A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings
The Museum of Modern Art
October 29, 2006–January 15, 2007
Brice Marden’s paintings are hard to love. Their sheer composure leaves little room for intimacy. Even within the austere arena of monochromatic painting, the muted green-gray of “Nebraska” (1966) is cool and removed. Though Marden’s work drifts away from the monochrome as it progresses, the recalcitrance of this particular type of painting never leaves him. Even in the late work, in which the color contrast and saturation is so intense, there is a sense that the overall key of the paintings is muted. Their color is not exalted. He has harnessed it to do structural work. In this sense, the late work is as relentlessly controlled as “Nebraska.”
Marden’s formality links all his work but it does not limit it. The extraordinary thing about this retrospective is the sense that, painting by painting, Marden is advancing and that he’s not just moving forward, but moving upward. This is an exhibition about painting, not just Marden’s own, but all painting. One after another, generating his own momentum from theirs, he takes on the painters who went before him– first Newman in the early work, then Johns with his self-conscious drips and unidentifiable grays. Blinky Palermo’s next, the seeming target of Marden’s multi-panel work. Finally and most monumentally, Marden goes after Pollock with the “Cold Mountain” series.
Though so many different painters come up for examination in Marden’s work, his monasticism recalls one more than any other: Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt believed in an absolutely pure art. Painting, for Reinhardt, was a process of gradually emptying out everything until one was left with only one thing – the painting itself. Though Reinhardt’s approach may seem extreme, he was able to present painting as depending primarily on the fortitude of the artist’s resolve, rather than the extremity of his crisis, for its greatness. This ran contrary to the prevailing wind of his time and made a harbinger of Reinhardt. Marden has apparently taken up this mantle and his resolve makes the moments of vulnerability that do occur in his retrospective all the more poignant. “Couplet IV” (1988-89) is one of several glorious moments in which Marden seems to contemplate the possibility of an art less burdened by its past than painting.
If one looks at painting through the lens of contemporary abstraction, Marden’s influence is almost staggering. From Gordon Moore to Mark Grotjahn, James Little, Pat Lipsky and Tim McFarlane artists come to deal with Marden’s oeuvre in their work. Sustained focus within narrow parameters characterizes Marden’s technique and engenders suspense. Looking at his oeuvre as a whole, the small number of paintings he produces each year give one the impression that he never makes a weak painting, or at least that he never allows one to survive. The effect is uncanny.
ContributorBen La Rocco