Brice Marden

Dallas Museum of Art

PEOPLE ARE DRAWN TO BRICE MARDEN’S PAINTINGS, but I’m not convinced they know why, even his collectors and curators. They share in the fascination, but without much understanding. I too like Marden’s art. The situation is a credit to the material beauty of his surfaces, “that heavy earthen kind of thing, [turned] into air and light,” as Marden himself describes painting’s wonder, alluding to alchemy and transmutation. His aesthetic magic is powerful enough to mask significant formal tensions and contradictions, which would otherwise attract a more analytical engagement than his work usually receives. Yet viewers can grow suspicious of their own unquestioning responses. Marden’s compelling beauty leaves us somewhat wary. Is it really there?

Marden has been disarmingly honest about the critical insecurity he creates, which affects even him: “I just get closer to some impossible thing. . . . What I like is when I see paintings of mine that I just don’t understand.” If we’re ever to understand the “impossible” in Marden, a decade’s view—the “Work of the 1990s”— promises more opportunity than any piece alone. His titles help by establishing themes correlated with broad aspects of his career (“I’ve always been very romantic about titles,” he admits). Marden developed an interest in Asian aesthetics during the ’80s (hence, Cold Mountain, Chinese Dancing, Suzhou) and has summered on the Greek island of Hydra since the ’70s (The Muses, Kalo Keri, Calcium). Through distant cultures and places, he has opened himself to sensuousness, leaving conceptualized anxieties to his self-consciously postmodern peers. He thinks—how obvious, how naive of him—the localized light he observes is real: “When I go someplace, it’s in my work.” We think—how anxious, how critical of us—he must be deceived. Light is an imaginary, ideological construction, isn’t it?

Check the paintings. A certain formal evolution marks Marden’s sensory journeys through the decade: His “light” was changing, whether real or constructed. He gradually converted the relative angularity of his Cold Mountain series, 1988-91, and Kalo Keri, 199o, into the more elastic loopings of his Muses series, 1989-99, and Little Red Painting, 1994. The “impossible,” the incomprehensible, is glimpsed in this transition. Although Marden’s thick bands derive from a fine calligraphic line, they no longer follow a calligraphic order. Stretching and bending without obvious beginning or end, they neither become figures in their own right nor delimit anything else. Nor are they distinguished, materially, from the plane of their ground. Both figure (the bands) and ground become little more than stains.

Marden’s most quoted statement is his 1974 reference to “the indisputability of The Plane,” which suited his waxy monochromatic panels of that moment. His recent work preserves The Plane just as literally: he dissolves (with terpineol), scrapes (with palette knives), or sands his applied paint down to the linen, into its very weave, tattooing the linen skin. His bands tend to cluster at the edges of that skin, pulling the surface outward as if stretched taut. This figured tautness only reiterates the physical state of the stretched canvas. Perhaps Marden’s intense involvement with his studio materials entails this kind of sympathy between the figured stretch and the real one. His configurations become afterimages of their own material preexistence—chromatic diagrams of forces already present in the place or in the painter’s materials—sensory phenomena that can seem more virtual than real.

The method amounts to anti-painting: Marden’s “finishing touch” is likely to be subtracted (dissolved, scraped), not added, in a process of layering that eliminates differentiable levels. What comes second can be confused with what comes first. The red band in Little Red Painting appears to lie underneath the yellow, but Marden established it afterward, so that, as he says, “the image turns itself inside out.” This is “impossible.” What should be atop lies beneath or beside; what should have thickened thins; and the linen weave is everywhere visible, returned to its primordial state. Mardcn’s hard labor of anti-painting transforms The Plane into anti-matter, much like photographic emulsion and video phosphorescence, which magically capture light on surfaces of no substance.

Here, then, is a meaning for those who appreciate the physical beauty of Marden’s art but don’t understand the nature of its reality: He creates the trace, the stain, a virtual beauty. This ghostly presence can seem ethereal, even spiritual. Yet real materiality remains. Marden is among a select number of painters (Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, and Vija Celmins are others) who have resisted a surrounding culture of virtuality and simulation by yielding their art to it—but only partway. Impossibly, the reality he creates will pass for virtual in the eyes of those who cannot see otherwise, making him less traditional than he usually regards himself. He offers edgy comfort to that large art-seeking public whose instinct for sensory contact with the basic material elements, including earth and light, has faded.

Marden’s own instinct for matter isn’t fading. Ultimately, the procedures and effects of his elegant anti-painting are too base, too gritty, for him to become the Anti-Painter of an increasingly dematerialized future. Nor would it be consistent with the reality of his localized light.

Richard Shiff is Effie Marie Cain Regents Chair in Art at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Brice Marden: Work of the 1990s” travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, May 27–Sept. 6; Miami Art Museum, Dec. 17–March 5, 2000; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, May 20, 2000–Aug. 13, 2000.