Attendants, Bears, and Rocks: Brice Marden at the Matthew Marks Gallery

After numerous viewings of the Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, among the things I was most astonished by was the combination of recklessness and control in Pollock’s unspooling lines, his subtle, smoldering sense of color, and the ways in which the all-over abstractions persistently evoke not so much landscape as the phenomenology of natural processes. I am thinking especially of the lavenders and the strange underlayers of metallic silver in “Lavender Mist,” and of the hallucinatory blue fountains that slowly surge up through the webs of line in “Blue Poles.” In a way, Pollock’s most powerful canvases wed his relationship to the sublime expanses of the American landscape and his turn to the primal, Jungian unconscious found in his automatic drawings and his savagely painted early abstractions: Works like “Autumn Rhythm,” “Lavendar Mist,” and “Blue Poles” hover and pulse in a place that feels at once deep inside the mind and radically external. It is, I think, Pollock’s combination of accreted, formless matter and allusive line, the webs of paint implying an underlying grid they refused to observe, which has made Pollock’s work important beyond the confines of New York School gestural abstraction.
When Brice Marden’s landmark Cold Mountain paintings and drawings were first exhibited at the Dia Foundation in 1991, they instantly evoked Pollock, and especially the Pollock of the late drawings in black enamel, far more than Franz Kline’s heraldic calligraphic paintings or the work of the masters of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. This should come as no surprise, especially once one has read Marden’s penetrating remarks on Pollock in his 1989 gallery talk at the Museum of Modern Art, excerpted in Brenda Richardson’s essay in the catalogue for the Cold Mountain exhibit. But while Pollock’s poured lines, even at their most elegant and reserved, have a raw, driven physical and emotional momentum, Marden’s paintings are supremely delicate, almost hypersensitive, their intensities restrained and meditative. Brice Marden earned his reputation painting monochromes in oil and beeswax, which distinguished themselves from their rigorous minimalist contemporaries by their intimacy, vulnerability, and sensuality; flat, without expressive mark (though the rhythms of the knifing on of the foggy grey-greens and grey-blues are palpable), Marden was less interested in a critique of painting’s conventions than in beckoning the viewer’s eyes and body. Marden’s often moody sensualism, however, is always exquisitely disciplined, and the panels of the 1970s, like “Grove Group I” (1973) and the crushing “Sea Painting I” (1973), with their explicit evocation of sky and water in Mediterranean light, have a classical beauty and tender, elegiac lucidity reminiscent of Renaissance painters like Bocaccio and Bellini. In the 1980s, inspired by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, Marden began doing ink drawing using long, flexible acanthus twigs. The earliest, most tentative of these drawings crudely resemble their calligraphic ancestors, but soon the drawings become tangled webs of nervous, skittering, overlapping lines. The lines in Marden’s stick drawings are like antennae registering emotion instant by instant, yet at the same time Marden is not afraid of leaving in the accidents, the places where the stick slips or skids: Passages in some of these drawings look like records of natural events. Transmuted into paint on Cold Mountain’s huge canvases, and executed with long-handled brushes rather than sticks, the webs of thinned oil paint are open and mobile, the lines sometimes thick and bleeding, other times skidding or tapering to a narrow, wavering edge. Although rooted in drawing, these are fully realized paintings, and color and surface matter. Painted on bare canvas or thinly washed grounds, the lines vary in density and transparency, so that some appear as mere traces or shadows, and the darker lines are counterpoised to lines in a pale blueish-grey. The strongest of the Cold Mountain paintings—“The Cold Mountain 2” (1989-91) and “Cold Mountain 5 (Open)” (1989-91)—have an indeterminate moonlit shimmer in which the lines dance.

The Cold Mountain paintings are continuous and all-over, the snaking vertical lines intersecting into cells, which almost imply natural forms. Whereas the lines in the Cold Mountain Drawings, as well as the stunning St. Bart’s Drawings and the Zen Study Etchings are frantic and swarming, the paintings have a studied, taut serenity, carefully balanced between freedom and control. It should be noted that the Cold Mountain paintings are to some extent indebted to classical Chinese landscape painting: Think of the nests of inked line that snake and reticulate down the hanging scroll of 14th century Taoist priest Wu Boli’s “Dragon Pine,” which is in the Metropolitan Museum. Furthermore, the difference between Cold Mountain and Marden’s early work should not be overstated, for they are organized vertically, the webbed bands seem to pull against an assumed grid, and they still have Marden’s trademark cool eroticism. Brice Marden’s recent exhibit, Attendants, Bears, and Rocks, which filled Matthew Mark’s two spacious Chelsea galleries, surveys the full range of Marden’s work of the past five years: there are large oil paintings, stick drawings in ink, and countless drawings of various size in ink and gouache. The title of the show refers to the ancient Chinese ceramic figures placed in tombs to accompany the dead, Chinese scholars’ rocks used as aids in meditation, and a bear Marden glimpsed outside his studio in rural Pennsylvania, and I think the title points to something significant about the new work and the direction it implies. The Cold Mountain paintings, inspired by the writings of the eighth-century Chinese hermit Han Shan, trace the meandering paths of unencumbered, meditative thought; the new paintings, on the other hand, are more direct, solid, and grounded in concrete, descriptive shape.

