The Brice Is Right

Few living artists have such breathtaking ways of making things

Over the last 40 years, the painter Brice Marden has been photographed wearing funny hats, wielding stick-like paintbrushes in his studios, sitting on Cézanne's tomb, or occupying some breathtaking piece of real estate that he owns. Whether meant ironically or romantically, these photos have helped people think of Marden as some rock star shaman–Zen master–saint of paint. Unlike most self-conscious image manipulation, however, these photos haven't obscured Marden's amazing achievement or diminished his enormous influence.

This is because, since around 1986, Marden has methodically and compulsively, sometimes annoyingly, but nevertheless magnificently, made a seemingly endless, slowly evolving series of exotically colored paintings with Hellenistically shallow space and artery- and spaghetti-like looping lines and squiggles that move within these canvases like snakes in a box. These paintings resemble abstract illuminated manuscripts, subway maps from Shangri-la, insect architecture, organic labyrinths, woozy doodles, and pretzels. Depending on your point of view, Marden is either a keeper of the faith of painting or caught in a formulaic feedback loop.

Marden's formula is familiar. On inflected fields of incandescent color, circuitous lines turn in asymmetrical arabesques. Almost always anchored in the upper right corner (perhaps because he's left-handed and doesn't want to smear the paint), a full-bodied ribbon might glide down across the center of a painting, cut back, coil, head out to the left-hand edge of the canvas, brush it for a half a foot or so, then fall away toward the bottom, where it will trace the lower edge for several inches. From here it might rise in a double-humpback configuration, loop, and graze the right edge of the painting. Then it will voluptuously wind its way back upward, arching ornamentally before rejoining its starting point at the top-right-hand edge of the canvas.

6 Red Rock I, 2000–2002
Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society
6 Red Rock I, 2000–2002

Details

Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings
Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 15

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In this way, these lines—always going to or coming from the edges of the canvas—are being generated by the four sides of the painting. In effect, each painting is producing, describing, and—as painter Carroll Dunham brilliantly said of work like this—"remembering itself." Marden's paintings are like mimes pressing against the four walls of a cell. He wants to see if there might be a space of elsewherewithin these confines. In some metaphysical way, then, Marden's paintings ask questions each of us often silently asks: "Where am I?" and "Is there any way out?"

Beyond the linear structuring, Marden's colors are often laid down according to the spectrum. In other words, if the line visually closest to the viewer in one painting is red, that line will alwayspass over the next closest color to the surface, which will invariably be orange. The orange line, in turn, will be atop the yellow, which will be above green, and so on, to violet. This dual ordering guides you so that you're not only moving around and withinthe paintings, you're moving into and outof them in similarly prescribed ways.

As seen on MOMA's sixth floor, "Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings" is a 10-gallery two-act play. The opening act takes place in the first five galleries and consists of luminous encaustic monochromes painted between 1964 and 1978. These paintings only get more sensuous over time and seem to recall the backgrounds of Spanish paintings. The second act, in the last five galleries, is composed of the "snakes in a box" paintings from 1986 onward. This retrospective is a shot in the arm to those who believe that painting should aspire to a condition of painting rather than photography or appropriation. Yet two crucial aspects of Marden's career are unaccountably missing.

De Kooning once praised Gorky as "willing to be confused." Marden has been similarly willing, but you wouldn't know it from this show. First, Marden's rich drawings, loaded as they are with false starts, dead ends, and messy thoughts, have been inexplicably installed far away on the third floor. Worse, the realsecond act of Marden's career has been erased. By the late 1970s even Marden knew he was in trouble, that he couldn't go on making monochromes. He told one interviewer that he was experiencing a "silent creative death." Sadly, only a tiny sliver of that "death" is on view at MOMA, in three small irregularly shaped works on marble with strangely scratchy lines. Several galleries of this chaotic, unsure, deeply transitional second act would have shown that Marden has never been just an elegant master. Like so many other formalists, minimalists, and monochromists of his generation, Marden barely made it out of 1970s artistically alive.

Viewers will leave the sixth floor of this retrospective never knowing that Marden was in artistic hell for nearly 10 years. Nevertheless, the show is beautiful. Few living artists have such breathtaking ways of making things. Marden deserves the laurel he wears. Nonetheless, this retrospective leaves you with the impression that Marden's endless elliptical journey around and within the edges of his paintings, as ravishing as it can be, might now be a kind of holding pattern or way to stave off another painful transition.

I love many of the "snake" paintings and the erratic trellis-like configurations from the "Cold Mountain" series that lead to them. By now, however, I think that Marden is perfecting and refining his formula rather looking for that elusive space of elsewhere. Marden invented fire in the early 1960s with his stunning monochromes. Then, after 10 years in a creative abyss, he rekindled that fire with these snakes. As churlish as it may sound, I left this ravishing exhibition wishing that Marden would try to light that extraordinary fire one more time. If anyone could have a four-act career, it's Marden.

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