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Journey from ‘Nebraska’

Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective

an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, October 29, 2006–January 15, 2007

In Brice Marden’s fifteen-foot-long horizontal frieze The Muses a skein of muted green, gray, white, and blue paint loops across a field of light celadon green. Painted between 1991 and 1993, The Muses evokes a procession of the nine daughters of Zeus as it might have been carved on the pediment of a Greek temple—except that Marden doesn’t depict the divinities, he conjures up their aura. As the eye tries to follow the intersecting tendrils of alternately transparent and opaque paint, nine vertical columns somehow emerge from the ground while at the same time remaining embedded in it.

For an instant the goddesses are luminously present, but more as immanence than as solid forms, semitransparent shapes flickering against the light, perhaps (given the overall impression of green) in an olive grove, just as they might have materialized to the ancient Greeks. But the moment you sense their presence, the Muses disappear, receding back into the “landscape” to become swirls and eddies of paint on a flat plane, mere material. Then we remember that the mother of the Muses is Memory, and the gift they give to mankind is artistic inspiration, something that can arise and evaporate in the twinkling of an eye, and which is beyond human control.

How fitting that this ethereal work was painted by Marden, an artist whose precarious gift is his ability to synthesize experience (of music, landscape, loves, places, and memories) in two-dimensional abstract paintings of astonishing beauty. He established his reputation in the mid-1960s as a painter of severe monochromatic rectangles in a medium composed of beeswax, turpentine, and oil paint applied with a brush and then smoothed with a spatula and knife. Human in scale and irradiated by his ultrarefined color sense, his earliest paintings rejected illusion, line, volume, space, and depth while at the same time minimizing texture, brushwork, and tonal range. The flat surface of these paintings is closed, the picture plane as impenetrable as a locked door. How an artist who restricted his canvases to the basic elements of shape, light, and color developed over the next forty years into the one who painted The Muses is one of the great stories of American art in our time, and it is being told in a full-scale retrospective with fifty-six paintings and more than fifty drawings at the Museum of Modern of Art.

Born in Bronxville, New York, in 1938, Marden studied painting at Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Art. After graduation in 1961 he attended the legendary school of architecture and design at Yale, where his fellow students included Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Nancy Graves, and Robert Mangold. His first jobs after graduate school were as a guard in the Jewish Museum during the first Jasper Johns retrospective in 1964, and then as Robert Rauschenberg’s assistant in 1966. Among the earliest works in the show are drawings from 1964, which are heavily indebted to Johns. In one (untitled) grid of forty rectangles covered in charcoal and black graphite, Marden replaces the numbers or letters of the alphabet that Johns might have placed within each square with erasures. These are used like brush strokes to create a medley of soft grays where the paper beneath is exposed. Although the drawing is abstract, it also represents a response to something Marden had just seen on a visit to Paris that summer: the dramatic cleaning of a century of soot from public buildings to reveal the pearl-gray city whose light he also captures in the drawing.

Back in New York, he made a second drawing in graphite and beeswax. This has the same number of squares as the first, but now the black is so dense that the drawing is almost opaque. Now, too, the lines between the squares are more visible, so that we might be looking at the street grid of downtown Manhattan, for Marden a map of home. And for all the reticence of these works, they are also deeply emotional. The insistent blackness of the second drawing, for example, might well reflect the artist’s state of mind at a time when he was in the process of separating from his first wife. Here, then, is an early example of how the light and atmosphere of a place, or simply the things Marden sees around him or feels deeply, find their way into his work. Recognition of his talent came early, soon after his first New York exhibition at the Bykert Gallery in November 1966.

That was the year of Nebraska, shown in the first gallery of the MoMA exhibition. A monochromatic abstract in delicate tones of gray-green, from even a short distance away the surface looks uninflected and impersonal, as though the paint had been laid on with a roller brush. But step up close and you see how much of the artist’s touch is visible in the way the underlying color peeps through a paint surface covered in scratches, streaks, and dribbles of green and blue paint applied with a short brush held in a clenched hand. To create the matte surface that makes the painting as sensuous and vulnerable as soft skin, Marden mixed oil paint with beeswax, laying one layer of paint over another in a glazing technique that Whistler (or for that matter Velázquez) would have recognized.

But unlike the old masters, Marden then shows us exactly how he made the painting by leaving an inch or so of unpainted canvas at the bottom edge so that we can see for ourselves the drips left over from each “hit” or layering of paint. By revealing the many different layers of color used to create each work, Marden undercuts any attempt to read the picture as a representation of anything in the natural world because when your eye comes to the bottom of the canvas, you see that it is, after all, a flat surface covered in layers of green and gray paint.

