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Brice Marden’s two-gallery show—his first exhibition of new paintings in New York in five years, and his best since 1991, if not since the mid 1970s—proves once again that this artist is a special case. In a time that is skeptical of straightforward abstraction, Marden’s work is widely loved. The advertisements and announcements that have, over the years, pictured him sitting on Cézanne’s tomb or wielding long sticks with charcoal on the end or shown his naked wife standing among his work, whether ironic, audacious, or romantic, are intended to make us think: “Behold, the lair of the Zen cave painter, the rock-star shaman. See his muse.” Contrary to most instances of self-conscious image manipulation, Marden’s behavior has never obscured his accomplishments. The work and what surrounds it are of a piece.
Great-looking at 64, he paints with the vigor of someone half his age. Still, it’s difficult to talk about his art without sounding old school or new age. Ask someone what makes Marden great or why him and not a number of other artists who evince similar qualities, and you’ll hear words and names you don’t usually hear: “touch,” “color,” “poetry,” and “Pollock.” Marden began his career in 1966 to great fanfare, exhibiting monochromatic encaustic paintings that minimalism had already made theoretically passé. Even then he excelled at something he excels at today: making old issues new.
As easy as it is to like Marden’s paintings, and as effortless as they look, art hasn’t come easy to him. His growth has always been laborious; for a while in the late 1970s and early ’80s it was tortured. Marden’s beauty is coaxed, not natural. De Kooning praised Gorky as “willing to be confused.” Marden is similarly willing. Although he has made dogmatic pronouncements like “Art is an intense search for truth” and “Painters are among the worker priests of the cult of man,” Marden’s confusion is ever-present but also quite subtle. Some would say frustratingly or fussily so.
Marden admits he’s “a plodder.” However, if one were to see his oeuvre from the last 15 years, in a sequential, time-lapse, slow-motion movie, each work seamlessly blending into the next, Marden’s confusion would loom large. An elusive drama of rigor, control, and disquiet would emerge, a saga of gradual development. The shifting of little things would become more apparent, as would the funneling of techniques into and out of the work. Marden’s art looks graceful, but it is always in turmoil.
With this stirring, if overblown, two-gallery outing, Marden has raised plodding to new heights. Two or three recent canvases are as strong as any he’s ever made. On subtly inflected fields of incandescent, almost Persian color, circuitous lines twist and turn. Anchored in the upper right corner, a ribbony one might glide down across the center, cut back, curve, and gently caress the left hand edge before falling away toward the bottom of the canvas, where it may swell once or twice, graze the lower edge, swoop back to the top of the work, deviating now and then in an arching arabesque, before rejoining itself. The eye follows these meanderings, never completing a circuit, switching from one color to another.
Whether you see them as snakes in a box, subway maps from Shangri-la, or wallpaper patterns, these lines measure, echo, and correspond with the four sides that contain them. They’re trains of thought and flights of fancy. Given the simplicity, recognizability, and recurrence of his formula, not to mention an opacity of intention, a tendency toward preciousness, and an undeniable decorativeness, it’s a wonder Marden has been able to make so much out of such rigid limitations.
But he has. The exhibition of seven paintings and 11 drawings, dating from 1996 to last year, on 24th Street is laudable but ungainly and lacks the emotional grip of the 22nd Street show, which is speculative and grand. There, seven new canvases and 12 drawings show Marden sidestepping the sleepwalker state mature artists sometimes slip into (see Claes Oldenburg/Coosje van Bruggen at Pace), and intensifying his exploration of what the painter Stephen Westfall calls “deep structure”—meaning patterns that are simultaneously personal and universal.
Marden’s newest paintings are less lyrical than previous ones, the system more obvious. Everything is thought out yet mysterious. Recalling the solidity and sensuousness of his earliest work, surfaces are more worked over and distressed. Instead of being twiggy the lines are languorous, more full-bodied, and deliberate; they’re less calligraphic or nervous, and move you about dreamily but assuredly.
Resulting configurations may resemble circuitry, game boards, abstract figures, or still lifes. Each canvas is comprised of five or six colors. Importantly, the lines are ordered following the colors of the spectrum. A brandy red is always furthest forward, followed by dusky orange, yellow, green, blue, then violet. (In Round Rock, Tight Rock (4) and 6 Red Rock 1, my two favorites, the order is fiddled with.) Oddly, Marden never uses indigo. In contrast to older works, lines occasionally spill over edges. This thrusts the asymmetric grids forward, eliminates much of the middle ground, and makes these canvases more intense.
Whatever he’s thinking about, regardless of abstraction’s viability, and in spite of his work’s sporadic repetitiveness, Marden is still pursuing something primal in ways that remain transfixing.