’s divided canvas, which can be read as a unified triad or as three distinct units. It is ironic that Marden has chosen decapitated figurative sculptures as a formal model, for these headless women are no longer identifiable. Stripped of allegorical content, their sole purpose is formal. As bodies without minds, they serve as a fitting metaphor for the critical agenda reflected in Marden’s series.

Kirby Gookin