In Conversation: Brice Marden with Chris Martin
The Brooklyn Rail visited Brice Marden’s studio on a sunny June morning. The brand new concrete and steel building rises right on the West Side Highway, and from the tenth floor studio we looked out in three directions across the sparkling Hudson River, and all the way downtown to the empty World Trade Center skyline. The first few moments took my breath away. The studio is austere yet elegant, so filled with light and serene energy that I needed to sit down. Chinese scholar rocks were silhouetted before a two-story window, a drawing area contained jade circles and rows of seashells. On a long table sat one huge antique tome on Chinese painting. New drawings were being pinned up above a table with a jar of Acanthus sticks, their ends blackened with ink. Fresh twigs lay tied in bundles. A bucket held dozens of brand new bushes with very long handles. Three unfinished small paintings rested on the mantelpiece of a sleep modern fireplace. One large grey painting sat unfinished against the main painting wall. Nearby on the floor were long rows of oil paint tubes—most of them from Williamsburg Paints.
Chris Martin (Rail): In your recent show at Matthew Marks, the paintings on 22nd Street were such a cohesive group. Did you think of them as a series? Did you work on the paintings individually, or did you do several of them at the same time?
Brice Marden: I work on a few at the same time. While working on one painting I also think on the others. This is something going on while everything else is going on. For instance, this painting I’m working on now in the studio that you see, but I’m also working on a few in Greece—they’re still related to the paintings in the show. Actually I don’t really get that much work done there. I’m only there a month or two every year, but I bring the works back to New York and rework them. Sometimes I change them quite drastically.
Rail: There is a lot of work in both gallery spaces. Are you making paintings faster these days?
Marden: The work in the 24th Street Gallery is selected from work made after my last exhibition there in 1997. 22nd Street has work from the last three years. I work with the drawings before the paintings, but then a lot of moving took place in the last few years. First, my old Bowery studio went to my daughter. Then it took a year for this new studio to get done. Some of the paintings were started at my office. There I did the initial drawings—the red line drawings on canvas.
Rail: I was looking through a Franz Kline book the other day and I noticed a few very small ink drawings that were about six or seven inches, and to my complete surprise he made some paintings almost exactly based on those drawings. Do you do that sometimes in your work—I mean as far as the relationship between drawing and painting?
Marden: No, I never do that—blowing something up like that. What I did with one group was to make very small drawings directly from Xerox copies of original Chinese Epitaphs, and from that I’d work them into paintings, altering stages of change from the initial image. One of the things about Kline and his relationship to drawing was that he came out of a tradition of illustration like Hogarth and Goya. It was Elaine de Kooning who took some of his ink drawings and blew them up optically onto a big screen. That gave the immediate and monumental presence to the form.
Rail: Wow, so he suddenly broke through.
Marden: Yes, it was a big instantaneous conversation for him.
Rail: Have you ever had that king of instantaneous conversation? I’m thinking of the break between your minimal panel paintings, and those paintings in which you begin painting to work with the stain-glass window design. For many of us, that seems to most of us like a huge shift in your work.
Marden: Look, it may seem like a huge shift, but for me it was a complete necessity. I was at the time facing a dead-end situation. One of the reasons I took the commission for the stain-glass window was, I thought, to push the work. Really, for me just the introduction of the diagonals was a huge shift. You go from one to two, which is a big jump, then you go from two to three. It’s mind boggling.
Rail: [Laughs.] Right.
Marden: Since I’d been working mostly with horizontals and verticals and all of the sudden there came the diagonals. That changes everything spatially. It gives completely a kind of new structure and dynamic so it wasn’t that difficult to go gradually from the diagonals to the calligraphic lines and gestures. As much as the type of lines or gestures of the mid to the late '80s paintings appeared to be calligraphic, I was just dealing primarily with verticals, horizontals, and diagonals.
Rail: You were basically working with the grid system.
Marden: Yes. I remember doing a whole series of drawings in the landscape in Greece with water being surrounded by vessels of mountains—someone asked, “What are these diaper shapes?”
Rail: You mean the negative shapes between the mountains? You have often referenced Greek landscape in you painting. People have talked about your early monochromes and panel paintings having the blues and grey-greens of olive trees and the ocean. You have talked about your interest in scholar rocks—does this recent work have any specific reference to landscape?
