New York

Brice Marden, African Drawing 17, 2011–12, ink and white shellac ink on paper, 14 7/8 × 11 1/8".

Brice Marden, African Drawing 17, 2011–12, ink and white shellac ink on paper, 14 7/8 × 11 1/8".

Brice Marden

Matthew Marks Gallery

Brice Marden, African Drawing 17, 2011–12, ink and white shellac ink on paper, 14 7/8 × 11 1/8".

This exhibition of a dozen paintings and twenty-five drawings from between 2007 and 2015, billed as the largest presentation of Brice Marden’s work since his 2006 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, reveals the artist still in a retrospective mood: At times he returns to the method of abutting monochrome panels—mostly subdued or cloudy in color—that was typical of his work in the 1960s and ’70s; at others he avails himself of the layering of sinuous linear gestures that he began using in the mid-’80s. In one work, he combines the two modes: Uphill with Center, 2012–15, is a horizontal sequence of five linen panels, just over sixteen feet wide in all, with pairs of vertical monochrome panels flanking a central square, which features meandering lines in colors from the four adjoining canvases (yellow, green, red, and dark gray) weaving among one another atop a light-gray ground.

This analytical juxtaposition of linear and nonlinear uses of the same hues might sound didactic; but Marden deftly avoids that here, thanks to his mastery of color as all-enveloping atmosphere, rather than mere idea. Likewise, it might seem that by allowing his famous drips to take up as much as a quarter of the canvas in some of the recent monochromes—rather than restricting them to just a thin bottom border demonstrating the colors he’d combined, as he did in his early paintings—Marden is overstating what used to be a subtle detail. That could be even more likely given that in the new paintings, the drips are often just of a single color, or sometimes two. And yet the artist’s judgment as to just how much partly bared (but lightly stained) canvas a given work needs in order to “breathe” properly seems pretty much on target: Two single-canvas works of similar size (approximately eight by six feet) and color (green) earn their seemingly very different titles—Summer Square (no, it does not contain a square) and Over Autumn, both 2015—mainly through the respectively lighter and heavier feelings evoked by their differing ratios of painted to bare linen.

Still, I can’t help feeling a bit let down that Marden is playing variations on Marden, however beautifully. He’s already reinvented himself as a painter once, triumphantly, with his rediscovery of gesture in the mid-’80s, and the time feels ripe for him to do so again. In the meantime, I draw greater inspiration from his works on paper. The dense networks of quivering, undulating lines that make up most of the drawings join together into a unity that often feels richer and more complex than that of the monochrome paintings, precisely because it feels more hard-won. The motions of those teeming lines, more than the eye can encompass, seem to be perpetually unfolding. To the curious gaze, the subtly variegated, atmospheric monochrome fields reveal that they are composed of a multitude of individual gestures, but the air between the marks has been nearly evacuated, and unity trumps multiplicity. In the drawings, in which the paper ground is always an active force, it’s as if the movements of the hand and arm that fuse together in the paintings emerge more vibrantly, more dancingly, more freely.

Barry Schwabsky