But the title tells us that the picture is also a landscape, or rather the memory of one. Speaking of the painting in 1980, Marden gave this simple account of its genesis:

I had been to Nebraska that summer, drove across the country. And I just loved Nebraska…. It was the kind of landscape that looked as though it was supposed to be very boring, but it wasn’t. There were these subtle changes in the landscape—you’d be driving along and then you’d suddenly go over a little rise, and there was this incredible gorge or something—not a big, huge thing, but with little trees in it. I thought it was a very surprising landscape—the green I saw was exquisite.

In these early works Marden cuts the cord that still bound an artist like Jasper Johns to the literary underpinnings of nineteenth-century symbolism, without simultaneously destroying art’s ability to evoke natural forms. He jettisons story, myth, and illusion, and with them representation, composition, and spatial depth. What we are left with is paint, canvas, scale, shape, and brush stroke—but also, crucially, the possibility of allusion. Nebraska was inspired by the feelings Marden had when traveling through a landscape—not big feelings of awe or exaltation but something altogether gentler and more subdued, a consciousness and appreciation of the flat green farmlands and wide-open spaces. Modest and self-contained, Nebraska avoids the grandiloquence that characterized American landscape painting from Frederic Edwin Church to Clyfford Still.

That is not to suggest that Marden’s paintings aren’t complex. D’Après la Marquise de la Solana from 1969 is a three-panel, human-scaled painting inspired by the colors of Goya’s portrait of a haughty aristocrat with a big pink bow in her hair, which hangs in the Louvre. Once again, after you marvel at the elegance of Marden’s palette of khaki-green, dark gray, and mauve, you step close to examine the brushed surface of each canvas. Once again, the bottom edges are left unpainted so that you see the layer of white under the field of green, a splash of black under gray, scarlet under mauve. The value and intensity of each final color is carefully judged so that no one color is more powerful than any other, creating a sense of classical stability and equilibrium. But that’s only on the surface. For all the painting’s aesthetic decorum, when you walk around to its side you discover smears of scarlet paint on the edge where the canvas is tacked over the stretcher. Like a flash of red petticoat under an haute couture dress, it affords us a glimpse of the emotions the artist concealed, damped down, kept out of sight.

Though he was in the forefront of Minimalism—a response of American artists in the 1960s and 1970s to Abstract Expressionism—Marden is a quirky, eccentric artist who has always stood somewhat apart from his contemporaries. Look at a drawing entitled Patent Leather Valentine from 1967. Working with graphite and beeswax over pastel on paper, he covers every square of a dense grid with a black so tightly meshed that we can only just make out the network of thin vertical and horizontal lines. At first sight, the drawing looks like the archetypal Minimalist work. But look closely and you see that scratched into each square of the grid is a tiny heart, many almost rubbed out so that only someone who knew they were there would discover them. This is Marden’s valentine to the woman he would marry in the following year, Helen Harrington. Perfectly calibrating the boundary between sentiment and reticence, from the very beginning of his career Marden’s work has had an expressive content and emotional range that is largely absent in the work of the two contemporary painters closest to him in spirit and stature, Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin. That is because his identity as a Minimalist is offset by an even more profound consciousness of his affinities with Abstract Expressionism. Marden has said as much:

I still really felt much more of an Abstract Expressionist than Minimalist. I mean, I wasn’t rejecting Abstract Expressionism, and I was very conscious of the fact that these things were being made by hand….

And again:

I have always felt more related to the Abstract Expressionists than any other group. I think that’s what I came out of…. I started with Franz Kline…. You always admired de Kooning…. But then it was Rothko to whom I would respond, especially in his later paintings…. The whole idea of beauty was not embarrassing to me, as it was for a lot of people. Its one of the things that was encouraging about Rothko, that he didn’t seem to be embarrassed about it, either.

And yet, like so many of his contemporaries he also reacted against the tendency to interpret the art of the Abstract Expressionists as statements of the human condition. Soon after his first visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston in 1972 he painted a four-panel work, The Seasons of 1974–1975. The sequence starts with a radiance of yellow-green that evokes the light of early spring, and continues with a dense forest green, the color of an oak tree in full leaf. Autumn is a soft misty gray, and winter a panel of pure black, the absence of light. From a distance they do indeed look like Rothko’s veils of color, but they have no transcendental dimension; they are simply distillations of the light and color of the changing seasons.

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