New York

Brice Marden

HOW CAN AN ARTIST keep high modernism alive when rumors of its death abound? This is the question Brice Marden repeatedly confronts throughout the Museum of Modern Art’s majestic retrospective, organized by Gary Garrels. From the show’s first galleries on the building’s sixth floor (mostly devoted to paintings) to the works on paper three levels below, Marden’s answers mix pictorial dexterity and doggedness—cool yet assertive responses to a constant challenge.

Starting in the early 1960s with canvases and drawings that exemplify the lessons of less, the selection ends with two extended compositions—veritable grandes machines in scale and ambition—so recent their paint is barely dry. These foil the initial sparseness with a late abundance that is almost baroque in its serpentine rhythms. Encompassing extremes of reduction and elaboration, Marden has retained a canny knack for infiltrating Greenbergian purity, flatness, and frontality—qualities otherwise reminiscent of what he terms the “plane image”—with tinges of landscape, figuration, and a manifold art-historical pedigree. Overall, these antitheses fuse to present a romantic classicist—a latter-day Ingres of abstraction, as it were.

Marden’s singularity comes across in the very first gallery, with pieces from his New York solo debut in 1966 at the Bykert Gallery. Orthodox wisdom regards these monochromes as lyrical riffs on Minimalism. From a heretical perspective, though, they invite comparison with Color Field painting, then entering its heyday. In Nebraska, 1966, and The Dylan Painting, 1966/86, Marden’s meticulous marginal effects (not to mention the second’s hip title) prompt comparison with Jules Olitski, while the dense textures are a period hallmark—as familiar as Olitski’s lush layerings or as virtually forgotten now as, say, Sam Tchakalian’s troweled fields. But Marden always managed to inject an air of difficulty or gravitas into his practice that distanced it from Color Field’s putative hedonism. By contrast, he took the path of a religious artist without a religion.

Even before visiting the newly opened Rothko Chapel in 1972, Marden was concerned with time (a dimension identified with the spiritual since at least Saint Augustine’s meditations) and light (an even older religious archetype). The challenge was to wed these theological or metaphysical properties to avant-gardist materiality and objecthood.

Marden’s initial ventures into grids and graphite-laden darkness hint at the work of Ad Reinhardt, among others. Certainly Rothko was on his mind—the later Rothko who took sides against his own more voluptuary aesthetic self. In 1996 I guest-curated a show at the Menil Collection that charted Rothko’s activity around the years of the chapel commission and that aimed to map a less stereotypical “Rothko” of the ’60s, one who practiced serialism and who was, by his own reckoning, a “plumber”—a shrewd visual mechanic—seeking “precision” and “measures.” Evidently Marden esteemed this darker, delib- erative painter; the muffled radiance of the chapel’s “murals” and related works inspired him. Summer Table, 1972–73, and Grove Group I and II, 1972–73, have the calibrated feel of Rothko’s late triptychs and firmer rectangles, while seeming to refresh their shadows with the light of a new day. Furthermore, Marden telescoped time into their trace-ridden, waxy facture.

That I admit an irrational urge to nibble Marden’s canvases from this period is hopefully less absurd than it is a clue to their synesthesia. Milky hues and malleable-looking matière make them delectable objects, like blocks of luxury chocolate or soap, albeit raised to lofty seriousness. Likewise, a subliminal atmosphere—of air, land, light—lifts their message. Famously, Marden’s environments are his stimuli: Lower Manhattan; Tivoli, upstate by the Hudson; Eagles Mere in Pennsylvania; and the Aegean island of Hydra. In a superb catalogue essay, critic Brenda Richardson explores how the mystique of such sites subtends Marden’s art, involving the leitmotif of stone. Rock’s very makeup records what Richardson describes as “the stratigraphy of time . . . from which meaning is constructed.” By no coincidence, Marden collects stones and shells (structures again built up over time), describes shapes in a 1986 painting as “glyphs” (symbolic characters typically incised in stone), and plans to cultivate an Asian-style garden with boulders. (The title The Propitious Garden of Plane Image—which Marden has given to three polyptychs, two of which are included in the show—appears to play on this Voltairean horticultural metaphor, although Pollock, too, spoke of “gardening” his paintings.) Analogously, certain Mardens remind me of an otherwise altogether remote precursor: William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent—a Recollection of October 5th 1858, 1858–60. There Dyce condensed temporality into luminously grayed strata of stone, still water, and near-empty ethereal sky. In another century, it is Marden’s silent mood.

