New York

Brice Marden

Dia Center for the Arts

However different they seem, Brice Marden’s new “Cold Mountain,” 1988–91, and old Minimalist paintings are much the same in principle. There is the same stylized flatness (de rigueur in Modernist painting) and the same cautious use of color. (The “Cold Mountain” paintings are grayish, with ghostly touches of yellow and blue.) There is also the same repetitive, serial quality, as though the artist were addicted to and certifying a particular form. The difference—the use of calligraphic gesture—is not entirely new. It first appeared in Marden’s oeuvre, in somewhat more vigorous, aggressive form, in the mid ’80s, sometimes in excited contradistinction to a grid. The gestures themselves often locked together in a kind of distorted, weblike grid or filigree, as in the current paintings. Like all of his work, the new pieces show respect for the edge or frame—their self-containment.

This exhibition also included numerous drawings, which, while textlike in appearance—they are based on the work of the Chinese Zen poet for whom the series is named (Marden dipped twigs in ink, creating the “hand-written” or signature effect)—make the formal point that each drawing is a rectangle within the rectangle implied by the edges of the paper. However exuberant and chaotic the redundant hieroglyphs, they are bound by this simple geometry.

Indeed, the point is that what we see in the new paintings is a revival of formalism—stylized (and stylish) Modernist painting, freshly proud and comfortable with itself—with an overlay of Zen meaning to suggest profundity. Is this revival an advance or a sign of decadence? This is one issue—their place in the history of abstraction—that Marden’s new works raise. A second issue is whether these new works are conducive to tranquil meditation, as they are supposed to be. Is there really eternity in these grains of gestural sand? There is, to the extent that they constitute a kind of paradoxical writing. Marden’s inspired imaging of the Chinese text, making it unintelligible, suggests the Zen sound of one hand clapping. The grand emptiness of the surrounding page, and the abysslike emptiness—atmospheric negative space—between the lines and pentimenti in the paintings, echo the sound of this soundlessness. Marden’s “refutation” of the received scripture of the text, by improvising on it, is also Zen in spirit. Though the work functions as a kind of koan riddle, it is, of course, also fashionably and fetishistically Orientalist.

At the same time, there is something phlegmatic and lacking—a peculiar failure of intensity—in Marden’s gestures. They are not as convincing as those of Jackson Pollock, to whom Marden is regularly compared, as though he were his true heir. This is transparent in the paintings, but even the gestures in the drawings lack Pollock’s energy and urgency, flash and force. They have a pseudospontaneous look, dull in comparison to the air of impulsive, automatist excess conveyed by Pollock’s gestures. One can make the same point by comparing Marden’s drawings to those of Henri Michaux. Thus, they are quietistically Zen perhaps more by default—by reason of the peculiarly inhibited quality of the desire they convey—than by conscious intention.

Marden’s abstract paintings are emblems of abstraction, and as such they are art historically decadent—which is not the same as being retardataire. Rather, Marden apotheosizes abstraction, longing for the transcendence it once implied, but with no understanding of the revolutionary negativity implicit in that transcendence. (Nonetheless, his paintings remain far from the ironic, denuded ones of the appropriators and simulators of abstraction.) He has made of abstraction an aristocratic art that has forgotten its revolutionary past, though his work reveals a nostalgia for a cleaned-up version of its spirituality. Nonetheless, Marden’s decadent abstraction has its uses, for it forces us to come up with new ways to ground and justify our intellectual and emotional need for abstraction—for the esthetic as such—at a time when it remains insecure and suspect, despite its partial comeback. Abstraction was born in part as a reaction to the last fin de siècle, and it remains the most important innovation of 20th-century art. Marden’s work raises the question of whether it still has urgency in this new fin de siècle.

Donald Kuspit