Marden: First of all, the idea of the rocks or stones and one of the reasons why the Chinese collected them to have in their house or garden is simply to refer to the landscape. In that sense, yes, but also they think of the energy in the landscape. How the energy flows through the landscape, so, in these paintings for every or each color I try to think of different aspects of the energy especially after the first color (red) that sets the example. The other colors are put on in a way of responding to the first and to one another. Again, I suppose my works are both abstract and landscape paintings.
Rail: Does each individual color symbolize a specific element in the landscape? For example, the red for earth or iron, blue as sky or water and so on?
Marden: No. I use the spectrum progression red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. I eliminated indigo. I use them as a formula. I figure every once in a while it’s good to impose restrictions. What happened was that I was forced to work in the purple to violet range. In the early stages when the color first went on—wow! Purple can be really hideous and banal.
Rail: [Laughs.] Okay. So the colors instead of having little to do with symbolism or alchemy like some people thought of your work, your using colors as a sequence without a narrative. Would it be fair to say that it all started with the series of window paintings?
Marden: I used a specific progression in the window paintings—one red (fire), two green (earth), three yellow (air), four blue (water)—the elements. The annunciation paintings also used progression but it was more subjective.
Rail: With the paintings in the show, did you begin with the color ground?
Marden: No. They all started with a red drawing and proceed from there, with either orange or violet. Anyway, the ground was painted after everything else went on. I’d paint the ground right over the whole thing. I kept photographic documents simply to refer and go back, to relocate and bring out what was being painted over. It’s all about working and reworking until I can bring out the color harmonies or contrast of light and dark. My wife Helen said they got darker after September 11. She is a very insightful observer of my paintings.
Rail: You and Helen have been looking at each other’s work for a long time?
Marden: Yes. We know each other’s work better than anyone else’s.
Rail: That’s beautiful. To get back on the subject of the rocks—is there a particular kind that you would like to work from?
Marden: Not really. I became interested in the idea of a rock collection and since I’ll never be able to put a collection of my own together, I would just draw my own collection. You could see one set of them at the gallery on 24th Street, the other on 22nd Street.
Rail: The first thing that comes to mind when one walks into the gallery is that they’re gestural paintings, but when one sees them up close, one realizes the slowness and the deliberateness of the lines. They are capable of moving in and around, in order to create form and space. In that sense, they have a different feel and intention from your previous works, especially the landmark "Cold Mountain" paintings.
Marden: The "Cold Mountain" paintings were made of the first marks. I discovered what I couldn’t correct. I mean, you put the paint on the canvas and you couldn’t get it off. In those paintings, I figured out a way to paint out certain areas while reincorporating them so they don’t just disappear, they become counter-images. At any rate, that was the main problem that I had to deal with in the "Cold Mountain" paintings. I still am basically working in the same way except that the re-painting of the ground part becomes more exciting for me. It also serves as an erasing process, which didn’t really exist much in the early work.
Rail: Were you thinking of the landscapes in Chinese scroll painting?
Marden: No. There is a real narrative in scroll paintings. The spectator is supposed to walk through the landscape, moving slowly as the scroll gradually reveals the landscape.
Rail: How about artists like Terry Winters, Bill Jensen, Louise Fishman—and yourself at one point or another—who were regarded as gestural abstractionists? Do you share with them some similar concerns? Do you go to their studios and talk about paintings?
Marden: Sometimes. There are some structural and formal similarities in the work. Terry and I exchanged studio visits. We don’t talk about it that much. At least, I don’t.
Rail: As the art world has opened up, it often seems to me that the serious values I associate with abstract painting are no longer appreciated. Do you agree?
Marden: It’s not really an issue of abstract painting versus something else.
Rail: It’s painting.
Marden: It’s really painting. It makes sense to do. I mean, it really should respond to what is going on in the world. What is going on in the world now?
Rail: In the beginning, Malevich, Mondrian, and the great early masters thought of their work as a new beginning, as a way of changing the world.
Marden: They were very utopian.
Rail: But it’s hard now to share that sense that painting is going to change the world.
Marden: That is really true. But then again there is a kind of cynicism I think is pervasive in this society, at least in the art world, and so there is this despair—why even try to change the world? Why bother? What do people think of the possibilities? What does a young artist want to do? Why do they even do it? Why they do it has something to do with what they think the possibilities are. Well, what are the possibilities? Take Documenta; I didn’t see it, but a lot of art is political. But Beuys is political, and Beuys opened up a lot of avenues.
