Today the Museum of Modern Art opens Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, a gathering of more than fifty paintings and drawings, organized chronologically, spanning the artist's career. I’ve been looking forward to this exhibit since first hearing of it in the spring; it was well worth the wait, too.
The show starts with a selection from his early minimalist/monochromatic paintings of the mid-60s. The paint, a mixture of oil paint and bees wax, is applied to the canvas in a thick smooth layer reminiscent of smooth spackle. The blues, greens, grays, and plum in these early works seem drab at first, but they soon reveal more depth. At the bottom of each painting a small strip reveals the layers of paint, trial and error it took to achieve this simplicity. Even the sides of the paintings retain the grime and smudges of battle. This is minimalism with a human touch.
From the beginning Marden seems to have had commercial success: these works are in the collections of Robert Rauschenberg, James Mitchner, and several prominent collections and museums.
Ted Loos, A Subtle Sense of Place (New York Times, October 29)
Roberta Smith, The Man Who Persevered When Painting Was Stalled (New York Times, October 27)
Linda Yablonsky, Brice Marden's World of Living Color Crowds MoMA's Tight Walls (Bloomberg News, October 27)
In the mid-1980s the artist shifts to calligraphic gestural painting. Jackson Pollack is often mentioned as an influence, and that’s probably true; however, these are more graceful, more late de Kooning, more Chinese brush and ink work; gorgeous washy brush strokes. He attached his brush to a long stick, as Matisse once did, to have distance from the canvas.
Some of the first works in this gallery are painted on marble. This may seem odd, but the marbled effect will influence the painted canvas surfaces going forward, providing a solid grounding for the rhythmic brush work and an ever-present vein of light blue running through each painting.
The next gallery starts with four large flowing, liquid ink and gouache drawings, which lead to what are for me Mr. Marden’s best paintings in the show: the Cold Mountain series and a Marden masterpiece, The Muses (shown below). Here there is a oneness of line and surface, a cohesive blend not seen prior to them.
What I like most about The Muses is that as he achieves his Zen zinger, the working and reworking, the scratching and scraping and smudging are still evident and such a vital element to its success. It’s a testament to life.
The last gallery with his most recent work is a big jump in color, as in Propitious Garden of Plane, second and third versions (no. 3 shown below): they’re more serious, at times fluorescent, a street graffiti influence and a long way from Cold Mountain. Instead of Matisse I found myself thinking of Goya, a response to the moment in which they were painted. They also remind me of a highway road map, where the driver is constantly rerouting, challenging the status quo.
Be sure to double back for another taste of Zen to cleanse the pallet. The exhibit remains up through January 15th.