In fact, from a certain angle Marden’s sensibility is unabashedly romantic. Does the catalogue deliberately downplay his well-known remark that “the rectangle, the plane, the structure, the picture are but sounding boards for a spirit,” as though such a hankering were now beyond the expressive pale? In any case, the artist took pains to implement the rule that in practice corrects emotionalism, paring down what could be pretentious or fantastical to spartan parameters that even Malevich, Mondrian, or Newman might envy. On this score, Homage to Art 2 (Goya), 1973, offers a signpost: Three reproductions of the portrait of the Marquise de la Solana surmount a triad of slightly varied gray-black rectangles. Sensuousness honed into classic poise has a broad history—besides, as Richard Shiff’s catalogue essay rightly analyzes, Cézanne’s example—including David and Ingres among its notable exponents. I doubt Marden has ever knowingly referenced them. Nevertheless, the extraordinary backgrounds of David’s Madame Récamier, 1800, and The Death of Marat, 1793, are a foretaste of the grisaille planarity, at once palpably rendered and lightly transparent, that Marden made his own. So, too, does the muted pink of the rightward segment of his D’après la Marquise de la Solana, 1969, echo the almost identical tint of the god’s robe in Ingres’s Jupiter and Thetis, 1811 (and two of the shades of Thetis’s drapery are the same idiosyncratic greenish taupe as Marden’s left and center panels). Marden coaxes us into pondering the open-ended world of art even as he focuses his own optical domain down to the merest nuances of extramural realities and emotion. Like Rothko, Marden orchestrates brinkmanship—between literal depiction and oblique evocation—to rarefied ends.

In 1967 Marden cited the context of his metamorphosis of transient experience into structures that strive for a Cézannesque solidity: “I begin work with some vague color idea; a memory of a space, a color presence, a color I think I have seen. . . . A dark black green seen slightly after a foggy dusk.” The ghost of Symbolism haunts this passage from sensations to mental forms and vice versa.

Consider Vuillard and Bonnard—the former’s romance with myriad inflected grays and two-dimensionality; the latter’s notion of the artwork as a “stopping of time,” his syntax that sought to objectify the subjective, his avowed tendency to build paintings around an empty space, and the aura that permeates his universe suggesting that everything serves some tacit religion. Possibly Marden—erstwhile master of the almost vacated rectangle—might agree with Bonnard’s quip that “in a museum, the most beautiful things are the windows.” Surely he shares Bonnard’s credo, “Our god is light.” Profound differences aside, both are Proustian temperaments. Marden also reconfigures, knowingly or otherwise, the fin-de-siècle/early modernist engagement with the epiphany of the “romantic image.” Using Thomist language, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus expounded this doctrine: “Temporal or spatial, the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. . . . That is integritas. . . . [Y]ou feel now that it is a thing. . . . That is consonantia. . . . The radiance . . . is the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing . . . the luminous stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state.” For these esoteric Latin nouns instead we may simply read Marden’s “plane image.”

Yet this show reveals that Marden had to change to stay the same. By 1984 his Minimal mode had become a signature and thus a stranglehold. It is a tribute to Garrels’s choices and lucid installation that what should amount to, in sum, a career split into two halves (each spanning approximately twenty years) emerges not as a schizophrenic scheme but a synergetic one. As pastoral ripples rescued Marden’s abstraction from potential sterility, so crafty draftsmanship made its heart beat fast and wild. From 1985 onward what once had been monolithic “chords” became multipartite “fugues” (Marden’s words). Simultaneously, Pollock replaced Rothko as a tutelary spirit, while the artist also ventured after strange gods—Chinese poetry and calligraphy, bears, hieratic “attendants,” and numerical symbolism. Detractors might scent a whiff of hokum around these sources. My view is that they are creation myths—witness the poet Charles Olson’s and the painter Alfred Jensen’s recourse to comparable arcana—lore and legend that artists habitually treat as their muses. In any event, such interests sparked an unprecedented vivacity.

From the spacious middle galleries to the show’s final rooms, Marden’s core subject looked to be energy—in much the same way Pollock’s was, except that Marden’s line conveys a more nervous, fragile pulse maybe closer to Mark Tobey’s “white writing.” Ink and gouache on paper set alongside the watershed “Cold Mountain” canvases brought out the importance of errant diagonals—stemming from the studies related to the abandoned Basel cathedral window project (begun in 1978) and also prominent in the paintings on marble—for Marden’s evolution from the late ’80s into the next decade. The fragmentary marbles went together with an increasingly timeworn cast to the canvases, laden with erasures indicative not only of sustained process but also of a deeper yen for time past (what are pentimenti if not a sign of earlier moments?). Indeed, the archaism distinguishes Marden as heir to a tendency that last came to prominence (Cy Twombly’s case excepted) in Abstract Expressionism during the ’40s, with its allusions to Greek myth, primitivist morphology, arid petroglyphs, and so forth. As Marden’s line grew thicker in the late ’90s, it, too, assumed an archaic coarseness—Paestum, we might suppose, as against the Parthenon. Spectral colors amplify this ruggedness, lending the cablelike vectors a virile phosphorescence. Modernism often seems to need these tonic shocks of deliberate regression to an older forcefulness. Aptly, then, this retrospective ends with two versions of the Dionysian Propitious Garden of Plane Image, both begun in 2000 and completed over the course of some six years. Here Marden seems to summon the Pergamon Altar frieze with more than a glance toward Pollock’s titanic Mural of 1943—a contemporary union of ancient and modern touchstones.

“Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through January 15; travels to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Feb. 23–May 13, and, in abridged form, to the Hamburger Bahnhof–Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, June 12–Oct. 7.

David Anfam is commissioning editor for fine art, Phaidon Press, and coauthor of No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings On Paper (Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2005).