Journey from ‘Nebraska’

Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective

Catalog of the exhibition by Gary Garrels
Museum of Modern Art, 330 pp., $65.00

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…

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