A moving meditation on mortality in the late paintings of Brice Marden

Brice Marden’s recent paintings and drawings are provisional, tender, heartbreaking, angry, vulnerable and open. As his job requires him to engage the surface with gestures, pressures and movements – which has been true since the start of his career – this ties in with what he can accomplish physically. Thinking back to the career of this eminent artist, I see three fundamental periods. In the first, which ran from 1964 to the mid-1980s, he worked in a monochromatic fashion and was known for the thoroughness of his attention to the surface and the palpable but elusive color he could achieve with the encaustic. There was an unmistakable physicality in his muted paintings, a tension between the expressive and the sober.

In the second period he rethought the way he used line and the way he painted, and swapped the subtle tactility of the encaustic for diluted oil and drawing in what he told me. once described as “dirty turpentine”. This period was inspired by his window designs for Basel Cathedral; his travels in North Africa, where he became interested in Islamic architecture in Fez and Marrakech; a trip to Thailand, where he started collecting seashells, especially scrolls, and made layered designs loosely based on their brands; and by the exhibition Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th-19th century, at the Japan House Gallery and Asia Society, New York (October 4, 1984 – January 6, 1985).

In his paintings of this time, he would go back into the looped lines and, using a razor blade, make sure the edges were straight and clean. The lines were flat and gracefully displaced, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings without resembling them in any way. I never thought that Marden thought it necessary to get rid of the past or quote it. He believed that it was possible to move forward without adhering to these well-known choices, and time has proven him to be right.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These paintings are by themselves at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian)

While Marden’s meticulousness and definitive visual statements characterize the first two periods, the third, or what I consider his late period, reveals an artist who knows change is inevitable, mortality draws near, and death draws near. art is not a bulwark against time. . This awareness of the passage of time has had a major effect on his work and, I will risk, on his psyche.

I estimate this late period began around 2016-17, when he made 10 paintings measuring 8 by 6 feet, using 10 different brands of earth green oil paint; each painting was done in one of the brands, with the paint applied in successive layers. The process was gradual, restricted, and, as with his previous work, carefully thought out with regard to its parameters. At the time, Marden was almost 80 years old.

Marden applied a thin wash of one of the green earths over the entire surface. He then measured a horizontal line, resulting in a square on top, tightly filling the top of the vertical format, while leaving a wide stripe along the bottom. This compositional structure appears to have been inspired by the proportions of a vertical sketchbook he was using at the time. Then he filled the square with successive coats of slow-drying wet paint, allowing thin streams of color to drip from the lower edge of the square into the strip below, like ragged string. By dividing the canvas into two uneven areas and covering the surface with a strict monochrome, Marden limited his control over the painting’s imagery and gave up his ability to determine what happened in the broadband ci below.

Marden chose green earth (also known as “green earth”), knowing that Botticelli used it as an undercoat of his subject’s flesh in works such as “Idealized Portrait of a Lady” (tempera à l’Å“uf, 1480), where he glances through the translucent skin of the figure. Known as one of the most permanent pigments of all, it evokes both wet moss and rot.

Brice Marden, “Prelude” (2011–21), oil and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio. Courtesy permission from Gagosian)

For Marden, color is never just color; it is connected to nature, light and alchemy. It seems to me that no one has yet delved into all the ways that color signifies and resonates in his work, from his reference to the sunlight shining through a grove of olive trees to the trinity of colors he has used. in his works for Basel Cathedral. .

Here are some of the thoughts, memories and feelings that came to my mind shortly after sitting on a bench in the main gallery of the exhibition. Brice Marden: These paintings are by themselves, in Gagosian (November 13-December 23, 2021), but as I looked at the work, another line of thought began to crystallize.

In the late 1980s, following his interest in calligraphy, Marden began working on Cold mountain, a series of black and white paintings, drawings and prints inspired by his reading of the legendary Chinese hermit poet Han Shan, translated by Red Pine. In an interview with the painter Pat Steir who appeared in the brochure accompanying these works in the exhibition Brice Marden: Cold mountain, to Dia Chelsea (October 17, 1991 – May 31, 1992), Marden said:

At first I made drawings using the shape that poems take in Chinese, then I started to combine picture and calligraphy, using the shape of the poem as a skeleton. I am more and more interested in the ideas of Tao and Zen. Cold Mountain’s poems speak a lot about this.

Later he said:

It is not a form of writing. I am not try to make a language.

I don’t think Marden is I was trying to create a language, but looking at the paintings and drawings I started to think that there was an asemic element in these works that should not be ignored. This is especially true of the “Chalk” paint (oil, charcoal, and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches, 2013-21), which seems to have turned everything Marden has done before into something fresh – to both calm, accepting, and exposed.

Brice Marden, “Chalk” (2013–21), oil, charcoal and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio. With l ‘kind permission from Gagosian)

Using the same proportions he chose for his green earth paintings, Marden outlined a 6-by-6-foot square, leaving a two-foot strip below. He then divided the square into a grid of 225 squares, using a pencil, so that it rested on the tape. The palette at the top of the painting consists of sandstone red, Chinese red, and ghostly white, while the lower band is a mustard yellow infused with green – obliquely complementary colors. The group also arouses associations with Chinese scroll painting, in which the work is mounted on yellow silk.

In each square of the grid, Marden used white to make a rounded shape, sometimes as an open line and other times a halved shape, which evokes nature (i.e. rocks) and linguistic signs. The grid can also be read like a graph, but of what? Evoking chalk (title of the painting), the pale white lines suggest an indecipherable language, a recording of which one can only guess the meaning, as well as a state of impermanence. On this grid of white and organic shapes, he drew a series of lines in red and white paint. One of the white lines seems to define the silhouette of a character. (How do you read it?) The other white lines are used to partially cover a red line, sometimes painted wet in wet, so that they take on a particular shade. Some of the red runs along the greenish band.

“Chalk” is a layered painting or palimpsest in which Marden brings together different materials – graphite, pencil, and oil paint – and two monochrome patterns, with additional markings and lines over the larger area. Contrary to his penchant for control, which was certainly a hallmark of monochromatic paintings and later works, such as the six-panel painting “The Auspicious Garden of the Flat Image, Third Version” (2000-6), in the collection of MoMA, Marden lets go from the green earth rooms. His use of asemic signs recognizes that we cannot say everything in language, and that part of our experience remains indecipherable. And yet, knowing this, he does not come to the same void twice; he never transforms this inability to write unfinished language into a theme or a variation. Every painting is different. By his earlier standards, these works are unfinished and dependent on the artist’s aging body.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These paintings are by themselves at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian)

In his interview with Steir, Marden acknowledged the role played by time, its effect on the body, and he made no attempt to take refuge in the style:

I’m 5 ‘8 ½ ”, and I weigh that much, and I’m left-handed, and I’m of a certain age. It has a great effect on the appearance of a thing. The kind of brand that I can do physically.

The Tao teaches the adept to let go of his expectations and to live here and now. When Marden continues the vertical row of marks on the far right of a design, even as the ink runs out, he does not replenish the ink but registers himself as it disappears. The signs he is making may not be decipherable, but they spoke directly to my heart. They are the diary of an aging man living in time, while conveying his love for certain places and curiosities. I think they are some of the most open and moving paintings and drawings that Marden has done in his already rich career.

Brice Marden: These paintings are by themselves continues in Gagosian (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until December 23.

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