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.

With Minimalism, there is always the danger that in the pursuit of austerity the painter or sculptor will cast away visual delight. This never happens with Marden. After the exhibition’s first gallery of single monochromatic rectangles he began to work with two rectangles, then three, then four until in Thira of 1979–1980 he combines eighteen separate rectangles of varying sizes and colors in a work fifteen feet long and eight feet high based on the post-and-lintel construction of Greek architecture. By the early 1970s Marden was using strong primary color. Later he applied color combinations according to predetermined systems, as in Conturbatio of 1978, an eight-foot-wide work that has four panels of different widths in the sequence indigo-yellow-blue-orange, with the indigo and yellow panels half the width of the blue and orange panels. From left to right, the indigo color comes first and is then used as the ground for the yellow panel. In turn yellow becomes the ground color in the blue panel, then blue under orange. At least I think that’s what’s happening. Though the viewer needs to recognize that such works represent problems the artist has set himself and solved, it is largely beside the point to worry too much about how he achieves his effects. It is the confrontation that counts, the aesthetic impact of the subtly balanced color and carefully thought out proportions that resist analysis.

For all the beauty and complexity of the monochrome paintings, the vitality of any artist’s work depends on the continual extension of subject matter. By the early 1980s Marden was beginning to repeat himself. His art had become so refined that there was no place for it to develop, no discoveries for him to make:

I got to a point where I could go on making “Brice Marden paintings” and suffer that silent creative death…. You get to this point where you just have to make a decision to change things.

To another interviewer he explained that he stopped using a monochrome palette because “all I could get were chords. I wanted to be able to make something more like fugues, more complicated, back-and-forth renderings of feelings.” Change, when it came, was as dramatic as the moment in 1967 when the Abstract Expressionist painter Philip Guston returned to figuration.

Drawing had a crucial part in what was to happen next, so it is a pity that at MoMA most of Marden’s drawings are exhibited separately from the paintings on another floor of the museum. Had it been possible to intersperse the two it would have been clear that with their torn edges, deep incisions, blottings, and elements of collage, the works on paper are even more sensuous and intimate than the paintings. What is more, Marden achieved fluidity and spontaneity in his works on paper a full decade before he was to introduce line into his paintings. In the summer of 1973, for example, he started to draw with sticks dipped in ink, which forced him to work more slowly, to surrender a certain degree of manual control, and to incorporate accidents, slips, and chance in his work. In collages made with color postcards of paintings by Goya and Fra Angelico, Marden’s profound response to old master painting is clearer than it is in the canvases.

Particularly relevant for an artist whose style was to change so radically in mid-career is a 1972–1973 notebook full of black ink drawings entitled “Suicide Notes.” The title, I think, refers to his doubts, even at this early date, about his way of working. Inside he uses a Mont Blanc pen to draw networks of spidery black lines that open up the flat surface of the picture plane, introducing space and depth into his art. Suddenly the plane and the image are no longer locked together. This seems to have alarmed him. In notes to himself on the first page he writes, “I don’t know what my mind means!?” and on another sheet it is as though he is thinking aloud when he writes: “more drawing”/”less painting”/”more painting into line”/”space may be torn.”

The catalyst for change was Marden’s exposure to Eastern art, and in particular calligraphy. Late in 1983 he made his first journey to the East—a three-month visit to Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and India. Marden’s visceral response to Asian art isn’t surprising. After all, in its rejection of perspective, search for balance, relentless simplification of form, and economy of expression his art already had much in common with Japanese and Chinese principles of design. The following year, at the suggestion of his wife, he visited a show at New York’s Japan House Gallery and Asia Society entitled “Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th–19th Century.” “It was so exciting,” he said, “and I just started doing a lot of drawing somewhat in relation to it.” In a recent interview he explained:

I had been doing much looser drawings based on things in the landscape and Chinese calligraphy, and I wanted to get that in the painting. So I finally just took out all these drawings and spread them around the studio, and I kept trying to make some kind of painting. But it took me about a year before I got something that made any sense.*

The problem Marden was struggling with lies at the very heart of modernism itself, the struggle against pictorial illusion. The picture plane is an imaginary plane represented by the physical surface of the canvas or the paper. Behind it lies picture space, the apparent space created by the use of perspective or other illusionist devices. Artists can either pierce the picture plane using perspectival illusion to create space (as in the art of Giotto), or they can leave the plane intact, as Marden does. Referring to Cézanne, Picasso, and Pollock, Marden has said that

Modernist painting has been about how the color comes up closer to the surface and how that affects the viewer. The whole evolution of modernism is about getting up, up, up to the surface, tightening the surface of the plane.

For an artist who had always maintained the integrity of the picture plane, to introduce a linear element of any kind was to risk the possibility that spatial depth and illusionistic representation would enter his pictures. This is a problem he had encountered even in the monochromes. Grove Group IV of 1976, executed on the island of Hydra where the Mardens purchased a house in 1973, is one of a series of paintings in which the light of the Aegean landscape is expressed as color. It takes the form of a diptych consisting of two horizontal rectangles of blue-gray and green-gray (see illustration on page 10). Though Marden intended to eliminate depth and representation from the picture, the viewer reads the line formed where the two canvases meet as a horizon, with the green canvas below as the sea, and the blue expanse above as the sky. And the moment the eye sees the picture as a seascape, it also sees the green panel as receding into endless space, even though it knows it is actually looking at a flat plane.

