"It’s hard to look at paintings,” Brice Marden once said. “You have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body.” Good paintings make the exercise worth the trouble. Great paintings make it seem valuable in itself, as one of the more rewarding things that having minds, imaginations, and bodies lets us do. Marden’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art confirms him, at the age of sixty-eight, as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades. There are fifty-six paintings in the show, dating from broody monochromes made in 1964-66, when Marden was fresh out of art school at Yale, to new, clamorous, six-panelled compositions, twenty-four feet long, of overlaid loopy bands in six colors. (His several styles of laconic form and smoldering emotion might be termed “passive-expressive.”) As selected and installed by Gary Garrels, the senior curator at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, the ensemble affords an adventure in aesthetic experience—and, tacitly, in ethical, and even spiritual experience. There are also some fifty drawings: too few. Marden’s drawings (and etchings, which are entirely absent) constitute an immense achievement in their own right, and their resourcefulness and grace are best perceived in quantity.
Marden was born in Bronxville, New York. His father was a mortgage servicer. Inspired by a sophisticated neighbor who painted, Marden grew up avid for art. He underwent classical academic training at the Boston University of Fine and Applied Arts, from 1958 to 1961. Manet transfixed him; he imitated Cézanne and early Matisse. He discovered Old Masters, chiefly Zurbarán, who would give him lasting sustenance. Marden belongs to a generation of tough-minded American painters who arose in the aftermath of Abstract Expressionism and during the onsets of Pop and minimalism. His Yale classmates included Chuck Close and Robert Mangold, as well as Richard Serra. He is not a minimalist—a label often lazily affixed to him, as to other artists of the era whose deliberate styles register the historical logic of minimalism (a debunking of pictorial rhetoric and illusion) while resisting its impersonality. He took practical guidance from the work of Jasper Johns and, in his early paintings, adopted Johns’s matte, fleshy medium of oils mixed with beeswax—brushing it on, then smoothing it with a kitchen spatula. Marden may usefully be considered a late-entry Abstract Expressionist: a conservative original, the last valedictorian of the New York School. His early enthusiasms included Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and thoughts of Jackson Pollock irradiate his career. Barnett Newman looms behind some of his less successful experiments. But the painter who mattered most to the precocious Marden’s maturation was Mark Rothko.
When viewing the apparently all-gray or all-beige canvases in the show’s first room, try this: approach them slowly from a distance, attempting to keep the surface in focus. At a certain point, your eyes will give up. The surface eludes them. Sombre color seems at once to engulf you, with a sort of oceanic tenderness, and infinitely to recede. This effect distills that of the furry-edged, drifting masses of ineffable color with which Rothko aimed, he said, to evoke a mood of “the single human figure, alone in a moment of utter immobility.” The young Marden’s version is cooler and more calculated. He employed the Rothkovian tactics of hanging paintings unframed, with paint running around the edges, low on the wall—commonly centered at about the height of your solar plexus—to address the viewer body-to-body. Further emphasizing the painting as a physical object, a narrow margin of bare canvas along the bottom displays runs and drips of the work’s several layers of paint. The device is a mite gimmicky, and Marden soon discontinued it. When using more than one color, he applied each to a separate, abutted panel, in diptychs and triptychs, to literalize their division.
All of this might be deemed mainly clever, in a standard key of sixties avant-gardism. Certain titles (“The Dylan Painting,” “Nico”) declare citizenship in the decade’s rock-and-roll, stoned Bohemia. But the color! It can seem that Marden has not only an eye but a taste, smell, touch, and ear for excruciating tone and anonymous hue. His grays and grayed greens and blues recall the ungraspable nuances of Velázquez and, at times, the simmering ardors of Caspar David Friedrich. (Am I dropping too many names? There’s no helping it. Marden, an artist bred in museums, communes rather directly with all past painters whose temperaments correspond to his own.) While working on his ultimate series of monochromes, the exceedingly refined “Grove Group,” of the early seventies, which were inspired by sojourns on the Greek island of Hydra, he made notes on colors that he found in nature: a tree trunk “black brown yellow cold dark”; an olive grove “evasive silver gray green, blue gray green light, black gray browns”; and an Aegean sky “blue, gray, yellow, sulphur, turquoise, yellow, blue.” These quotes are from a remarkable essay, in the show’s catalogue, by the art historian Richard Shiff, who braces a discussion of Marden’s self-abnegating sensitivity—“knowing yourself by forgetting about yourself,” in the artist’s words—with apposite thoughts from the founder of American pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce described the transition in the mind of sensation into feeling, defining experience as “consciousness of the action of a new feeling in destroying the old feeling.” That universal truth epitomizes Marden’s best art, which makes a practically religious tenet of vulnerable openness to “new feeling.” It is a romantic faith, and he observed it with the discipline of an eremite monk.
In the late seventies and early eighties, apparently with Newman in mind, Marden tried to monumentalize his work with architectonic arrays of panels, alluding to Greek temples. Forced grandeur smothered the lyrical intimacy of his colors and textures. While continuing to paint, he regrounded his enterprise through compulsive drawing, often with ink-dipped twigs, in flurries of impetuous line, informed by Chinese calligraphy, Pollock, and latent, dancerly figuration—“letting the drawing itself do the work,” he said. (The antic graphism of Cy Twombly may have been a factor, but Marden maintains a conservative loyalty to unified composition, as Twombly does not.) This led to pale-colored paintings of linear networks, irregular but tensile (as if lightly spring-loaded), which he made in a fluid turpentine-cut medium, wielding sword-length brushes from the shoulder. His “Cold Mountain” series, of 1989-91, named for the Chinese poet Han Shan, strives with mixed success to maintain the spontaneity of drawing on a very large scale. The concentration required to control the big, ungainly strokes is both heroic and taxing; the works can seem to use up as much energy as they impart. But Marden was onto something. With growing confidence, he developed the lines into freely brushed bands of color. Later, these became slow, deliberate shapes in themselves. As color resumed a leading role in his art, the bands turned determinedly gawky, anti-gestural and anti-calligraphic, making you look straight at them.
Two new mural-size paintings, from a series called “The Propitious Garden of Plane Image,” are his most ambitious to date. Their linear complexity and discordant color shock. They deploy a system. On each of six panels, bands in five of the six primary and secondary colors overlay a ground of the sixth. From left to right, the ground colors are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple. The bands writhe like the snakes of the Laocoön while staying dead flat. The phrase “plane image,” Marden has said, emphasizes his constant will to treat picture and paint as one thing. Looking at these paintings is, in a word, hard. They attract and repel in roughly equal measure. As at a party, you’re peripherally aware, wherever you are, of things happening elsewhere. Marden thereby introduces an element of time. We are to view the work episodically—our minds, imaginations, and bodies riveted at each point, but without ultimate resolution. On a first encounter, they create sensations not yet transformed into feelings. Win or lose, Marden’s wager offers something that is increasingly rare in art: high stakes.