Attendants, Bears, and Rocks opens with “Bear” (1996-97) in which red, light blue, and green bands coil in open, nearly biomorphic shapes on a bright, dry orange ground. The lines form a kind of geometric system, and although they by no means directly describe a bear, they sit vertically on the lower edge of the canvas in a way that evokes figuration, and their mobile, bowing lines suggest the lumbering gait of a fleeing animal. In addition, the keyed-up but still warm and earthy ground pushes the confident lines out toward the viewer rather than letting them drift in a cool, misty, introspective space. “Bear,” like many of the paintings in the show, offers what de Kooning referred to as a “glimpse of content." In “The Attendant” (1996-99), pale lines create fetal shapes on a grayish-white ground which retains traces of erased or painted-over lines, and in “The Attendant 5” (1996-99) similar shapes are painted more fiercely, their edges bleeding. In both of these paintings, Marden has painted in the top and bottom edges of the canvas, as though to both anchor the shapes and to underscore the fact that these are not open compositions, but are about shape. Marden works by painting in the lines and then painting them over with the ground. Aided by photographs, he then paints the bands back over the ground, and, continuously adjusting both the ground and the lines, he repeats this process over and over (note that many of these paintings were worked on for several years) until the painting is, in his eyes, resolved. One of the results of this is that the canvases are haunted by erasures, traces of earlier versions, making the final bands, however solid, appear to be part of a contingent process. One of the results of this is that the canvases are haunted by erasures, traces of earlier versions, making the final bands, however solid, appear to be part of a contingent process. One of this exhibit’s startling surprises is the extent to which the paintings remind one of Picasso’s surrealist-influenced synthetic cubist period and also Ashile Gorky’s late biomorphic abstractions with their sinuous, lyrical plant forms. Picasso’s “Bathers,” for example, remains a figurative work, the aggressively grotesque forms possessing menacing eyes and the mouths against a horizon of sea and sky, but nonetheless it is on the verge of abstraction. Marden’s new paintings, on the other hand, while they provide no representational cues and their forms resist the depth and volume of solid objects, coyly point toward the figurative. American abstract art has from the beginning taken place under the specter of Cubism and surrealism, and it is a tribute to the power of those idioms that their presence is felt in Brice Marden’s recent paintings.

The work in Attendants, Bears, and Rocks is not, however, invariably successful. Paintings like “Orange Rocks, Red Ground (3)” (2000-1), and “6 Red Rocks” (2000-2), for example, their thick, ribboning bands placed solidly within their painted frames, are static and frontal. The thicker, built-up surfaces and brighter palette of Marden’s recent work places greater weight on the dynamism of the bands and the transfiguring quality of the emergent forms. They are, in a way, a form of consciousness which gravitates around objects rather than representing them, and they are only compelling when they retain their sense of revision and improvisation, of thought as something in continuous motion: otherwise the bands remain mere bands and the paintings become decorative.  In this respect, they might be compared with de Kooning’s austere paintings of the early 1980s, which rely on the ephemeral velocity of their undulating bands and swift contours. In “Round Rock, Tight Rock (4)” (2000-1), the bands whip and knot horizontally on the stressed orange ground, the shapes seeming to be in the process of forming and unforming at once. And in the daringly sumptuous “Red Rocks” paintings, all on edible purple grounds, the bands are wide and loose, and, as in “Round Rock, Tight Rock,” create a sense of knotting and unknotting, as though the broad, interior forms were temporary. The purple grounds, especially in the darker “Red Rocks (5)” (2000-1), are dense and atmospheric, and, while evoking earth tones, remain aggressively unnatural. These paintings may be anchored by the idea of scholars’ rocks, but they still occupy a decidedly interior space. The “Red Rocks” paintings as a whole are, I think, the highlight of the show, and they suggest Marden’s work, known for its refinement, is moving toward greater simplicity and directness of both line and color. Purple is not an effete color for connoisseurs, but gesturing toward the warm and the cool, it is always heavy, a little sticky, and on the verge of being vulgar. Attendants, Bears, and Rocks, like the earlier Cold Mountain exhibition, also contains a significant number of drawings, and Marden’s calligraphic drawings are crucial to understanding his paintings. Drawing has always played an important role in Marden’s art, as his gorgeous, brooding drawings of the 1960s in charcoal, graphite, and beeswax attest. Marden’s works on paper are not, however, simply studies for the larger paintings, but are a king of laboratory in which he develops his vocabulary and engages issues in a more improvisatory manner. In the drawings, many of which are done from nature, Marden lets go of the pressure toward aesthetic resolution, and the incredible sensitivity and responsiveness of his line is given full reign. In two large pieces in gouache and ink from 1998, red, green, and black lines snarl and bleed, white lines slithering underneath. The series of stick drawings, on the other hand, have a delicate, splindly lyricism, the ink scratching and skidding on the white page. Compared with the deliberate, curving bands of the paintings, the “Red Rock” drawings are fierce and congested, and again the drawings in red and yellow on grey paper have a ragged, combustive energy. And yet Marden’s drawings, like his paintings, never feel gestural. The marks in some of the drawings seem less drawn than occurrences that took place on the pace (many of the much earlier “Shell Drawings” resemble fossil traces), and the tensile energy of the lines is elegant and autonomous, as though their motion came from within the lines rather than the artist’s hand. Again, one is reminded of the way in which Pollock’s mature paintings and drawings trace the motion of mind and matter, but are never crudely expressive. In Marden’s work, the subjectivity of the artist never imposes itself upon the beholder.