Rail: To change the subject a little, did you know that you would become a painter at a young age?
Marden: No. A lot of people knew when they were just kids, but I didn’t. I just wanted to be an artist because I admired the lifestyle.
Rail: So you were in college when you decided this was a good lifestyle with good people to hang out with?
Marden: I was actually in the end of my senior year in high school. I had this whole plan about being something and then I decided, no, I wanted to be an artist.
Rail: Well, that’s pretty young.
Marden: Yes. And because I had never felt it was like a calling, you know, the skies open up and you’re down on your knees deciding to be an artist, I developed this thing of trying to convince myself that I was an artist, so there were all these accusations of phony bohemianism.
Rail: So you came to New York right after graduate school at Yale University? What else did you do in those days?
Marden: The good thing about graduate school is that it gave you more time to work on your ideas independently, but once you’re out, you have to make a living.
Rail: Did you get a job as Robert Rauschenberg’s assistant when you first came to New York?
Marden: No, I did all sorts of things. I painted window displays, I worked for a framer, I was a guard at the Jewish Museum. That was my first job when I got to New York. And then I went to Paris. I was married and we had a son. My in-laws were nervous about our Avenue C existence and offered to bring us to Paris where he, a physicist, was working for UNESCO. He had diplomatic status and didn’t have to pay taxes, so with the tax money he saved he brought us to Paris. What, was I going to turn down a chance to go to Paris? I had applied for all these grants to go to Europe and had been turned down by all of them. So I went to Paris for three months. My wife and I split up, I came back and she and my son Nick stayed. While I was there I got to see Paris and go to the museums. It was very interesting because you could see that what was going on in Europe was not that much better than in the United States. I mean, put together all the museums in New York and you have about as many good paintings as there are in Paris—sort of. It was very interesting for me to be in Paris, because I had a very conservative background. I went to Boston University and those guys had nothing to do with abstract art. I mean, their guys were Oskar Kokoschka and Max Beckmann, and you know, Boston is a conservative town. I didn’t know at the time. To me it was a student town, which was really good, but culturally it’s very conservative.
Rail: So you didn’t make your first abstract paintings after you went to Europe?
Marden: No, no, I was making abstract paintings at BU. Because I had these two teachers, Hugh Townley who was the sculpture teacher and a color and design teacher, Arthur Hoener, who had studied with Albers at Yale and with Hoffman. The interesting thing about BU at that time was that while the dominant factor in the school was the Beckman/Kokoschka faction, there were these two other guys they had just hired. They didn’t last long, but they were there when I was there, and they were great, so you could go back and forth between them all. So I would show my abstract paintings to Arthur Hoener and he would do some sort of crit, but you wouldn’t bother to show them to your painting teacher because he wasn’t interested. The painting teacher was a great painting teacher, Reed Kay; he was really great—he formed me.
Rail: What about the painting we’re looking at. The abstract lines evoke all kinds of natural forms or hidden images like a tree or a face. Do you have that same problem in your paintings? Is that something you’re sensitive to?
Marden: Well, yes, sometimes you get off track. I mean, you spend a lot of time correcting, trying to make it look the way you want it to look—you want it to look complicated but then you don’t want it to look complicated in the wrong way. I don’t like naturalistic references, but I do draw from nature a lot. You look at nature and there is a real energy out there.
Rail: You know the Picasso and Braque story when Braque looked at one of Picasso’s analytic cubist paintings and saw a squirrel. Picasso spent a week or so trying to paint a squirrel out of the painting, but every time Braque looked at it he kept seeing this squirrel!
Marden: I mean, one of the paintings in the show had what looked like a head, and there were things that looked like a nose. I made some changes to get that out, but in a lot of ways if you make a vertical painting it’s going to look like a fugue, and a horizontal painting like a landscape.
Rail: In some of the vertical paintings, and even in some of the "Cold Mountain" paintings, I was seeing a kind of almost cubist figure.
Marden: I saw that happening and then focused on it and made paintings that were more figural. But they’re still abstract paintings.
Rail: How about Pollock’s late paintings? There’s this moment in his paintings when he’s allowing images back into the paintings.
