While preparing for his traveling retrospective—which will be on view at MoMA (October 29–January 15), at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (February 17–May 13), and at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Gegenwart in Berlin (June through September)—the painter Brice Marden takes time out to welcome Jeffrey Weiss (an art historian and head curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art) at his Tivoli studio in upstate New York, to discuss his life and work.
Jeffrey Weiss:We might as well start with the two new paintings, since they’re here, and you’re still working on them. They appear to present the palette as an arrangement of panels as a color wheel or in a prismatic row. This is unusual for you.
Marden: Actually, they came from a group of paintings that were made as studies for the Basel stain glass windows in the early ’80s, which were based on the elements: red, green, yellow, and blue. And they were lined up in that relation. But there hasn’t been one that is prismatic, as you said, until now. I wanted six panels because I see six to be my number. They are six by four, which is 24, or 2 and 4, which is six. Each panel starts with a network of lines that loosely refer to a figure, and then a color progression is repeated throughout the whole thing (whenever it goes in one direction on one panel, it goes another on the next). So basically, if you take the red panel of one painting face-to-face with the red panel of another (their spectrums will progress in opposite directions); one reads purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and then the red ground, and the other is in reverse: orange, yellow, green, blue, purple to red, the ground. Initially I just wanted to see how they would look facing each other in the studio, but now they’ll be included in the show that way. This whole thing sets out a very formal structure. For instance all the linear colors used within the painting are the ground colors. So every red is the same color as the ground, every yellow is the same color as the yellow ground, and so on. And they’re all repeated in the same order. Maybe sometimes the yellow will slip up every now and then, but, for the most part, they’re pretty systematic. Practically every figure touches all four sides of the canvas, which gives a certain stability to the whole.
Weiss: And also, in some cases, a framing edge.
Marden: There’s a logic but I don’t really know what it has to do with how one looks at the painting. Anyway, it doesn’t matter what kind of formal structure I try to impose on the painting, it only goes so far, then takes its own direction. For instance, when I began to work on the first painting, I used a bigger brush, than the other paintings, which I painted with a smaller brush, so the proportions of the lines were different. Basically I had to go back in and narrow them down, the more I kept reworking the lines. I kept painting them over and over, and eventually, the whole gesture slows down. It’s like when you take a record and change its speed.
Weiss: There’s something almost generational for you about a kind of rule or system that sets you free, so to speak. Within the pre-established system of juxtaposition, repetition, something else begins to happen.
Marden: Definitely. I think it’s a big part of my whole working premise: lots of rules, yet no rules. Following rules only as far as it gets me up to a certain point where the dialogue becomes much more spontaneous and intuitive, that’s when I feel painting begins.
Weiss: Another thing I am aware of in these two paintings is their overall horizontal format, yet they’re composed of vertical elements. So, on one hand, the vertical which suggests the relationship of the canvas to the body. On the other hand, the horizontal, at least by cliché, evokes landscape. Are these viable associations?
Marden: The vertical, to me, is more readable than the horizontal. But right below my studio is the Hudson river. I mean, I’ve been working on these paintings, which are very formal and abstract, and then to turn around and see the river, and all these trees. It’s a weird contrast, and I don’t quite understand how one feeds into the other. But indirectly I do feel that they’re somewhat based on landscape.
Weiss: In a describable, concrete way, or in an internalized, other kind of way?
Marden: Perhaps both. I would kind of view them as realist paintings, but at the same time I also relate them to Chinese scroll paintings. I imagine them as my propitious garden, and they vary in a natural sense, like my collection of rocks.
Weiss: Chinese scroll painting is meant to be looked at as a sequential or unfolding experience through time.
Marden: When you look at it, you don’t see the whole thing. You’re moving through a landscape
Weiss: Do you paint mostly at night or during the day?
Marden: Mostly during the day. But a lot at night. The colors are all pre-mixed so that makes the whole process a bit easy in terms of just putting them on the canvas.
Weiss: But what about color adjustments?
Marden: It’s quite simple, really. I start out with the ground colors, then begin to work with the color lines if they are good, but if the ground colors don’t work with them, then I need to repaint the lines and vice versa. Sometimes I had to remix a certain color, then reapplied it, only to realize what was originally there was exactly what I had intended—and then I had to go through and change all the color again. Usually when I put the ground colors back over everything it goes on thin, then everything bleeds through and I have it, even though I lost the original drawing on one othe grounds. Suddenly the second color became more opaque, because, for technical reasons, I added a lot more oil paint. I have to work in the direction that these changes take me.