I well remember how shocked I was when I first saw Marden’s new linear paintings in the late 1980s. For in introducing line and brushwork it was as though he had taken a can opener to the closed, impenetrable surface of the earlier works to allow deep drafts of air, movement, and light to blow through his art. It took me some time to realize that the discipline and restraint on which Marden’s whole aesthetic project had been based had not been jettisoned, just taken in a new direction. The first masterworks in the new style were the series of six “Cold Mountain” paintings, inspired by an edition of poems by the ninth-century Chinese poet Cold Mountain (Han Shan) in which the Chinese characters were printed on one page, with the English translation on the other. In Cold Mountain 2, of 1989–1991, tangles of thinned and scraped gray paint have been laid over a network of opaque green and light blue lines to form vertical columns that look like calligraphy—weepy loops and drips of paint that we instinctively see as Chinese characters. So complex is the technique used to create these winding and interlacing webs of paint that our eye soon gives up trying to disentangle line and color. At the same time stains and drips of gray paint irresistibly evoke clouds, rain, or dripping pine trees. Just as in a Chinese landscape painting, the viewer makes the visual journey over mountains, plains, valleys, and seas.

Marden’s physical presence is much more apparent in the Cold Mountain series than it had been in his earlier paintings. Since 1981 he had given up mixing his pigments with wax, instead using terpineol, an oil medium that dries flat. This enabled him to apply paint with loose arm and wrist movements using long brushes to travel lightly and rhythmically over a light gray ground filled with erasures and pentimenti. In some ways the technique feels like Pollock, but it is much more slow, deliberate, and controlled. No forms are fixed. No lines are static. Shapes constantly dissolve and merge into new forms, even as our eye tries to pin them down, creating a palimpsest. And because it is impossible for the viewer to resolve the question of which lines are closer to the picture surface and which further away, the lines never quite pierce the picture plane, which ultimately remains intact.

A whole new world of visual experience opens up in the pictures of the later 1980s and 1990s. In The Sisters, two large abstract figural shapes—one in plum, the other in deep blue—are entwined against a brilliant yellow background. In a way that hasn’t happened before, Marden allows us to see exactly how he laid in every brush stroke, by leaving evidence of his struggle to balance line and color, spontaneity and control. The creative process that was visible only in the bottom edges of the monochrome canvases is now visible throughout the entire picture. The climax of this stage in Marden’s career is The Muses, where, as we saw, the presence of the figure has become irrepressible.

Compare this great picture to Jackson Pollock’s nineteen-foot-long Mural painted in 1943 for Peggy Guggenheim, in which an orgiastic procession of life-sized black stick figures moves from right to left across a cacophony of mean greens, poison yellows, and gashes of dripping raspberry-red paint. Neither artist ever allows our eye to rest, charging every inch of the canvas with energy and movement. But whereas Pollock almost obliterates the underlying figurative imagery, Marden allows the suggestion of the human figure to remain. At first it is abstracted, but by the time we come to Tang Dancer of 1995–1996 Marden has utterly surrendered to the pull of figuration. Here he draws a shape inspired by ceramic tomb figures dressed in a flowing garment and long sleeves at two different stages in a graceful bowing movement (see illustration on page 12). It’s as though we are looking at a figure alongside its X-ray, or else a stop-action photograph.

And then Marden pulls back, as though he’s gone far enough. In his most recent works, The Propitious Garden of the Plane Image, Second Version and The Propitious Garden of the Plane Image, Third Version (both 2000–2006), references to the figure and to calligraphy have been replaced with sinuous abstract lines inspired by Chinese scholar’s rocks. Each twenty-four-foot-wide painting is made up of six four-by-six-foot panels, each panel a different color, arranged in the sequence red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple. On each panel are five meandering bands, each a different color and each applied in a strictly predetermined sequence in the order of the spectrum, beginning with the color of the ground. For example, the linear elements in the red (far left) panel of The Propitious Garden of the Plane Image, Second Version start with a band of orange, then continue with yellow, then green, then blue, then violet.

Once again, because the lines are painted in a way that eludes the viewer’s ability to determine which ones are above and which below, Marden manages to merge the line with the plane. The two new paintings hang opposite each other, so that, as in a mirror image, the color progression in one is reversed in the other. Marden has developed this highly structured working procedure, I think, to put himself in a straitjacket of sorts, for by concentrating his mind on such a difficult formal problem he precludes the possibility that the illusion of depth, recession into space, or figural representation—all precariously close in the work of the later 1990s—will be present in the new work. To step into the last gallery in the show where these compact, tense paintings hang is like going from the open air into a cave lit by torchlight and seeing colors that burn, glow, and throb.

Think back to early monochromes like Nebraska and you become aware of how far Marden has journeyed over the last forty years, and how fascinating each stage of that journey has been. But we can also see how wrong it would be to think of his art as an art of deletion or reduction. Almost from the beginning he worked not by jettisoning what had gone before but by incorporating Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism, old master painting, and Chinese art and calligraphy into the work at hand. Each of these influences is internalized until it becomes so much a part of Marden’s art that eventually it becomes invisible. Then he moves on.

As well as the viewer’s not being able to see the drawings on the same floor as the paintings, the exhibition is also affected by one of the design flaws in Yoshio Taniguchi’s new Museum of Modern Art: astonishingly, the top-floor galleries where the Marden show is taking place have only one space in which the paintings can be seen under natural light. Since light is so important to Marden, it means that the show, which is beautifully chosen and installed by Gary Garrels, will look even better when it moves in February to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the works can be seen at different times of day and therefore in constantly changing light.


Corrections January 11, 2007

  1. *

    Interview with Chris Ofili, Artforum, October 2006.