New York

Brice Marden

Matthew Marks Gallery

Ever since I saw my first Brice Marden show, in Houston in 1991, I have been trying to figure out why I don’t like his paintings more. They are well made and worked out over time, they develop a set of personal concerns and preferences, and they’re often beautiful—many of the things I look for in art. His pair of spring shows, his first in New York in five years, provided an occasion to think about what is going on in his work The exhibitions, at Marks’s two Chelsea venues, encompassed a selection of his work from 1996–2002 and his most recent paintings.

My problem with Marden isn’t necessarily the same one that other people have. While critics who are roughly his contemporaries rave about these paintings, praising them for their beauty, skill, and subtlety, younger viewers and artists are much more likely to see the work as conventional, blue-chip bohemianism: Marden’s paintings, in a very traditional sense, describe the encounter of a sensitive, centered self with outside experience, usually of art or nature—here, China (where he saw tomb sculpture and scholars rocks) and rural Pennsylvania (where he met a bear). This model of the artist as a unique, contemplative spirit stands in contrast to the currently fashionable one of the artist as an entirely socially formed entity, completely devoted to topical media references, irony, and conventionality, referring to other artworks and their collective reception. Seen in this light, Marden’s paintings can seem simply out-of-date.

But this definition of what it means to be contemporary is limiting and fails to pinpoint the real problem with these paintings. In the earlier works in the show the muted, scraped-down colors rely too much on tastefulness, and one gets the impression of decoration that insistently signifies seriousness: “History” is implied by a kind of weathered look, a more refined state of consciousness conveved by quiet color and spare lines. In the newer works, Marden seems to be trying not to be so tasteful, to use instead some of the saturated color that permeates painting today. The recent images, such as Red Rocks (5), 2000-2002, are deep orange red or purple traversed by lines in not-quite-primary hues. Turning up the intensity may be a good idea, but he doesn’t pull it off. Something is wrong—the grounds are too saturated, too close in value to the lines. The lines themselves are too busy, creating allover compositions that often melt down into a mess.

It’s difficult to push an established style in a new direction; at least Marden’s impulse to experiment reveals signs of life and movement. Although he claims Pollock as his touchstone, I found myself thinking about the recent Newman retrospective while looking at Marden’s work. He could take a page from Newman’s careful calibration of hue and value. which was consistently idiosyncratic, moving from jarring contrast to resonating harmony and back. Newman’s very specific relationships between lines and the overall image with each painting also instructs; in Marden’s latest pictures, the lines no longer glance off the edges with force but predictably limn the canvases, tracing an interior frame for the pictures. The relationship becomes formulaic, and the pictures’ confinement quite literally limits their ambition and impact.

That one is moved to compare Marden to Newman shows that he is trying to do something large and deeply felt—he just isn’t quite succeeding. Is there room for artists working with a model—of self, of career, of style—that doesn’t happen to be this year’s? Of course. But they have to d o something more than simply reflect an earlier time in a pale and skillful image.

Katy Siegel