Weiss: This is an aspect of the process in your work that’s been attributed to you uniquely.
Marden: I think I learned that from the Abstract Expressionists. It’s an organic process, and that’s what I really think I come out of.
Weiss: Which painter, specifically?
Marden: Kline, because he was the most conceptual of them all, but there’s also Pollock. The one I don’t relate much to is Guston. Even though I found his late abstract black paintings were great. The actual process of becoming a painter was important to me as a young art student. Besides, I went into art school not knowing anything. Basically I decided to be a painter because I loved the lifestyle. Later, at Yale’s graduate school, I had Jack Tworkov as a teacher who would come in and say, “that’s a cliché on De Kooning,” “that’s a cliché on Kline,” and so on. And I said, “well, how do you get rid of it?” Then the next thing you know you’re living on the Lower East Side . It just happened overnight. I mean, that’s really what did happen, but then I had to move to Paris with my family where I came to terms with a whole series of influences.
Weiss: It was there that you saw the works of Fautrier and Giacometti. You have also made reference to the newly plastered walls.
Marden: Right. I would watch the masons plastering the stucco wall.
Weiss: The wall has a role to play in your art.
Marden: Even when I got back to New York, I really paid attention to all the walls. I can even remember specific walls in New York. I remember one building being taken down on the corner of Broadway and 8th Street, and for about 2 or 3 weeks, there was this long, narrow wall running along which was so, unbelievably beautiful. So I went through a whole painting phase of making work that just looked like the wall.
Weiss: Has the relationship between drawing and painting for you changed over the course of your career? There’s more drawing in the conventional sense in your recent painting, as opposed to the monochromes, and in a way the monochrome drawings appear more like paintings than they do drawings.
Marden: The MoMA show concludes with an ink drawing from two years ago with a lot of color in it. I think what’s going to happen now is that I’ll take some of the drawings I’ve been working on over the past, which are now all black and white, and probably add some color, just to see what happens. By adding color it means I can take them in another direction in terms of form. Now, you know, I have these weird forms, and I’m trying to figure out what kind of a space I can be putting them in, and how to bring them back around to the abstract rather than letting them be too controlled by a certain parameter.
Weiss: Well, color comes with certain associations, such as decoration. Rothko hated it when people called him a decorator. But though he was a great colorist, he tried to redress this problem by claiming his work was more about space.
Marden: Rothko was the shining light in terms of everything I’m thinking. He was the one who showed that you could be that way, just make beautiful paintings. I thought that those black and gray paintings at the end simply ranked right up there with the best ones. I remember going to the Rothko Foundation with (David) Novros to see hundreds of un-mounted paintings on paper, and we got up on these ladders and we were flipping through them; it was just incredible. Maybe I was too young to be able to make the right kind of judgment, but it seems to me that there was just something different about the Rothko experience that I had, which was so different than Kline and De Kooning. To me, what he talked about, what he believed in, is all invested in the paintings, so you’re responding to that, you’re sort of thinking along those lines while seeing the paintings. It can be a very intense, moving experience, unlike any other. When you’re in the Chapel looking at his paintings, especially if you’re standing there long enough, the paintings will engulf you. It is definitely the most elevating, spiritual experience. You’re best not distancing yourself from the situation, at least for me personally. Then you start trying to figure out how he does it. He really had this thing about intensifying beauty. He presents color in his own way, it becomes all about color, but it’s not color, it’s drama, but drama is too light a word. These terms almost seem clichéd, but it’s true. He’s really otherworldly. In one of the Rothko books that came out last year they asked him what is the ideal viewing distance from your painting and he said, seventeen inches. And there’re always pictures of him standing there. And you go back and look at them and he’s absolutely right. And you go to any museum, and they just hang his paintings in a room with other works of art, and it just doesn’t work. He needs his own space. There was a point when I studied some of those monochromatic paintings and it made me push color in a certain way, not at all similar to how people had referred his sense of color to Matisse or Bonnard. Rothko is simply a very, very tough painter.
Weiss: For a painter like that and a painter like you, where is color, where does it live?
