New York

Brice Marden

Matthew Marks Gallery

Beau Brummell recommended spending four hours dressing in order to give the impression that all had been done in four minutes. Brice Marden’s new paintings embody the same highly cultivated naturalness. The palette knife, it seems, has replaced the long brushes Marden used to create the precariously high-strung, spidery lines of his “Cold Mountain” series, 1988–91, in which nervous hesitations and sudden shifts of direction tended to divide pictorial space into quasi-cubistic facets. In his recent works, Marden has thickened and smoothed his lines, and lengthened them as well. Their ramifying and overlapping color trails—four or five per painting threading over and sometimes through watery monochrome grounds—are supple and undulant, detained by nothing.

Something of Marden’s earlier phase is still visible in Corpus, 1991–93, the earliest painting included in the show at the Matthew Marks gallery, as well as in the ink-on-paper works there, a number of which are of similar vintage. These drawings are surprisingly figurative in their implications. Indeed, it is instructive to note, at the miniretrospective at PaceWildenstein, that for a long time (really until the late ’70s or early ’80s), Marden’s drawings felt more like those of a sculptor than a painter: most often they seem to describe a concrete object, even if that object is a painting. For all the importance his drawings have had for his painting, they remain highly distinct from the canvases.

In Marden’s newest paintings the feeling is all nature. This is partly because of the color, which is astonishing, at once subdued and radiant, giving these works a mysteriously burnished tone. It is also because of the placidly looping, branching lines, which manage to suggest topographical features as well as botanical forms without resembling anything in particular. But most important is the mode of perception the paintings embody: a slow unfolding that demands a continual shift between concentration and relaxation. You have to trace the lines with your eyes, following a number of distinct courses across the surface of the canvas, but as these paths overlap, establishing provisional layerings, you find yourself compelled to look deeper and deeper into the painting. It is, in other words, like looking at a landscape, not as a vista or distant prospect, but as a surrounding environment, as if you were hoping to find your way out, or maybe further in.

What you discover through this simulation of natural perception is above all the artifice that has gone into its making. The transparency of the thinly painted lines, for example, is an illusion. The most diaphanous-seeming gray or yellow, crossing over an opaque red or dense orange, effaces it completely. And the scrupulous concern to contain the image within a strong internal frame as the lines pile up at the edge of the canvas shows how far this work is from any mere slice of the visual field. The best way to see these paintings is to try and see how they were painted, the order in which the marks were laid down; the greatest pleasure comes when you realize you may never know.

Barry Schwabsky