In his glowing review of Attendants, Bears, and Rocks for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Abstract painting used to be the prow of art history. Now it is a field of special, refined, even snooty taste.” The questions Schjeldahl raises are, I think, important and difficult to answer. Although abstract art began with the utopian mandate of distilling the pure structure of the world and experience, is abstract painting now able to appeal to anything beyong what used to be called the “aesthetic emotions,” the finicky pleasures of line, color, and surface? The disarming exquisiteness of Brice Marden’s most compelling work, as well as that of other contemporary masters of abstract painting such as Robert Ryman, Gerhard Richter, Terry Winters, and Bill Jensen, to name a few, makes their work especially vulnerable to such questions. Are these paintings directed only toward the refined eyes of tasteful aesthetes, or are they able to engage more complex, wide-ranging thoughts, what Schejdahl nostalgically terms, “up-to-date consciousness?”

It is worth keeping in mind that there are myriad ways other than illusion and figure for a work of art to lead the viewer back toward the world, that much abstract art is now considerably less than purely abstract, and that “abstract” and “figurative” may be a less than illuminating dichotomy. Pollock’s all-over canvases can hardly be understood apart from a physical and perceptual encounter with a peculiarly American landscape. Ellsworth Kelly’s paintings of the later 1950s are based on minute observations of cracked skylights, light on water, and shadows on stairways. Willem de Kooning’s voluptuous abstractions of the 1970s, elide the sticky, centerless movements of flesh with the ebb and flow of water. Gerhard Richter’s monumental “January,” “December,” and “November” series not only embodies the oozing rot and frozen mud of the winter months, but also reflects the toxic, photochemical processes that now serve as our readymade veil of perception. Terry Winter’s vectoring lines seem to model chaotic, microscopic worlds. In all of these instances, the works set in motion experiences and propose metaphors, which can be deep or trivial, active or dead. I also do not think that contemporary abstract painting can be looked at in isolation from, say, Yves Klein’s goofy but beautiful performances, or the process art of Robert Smithson’s flow pieces or Richard Serra’s splatter sculptures, or Michael Heizer’s desert paintings, in which pigments were dropped from crop dusters, quoting the Navaho sand paintings so important to Pollock. Brice Marden is, I think, a meditative artist whose work occupies a singular place between attentive, meandering consciousness, disciplined aesthetic control, and a world that consists not so much of things as of light, fresh, and emotion-drenched movements which are caught in the process of being grasped; “glimpsed content.” And yet, as de Kooning instinctively knew, what “meditation” or “consciousness” or “world” is constantly in flux and question, glimpsed perhaps but not named. The more one contemplates the “Red Rocks” paintings (and they are paintings which demand extended contemplation), the more one is seduced into a subtle dialectic between the unnatural, bruised purples, the traces of line, which suggest revision, erasure, and the ineluctable process of time, and the bowed lines, which are remarkably solid, but which seem increasingly fragile. I have no idea whether they symbolize “up-to-date consciousness,” I’m not even sure what that means, but they are surely the sensuality of consciousness in all its vulnerability, uncertainty, and pleasure.

Contributor

Daniel Baird

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