Marden: Sometimes it can be just there and it becomes so much its own self and own thing, that it becomes magnificent and powerful. It’s hard trying to get it there. Even in those black paintings, that’s still color. It’s what you’re working with and you are forced by color, by paint, to make it your way and it becomes yours and you become it. I’m thinking of certain paintings of mine that approach it, like the Moroccan paintings, there’s a certain physicality to them. And also it becomes this thing that is nowhere else except in painting. I was looking at the water this morning, and everyday water is different, some days it’s wrinkly and that means there’s more to reflect off of, but why be so analytical, like some scientist trying to figure out water? But at the same time I look out the window and I think, look, there’s this weird light, and how do I get this light? You find you can use two colors that have nothing to do with anything that’s out there and you are getting a light like it. I think certain things I’ve been doing recently are almost more formal and theoretical, its gotten too far away from the romance of color. Certain things happen with the paintings upstate in terms of the color, I can get more happening. Richard Schiff makes this thing about the early paintings, and being these colors you cannot explain…but I don’t really think that’s what color is about. Painting is still a question of color and matter coming together and how pigment has to behave in a certain way. And, of course, certain things are just really hard to address, but they should be. Some people just put a lot of color in a painting, but that’s not what it’s about.
Weiss: Has color theory or perceptual theory ever interested you? Did you read much of that stuff?
Marden: No, it comes back to intuition.
Weiss: Albers at Yale?
Marden: I actually took a class with Albers my first year at BU, and because I didn’t get it, I listened much more to my painting teacher, you know, put this gray by this kind of blue, and that came to me by looking at old masters. The big jump was when I saw certain Manets where I thought the color took this jump and became this real thing. There’s this painting, “The Street Singer,” in Boston. It’s got this red coming down the side. At a certain point you see that, then you see that it’s this great experience. And then you’ve got Rothko who intensifies it and abstracts it.
Weiss: There was a struggle for the redemption of painting in the sixties. For many, there didn’t seem to be anything else that one could do to further the developments of Abstract Expressionism. One alternative was Pop Art. Was there another model that helped you develop an alternate kind of abstract painter?
Marden: Oh yeah, Jasper (Johns) was important to me because there were things in his paintings that never exist in Pop Art.
Weiss: Right. You saw Johns’ first retrospective in 1964 at the Jewish Museum while you were working as a guard there.
Marden: I even saw him once coming in to the museum to dust off his “White Flag” painting. Later I had heard that he was putting a drawing show together at Leo Castelli, so I called up Alex (Katz), who had been a teacher of mine at Yale, and said, ‘Alex, I hear Jasper Johns is doing a group show of drawings’. He said, ‘ That’s his thing.’ And I asked, ‘Is there any way I could get him to look at some of my drawings?’ He said, ‘Well, who do you know?’ and I said, “You” . He said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ So he called back in ten minutes and then said, ‘Call this number.’ I called Jasper, and he told me to bring a portfolio over to show him. He put me in the show, and his foundation kept it.
Weiss: Can you remember which one it was?
Marden: Yes, it was a black graphite ribbed drawing over a silkscreen print. A pretty worked drawing. And that was a big, huge deal to me. Anyway, my visit with him was great. Jasper had this penthouse/studio way up on the West Side. I remember asking him about the drips on the bottom of his paintings: ‘How come you do that?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, you get near the bottom and you’re bending over, and you get a little tired and…’. [Laughs]. It was a very Jasper kind of answer. I was very impressed by that so I, in my own way, try to allow the drips shown at the bottom of my paintings and they really were influenced by him. Also, he was looking at the back of a painting and he said that he often found the backs of paintings, were as interesting as the fronts of paintings. I have quoted that like a million times. Because there are certain things, like how you draw or what happens on the back of a painting that are really some reflection of what is going to happen on the front, in order to make the front right. Another occasion, when he came to visit me in my studio, just before my first show, I was working on this long painting on the wall, and as the sun was just setting, it casts this big shadow across the painting. It seemed like hours passed that we were just sitting there waiting for the shadow to go away, and it did. The second that it goes off the edge, he looked and said to me, “That was nice” [Laughter]. Besides, I was at the museum all day long, five days a week guarding his work. It was wonderful for me because it gave me a chance to be right there with his work.
