JOSEPH MARIONI Eye to Eyeby Robert C. Morgan
THE PHILLIPS COLLECTION | OCTOBER 22, 2011 – JANUARY 29, 2012
In 1986, Joseph Marioni proposed the term “radical painting” to describe what he does. Radical painting is the root source that “exists as a concrete object in the real world [and] presents the least information and the most sensation of all painting.” The sensation to which he refers is color; and through color, he aspires to give his viewers an “experience of some primordial essence.”
Marioni is clearly aware of the issues confronting the advancement of painting in the age of the Internet. For more than 40 years he has developed a finely tuned method of painting that some would identify as a type of monochrome approach, which he affirmatively denies. He believes his concerns are not consistent with what monochrome painters are striving to do. Marioni does not paint his linen surfaces with a single hue, but with many. The distillation of these surfaces occurs over a period of time, indicating many coats of pigment have been applied, not all of them the same uniform color.
The occasion of traveling to Washington, D.C. to view the exhibition Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips, curated by Vesela Sretenovic, came as a result of a discussion with the artist that lasted more than three hours one cold afternoon in the office of Paul Rodgers Gallery on West 20th Street. Until then—more than 40 years after I had first seen his work in San Francisco—we had never really sat down and engaged in a discussion. In addition to the optically charged, large-scale paintings on the walls of Rodgers’s office salon, I was curious to see more of Marioni’s recent work. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection consisted of maybe 15 relatively small-scale paintings by the artist, completed between 1993 and 2011. Additionally, the curator asked the artist to choose paintings from the permanent collection that would be shown in the galleries adjacent to the two rooms where his work would be hung. The results were somewhat astonishing, as the semiotics of color in painting became the central issue.
The selection of works included paintings by artists noted for their original use of light and color, ranging from Matisse to Bonnard, from Van Gogh to Monet, from O’Keeffe to Ryder, from John Marin to Gene Davis, and from Joan Mitchell to a selection of paintings by Mark Rothko from the 1950s. The Western historical legacy, showing the exuberant revelations of color and light from the late 19th through the mid-20th century, implied a natural theme for the exhibition. This occurred not only through the insightful selection of Marioni’s work, but also as a tribute to the late founder of the collection, Duncan Phillips, who maintained a long-term involvement with painters whose inventive chromatic breakthroughs defined the course of modernist painting.
For Marioni, the beginning of the 20th century was a time when painting was largely split between mimetic forms of representation and abstract forms that proposed to carry expressive, philosophical, and/or ontological content. There was also a third means of pictorial production, one that stood apart from the other two—namely, painting that depended solely on the premises of its own means. Rather than a representational image or abstract distillation of something else, this kind of painting virtually defined what the essence of painting could be. Marioni understood the need for this kind of approach, where painting would evolve further toward its own objectivity. He saw this in the tripartite red, blue, and yellow canvases of the Russian painter Rodchenko in 1921.
Instead of overstating the existence of form through language, as was evident in the formalist criticism of the 1960s, Marioni has insisted that painting should move in the direction of the viewer, and what the viewer sees in relation to experience: “The relationship of the viewer with the painting is a private experience of a certain human condition.” In further stating that “not all human conditions are linguistic”—a phrase used more than once in his writings—the artist emphasizes direct viewing as the most accurate means by which to determine qualitative significance in painting. One cannot classify Marioni’s work as simply monochrome, abstract, or some other variant of late Color Field painting; the artist’s mandate, rather, is that we see and feel the work directly, not on a screen but in the architectural viewing space where actual light illuminates the surface from a controlled exterior source.
In recognition of the rhetorical limitations of painting, Marioni appears to incarnate the painted surface with a physical grace that he hopes will optically and metaphorically dematerialize into an aura of translucency. Ultimately it is the layering of color that makes the surface begin to appear palpable as “liquid light.” At that point, the effect of transparency appears neither separated from the surface nor contingent on some exterior form of meaning. Simply put, it is the means by which the artist applies color that intrinsically offers meaning, as surely as color and light become inextricably bound to one another.
As a thinking artist, Marioni functions in part as a metacritic in the sense that he appears to relish dialogues with critics, collectors, art historians, theorists, curators, museum directors, and other artists. (I understand the term “metacritic” from reading the philosopher Eugene Kaelin back in the 1970s, where metacriticism is essentially defined as a criticism of criticism.) He is an artist who resists names or labels that attempt to classify him. The one label from which Marioni has never wavered or equivocated, however, is that of being a “painter.” His evocative exhibition of “liquid light” at the Phillips Collection is a perhaps a harbinger of what late modernist painting can be when museums and artists work together to make their points heard, felt, understood, and finally, carefully honed and delivered for public view.