December 27, 2010

Bound Lines: Brice Marden's New Paintings

I've had a mixed relationship with Brice Marden's paintings over the years. I loved the rich, simple surfaces and subtle color of his oil/beeswax paintings of the 70s. When he began the Cold Mountain series of calligraphic paintings I remember being in an interesting state about them, of feeling that they were somewhere between art and not-art. They were such an abrupt change, and really, I have to admire that seemingly fearless jump into something new, just as Philip Guston did when moving from abstraction back into representation. But I was never fully won over, and when I saw the Marden retrospective at MOMA in 2006 I came away terribly disappointed. The early minimalist paintings looked thin, and the most recent work merely decorative. Only in the first calligraphic paintings did I find a searching, a tentative quality that was very moving. After that, the work seemed to settle into an assured manner, with color verging on pretty.

Then I saw the Marden exhibition, "Letters", currently on view at Matthew Marks, when I was in NYC last week, and my feelings about the work changed again. These paintings looked beautiful, sensitive, sensuous, lyrical. Trying to tease out my change of heart I see something different in the work, and probably something different in my receptivity. In these paintings, inspired by seeing a Sung dynasty poem mounted with borders, Marden has added gray panels of paint surrounding the lines, holding them inside their plane, activating the touch along the edge. For me, the borders, seemingly neutral, add a different quality of energy than lines meeting the edges of the canvas; in the contrast, I become more aware of the lines' dance, their flow, their tension.

I also like the more subtle color of these works, even in the Red Ground Letter above. Lyricism can so easily tilt into sugary decoration, and Marden's more recent work at the retrospective tumbled into it. With these paintings, I'm won over again, as I see line take on a rich, flowing life, and, as you can see in the details below, be part of a process of excavation and rebuilding, as paint, scraped and reapplied, builds a sense of time and contemplation.

*I used my photographs of the show to illustrate this post, so don't know how accurate the color is. You can see more images on the gallery website, linked above, but I think their photos are washed out and don't give a sense of the richness of surface of the paintings. Also, I decided to include the walls and floor in the photos of the paintings for scale, but see that the gray floor may add another compositional element to the painting; I hope it's not distracting.


  1. Fabulous dancing lines, free floating, but I like that you are aware of their time and contemplation. I like the floor element in your shots. Space and contemplation. Your posts enrich my life and I thank you, Altoon.

    May your new year be rich with joy and inspiration.

  2. Thanks so much, Maggie. And all the best to you too.

  3. Thanks for a most worthwhile article. I have been a fan of Marden for years from his hardline geometric stuff to his calligraqphic work. Great to see the details of the paint surface, most revealing and full of richness.