Weiss: There could be a show of artists who were guards during the ‘60s.
Marden: Why not? A lot of artists I know were guards either at MoMA or the Jewish Museum. (Bob) Ryman, (David) Novros, (Mel) Bochner, (Bob) Duran…There you are, you’ve got a Master of Fine Arts degree and come to New York and what can you do? Nothing. Be a guard in the museum.
Weiss: Not the worst thing in the world.
Marden: Of course not. After all, I could go and flip open all the boxes in Jasper’s “Target with Plaster Casts” and make all the combinations I wanted, and look at his whole show very carefully.
Weiss: When I look back, historically now, and try to make neat categories out of bodies of work or careers of certain artists, it’s obviously not true to life. I think of Stella, and Ryman, Mangold, and a very few others who may have been important to you for various reasons—but maybe that’s too tidy
Marden: The painter who I felt greater affinity with is Ryman. I’ve always really loved his work and considered him one of the great painters. But my community was the Bykert and Park Place galleries. For instance, Novros came to my studio one day and he said, ‘I know this guy on the other side of town, named Dick Van Buren, who is doing really good sculpture,’ so a few months later Dick had a show at Bykert. And then I got to know Ralph Humphreys, who was like some sort of hero because he had the very last show with the Green Gallery. I remember how excited we were when Ralph came into the Bykert, because we all thought including him in the gallery would give us validity.
Weiss: What about (Frank) Stella?
Marden: [Laughs] Frank was operating on some other level that made me feel like the more he was going away from Abstract Expressionism, the less I wanted to be conceptual, which is one of the reasons I could identify with somebody like Johns. But eventually you could see how Frank was coming out of Johns too…
Weiss: In retrospect, thinking about the ’60s, we think of sculpture being more advanced than painting. You are one of the few painters who seemed to have managed to create a viable direction from painting that would internalize the best of what was happening conceptually in sculpture and “post-object” work.
Marden: The art world then was small but seemed to be made up by a divergent group of artists, not many of whom I felt very aligned with. But at the same time, they were all like the school of Jasper Johns. Even though nobody seemed to have anything to do with each other, they all very definitely wouldn’t have been there without Jasper. Mostly because the big debate going on in the ’60s was between Greenberg and Rosenberg, which was getting to be very tiresome.
Weiss: And the Greenberg thing was in its late phase.
Marden: Yeah, he was telling people how to crop. That was a little offensive. Even though there was a definite point of view about making paintings. And there were a lot of really good people working that way. But it wasn’t for some of us.
Weiss: Carl Andre wrote a two-part review of your show at Bykert gallery in the 57th Street Review. It’s a great juxtaposition of you and him in that text.
Marden: Yes. Carl had a way of knocking the wind out of a lot of artists, but he was nice to me .
Weiss: What about the nature of Carl’s work? Was there something about it, for you, that was relevant to your own paintings?
Marden: Carl was making a sculpture out of things that were the same color all the way through. And to me that was very, very important. I like to believe that I was trying. I was trying to make a complicated color that fit the shape that held it. And that was my idea of form. And Carl really corresponded to that very well. He also thought about what his shapes were going to be, and I was trying to do the same thing.
Weiss: The co-identity of the color and the shape is important. It’s obviously intuitive for you.
Marden: Yes. And I like this idea of an ambiguous color, like a grey that read as a color. The last thing I have I can hold onto is the abstractions as this ambiguous thing, like the space. And I thought I was holding on after that by making a color that could be read a number of ways.
Weiss: Can we talk about your use of repetition, which is a conceptual device, as opposed to a notion of painting that is largely intuitive or sensual.
Marden: I always thought it was more about sensuality than anything else. There was a lot of touch involved. I mean, you’re painting a flat plane but still you’ve really got to feel it out. You’ve got to figure out how you paint around a corner. And that era was highly intellectual—I mean there were artists like Stella and Judd who were brilliant. They were very articulate and very opinionated. And in a way, they helped me, perhaps because of my own defense mechanism, to reinforce the intuitive and non-intellectual aspects about my self and my painting. It wasn’t until later that I could just see their work and not be intimidated by their ideas and personalities. I remember writers always used to say, ‘Oh, he’s influenced by Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt,’ and I didn’t feel I was influenced by them at all. I didn’t really understand Newman until I saw his painting “Anna’s Light,” which was much later. Suddenly the whole thing spatially just began to make sense. I always had to get it on a sort of gut level, not the intellectual kind.