Marden: My whole thing with the late Pollocks—and David Novros really pointed this out to me—is that he didn’t find or force the figure into the painting. Instead, the figure emerged from the painting process. No one has really picked up on this, and I don’t see any figural paintings influenced by that idea. I just find it a bit shocking. The whole interpretation of late Pollock is so bad and is so skewed by the academics.
Rail: I think the imagery came out also from his early psychoanalytic drawings in the late ’30s into the early ’40s. What is so amazing about Pollock is that he had the courage to deal and allow those references to exist as powerful images in the paintings.
Marden: Yes. But it’s an entirely different process than, let’s say, de Kooning, whose work is consciously fed off from the figure. But that made de Kooning more European where Pollock is an American. I mean it is common knowledge to us now. Although Pollock had worked through all kinds of traditions: Surrealism, Mexican art, American Indian art and so on, he ultimately had really created a new American tradition.
Rail: Is there any other tradition from the Far East like India or Cambodia that you think about?
Marden: There are forces at work outside that one has to respect. It’s not just about the Western tradition anymore. I mean, there are forces out there and you try to work them into your own philosophy.
Rail: How about the idea of energy and spiritual values in paintings? It’s a subject that makes people very nervous, especially in the art world.
Marden: But it’s not about defending belief …
Rail: But there was a reaction against the positivism of artists like Frank Stella and Donald Judd.
Marden: What they were doing was daring and very strong. And then, years later, positivism aside, I was totally surprised at how incredibly beautiful the Judds are. I’m walking around and trying to work with that idea, and frankly I don’t care that much whether people accept it or not. That’s not my problem. I’m not preaching, I’m doing my work, I’m a painter, I’m making my paintings, and I may be totally wrong. Sure, you’re operating with a contemporary situation, but at the same time, these things are made to be around for 300 years or whatever. I mean, who knows who Goya was, but we have this body of work, which is far more important than that. I see it as anonymous, and anyway, more than half of what we see is anonymous, so it’s not some ego thing.
Rail: To get back to what we were talking about before, I remember seeing the "Suicide Notes" drawings which seemed to me very personal but they also seemed to indicate a whole new beginning in your work—I mean you interest in Chinese calligraphy. We know that for some of the Abstract Expressionists, their relationships to calligraphy were about being heroic and emotional. Is it different for you?
Marden: Those guys, they were fighting a real battle, they were making work that was valid and that wasn’t being accepted, and they fought this every day, and then of course there is also the cathartic experience of making the paintings. I would say that the conclusion of this last group of paintings, they work on me in a different way than the other paintings. In the beginning, you sort of know what you are doing, but when you get involved you don’t really know what you are doing anymore, but right up to the end I had no idea what I was doing. I mean I know what I’m doing—of course I’ve been doing this for a long time, but I didn’t have any idea where it was going. I have this thing of not giving up on anything: I don’t throw things away, I just keep plugging away at it. And then when the paintings were finished in terms of what I could do to them, though I was still not quite sure whether they were finished, they did the odd thing that by sitting in the studio, they finished themselves, like when you’re cooking and you take it out of the oven and it still keeps cooking, it was really peculiar. The other thing is you get them to a point where you say, that’s it, you can’t take it any further, this is as close as you’re going to get this shot. These paintings didn’t have that feeling at all.
Rail: Did the events of September 11 have any influence on the way these paintings developed?
Marden: I sort of lobotomized myself around 9/11. I mean, this thing was a huge, traumatic thing, and yet when I look back on it I think it happened about three years ago. One thing that does have an effect on me, talking about the spiritual, is that it’s haunted, this city is haunted by the whole thing. If there’s anything about painting after 9/11, it’s that you’re trying to exorcise some of that haunting. One thing an artist could be thinking about, especially working in this town, is to try to bring back the positive energy. As artists, it’s part of our job, it’s part of why we are around, to be a very positive force. You make a bunch of paintings, you put them up, show them, they aspire to an ideal. Go to the show and look, not like anyone else, like yourself. Go and look, get off on them, try to figure them off. Art is a living aspect of the society! We’re really fortunate, because at least there are still shows where people come for free, anybody can see the thing, even though some system that is outside what is actually happening in the art obfuscates it and makes people afraid of it. The reason so many fear art is because it’s a threat to the basic political tenants of this society.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.