Weiss: I know music means a lot to you. There’s “Dylan’s Painting” (1966). Is that something worth exploring in relation to the work?
Marden: Well, when I first came to New York and my sister-in-law was Joan Baez. There was a big folk scene in Boston when I was student, and my wife was a waitress at Club 47 where Joanie was singing and all the great ones like Reverend Gary Davis, Lightning Hopkins, Eric Von Schmidt, and others were all playing in Boston. Even when I later went to Yale for graduate school, we would go often to both Boston and New York.
And when I got into New York, my scene was the folk scene. It wasn’t really at Max’s Kansas City, because at that time I didn’t really know any artists yet. And that’s when Dylan was going around Joanie. Once they came and they sat in our place on Avenue C and they sang for hours. I said to him, you’re really good and I am going to make a painting for you, but of course he became a huge star in like five minutes, before I had even finished making the studies. Whenever I run into him now, he looks at me and says, ‘still painting?’ Anyway, we’d go to Gerde’s Folk City and there was the bar, the Kettle of Fish, and the Gaslight. Also, when I was living on Jefferson Street I was a friend of Bobby Neuwirth’s, who had been Dylan’s road manager, and when he left that job he moved into a loft in my building. Bobby was really great at getting people together…He worked for Albert Grossman and all kinds of musicians; then he started going out with Edie Sedgwick after she left the Factory. Bobby was always involved in music and we would go out every night, he had this Pontiac station wagon and we would drive up to Max’s. But later I got much more involved with art, I slowly left that scene and split up with my wife.
Weiss: Do you listen to music when you work?
Marden: Well I used to listen to it, because I had a studio on the Bowery that was noisy, so I would listen to it to block out the noise. This summer I’ve been listening to a lot of rap music. I guess I was trying to be hip or something . I think Jay-Z is good. You know, being up here makes me more conscious of my isolation so the music can break the silence and get my hand moving with the rhythm. I’m not paying too much attention to the lyrics. Besides in the last few years, I find myself spending more time looking at the painting than painting it. And I often paint in the quiet.
Weiss: Is it part of the process? Is it a way to occupy the part of your brain that you want to remove from the labor of painting?
Marden: You have to be able to focus, and when you’re really focused you’re there without being in focus.
Weiss: What about the retrospective? What do you expect to encounter there, looking back at your career so far?
Marden: First of all, I’m curious to see how it flows. I think the selection is pretty good. And there will be many paintings that I haven’t seen for a long time. And of course I’m very conscious of the fact that this show is in New York, at MoMA, and I am a New Yorker, I am part of the New York art scene. I consider that important. Secondly, I also see it like any other show. It’s not as though I have come to a conclusion. Anyway, there are three manifestations of the show: after here, it will travel to San Francisco, where more work will be added, and to Berlin, where only paintings will be shown. Other than that, I can’t tell you how they will all look until they are finally on the wall.
Weiss: In relation to MoMA, I think your retrospective will offer a very interesting kind of counter-argument to the Richter show. He engages some of the same issues that you do, but obviously in a completely different way. Richter in his skepticism, does not, I think, give artists permission to paint; which is what you do.
Marden: Richter has made some incredible paintings; but I much prefer Polke. I have always considered Polke a terrific artist. He is very open to endless possibilities where Richter’s a bit more closed.
Weiss: Given the state of painting among younger artists and art students, do you expect that to have a bearing on the reception of the show? Do you think people will approach it with openness? Or with skepticism?
Marden: I think there should be a fair amount of skepticism on the part of younger artists. I’m not quite sure what they’re… about – I mean in terms of painting, I guess there’s a lot of painting being done in different ways, but maybe I’m just not seeing it. I do like what the young artists are doing, and I like seeing their involvement, but I don’t quite always get the work. There’s MTV, computer, and iPod culture that I’m not so familiar with.
Weiss: That goes back to that distinction. Richter is a painter for a technologized world; whereas your work isn’t.
Marden: Oh no, like this is real, old-fashioned, hand-done oil painting. I guess I’m old-fashioned .
Weiss: Do you expect that the retrospective will motivate new work?
Marden: Yeah. That’s basically the reason to do it.