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Green Eaglesmere set 3, 1997

Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings and Prints

May 6 Ė August 6, 2000

By Ellen S. Wilson

Pittsburghers have long experienced the beauty of Brice Mardenís paintings. His paintings were amply represented in the 1985 Carnegie International, and again in the 1988 International, from which his painting Untitled 2 was acquired for the collection. Because his painting had changed so much in the intervening years, it was entirely possible for visitors to the later International not to recognize work by the artist they had admired three years earlier.

Marden established himself in the 1960s as a downtown New York personality, a friend of musicians, dancers, and performers. He produced large monochrome paintings using a mixture of beeswax and pigment applied to a primed canvas, creating smooth, rich surfaces from a limited palette of pale grays, greens, and tans. Always influenced by place, he broadened his color palette after he began spending summers on the Greek island of Hydra in 1973. His panel paintings from this period invoke the classic lines of Greek architecture.

While still composed of simple shapes and pure colors, the Greek paintings have a dynamic quality. "You paint a panel and it usually means something has to happen to the panel next to it, you have to make changes to that panel," Marden explained in a 1978 interview. "See, youíre always going back and forth. Youíre trying to figure it out, to make a colour brighter, bring the value up, take it down." Charles Wylie, organizer of Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings and Prints for the Dallas Museum of Art, says The Seasons, a four-panel work from 1975, "reverberates with an inner light that re-creates [Mardenís] own memory and impression of what the seasons have been for him, and what the colors might look like that correspond to that memory."

Several works from this early stage in Mardenís artistic life were shown in the 1985 Carnegie International. By 1988, Mardenís work had taken off in an entirely new direction, and the beginnings of the style he would pursue in the 1990s could be seen.

"A proposed commission to design stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral was a catalytic experience for Marden," says Richard Armstrong, The Henry J. Heinz II Director, Carnegie Museum of Art. "His drawings--while still grid-based--became noticeably looser and more gestural."

Mardenís work was further changed by a professional crisis at the same moment in 1984, which almost caused him to abandon painting altogether. "It was a typical dry spell," Armstrong comments. "Artists go through working cycles: Marden had been remarkably productive since the 1960s, and this period of questioning was a milestone in his development." An exhibition of calligraphy awakened Mardenís interest in this Chinese art and in Chinese culture, which led in turn to the introduction of the calligraphic line in subsequent work. As Sarah McFadden wrote in the 1988 Carnegie International catalogue, Marden began "to paint the drawings, or, more accurately, to draw with paint."

"I like the idea that this [calligraphic] form doesnít exist in the West," Marden told David DíArcy of The Art Newspaper in April 1999. "You donít have something that can be read that can also be purely aesthetic. Itís artwork that communicates in a different way than Western artwork."

The paintings from this period show evidence of numerous corrections, rubbing out, sanding down, somelines reduced to shadows that can barely be seen through the pigment. McFadden notes the "gestural abandon" of these works, which reflects the influence of Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. 

I just went into these paintings and started a line. It seemed much more intuitive at that point.

Marden began the 1990s with the completion of Cold Mountain, a suite of paintings, drawings, and prints inspired by the writings of Han Shan, an eighth-century Chinese poet whose name literally translates as "cold mountain." While Marden followed the strict rules of calligraphyóbeginning in the upper right corner of the canvas and working left and downó"the characters in Mardenís paintings are of his own invention," explains Dallas curator Charles Wylie in the exhibition catalogue; they "become webs that intertwine, creating complicated relationships between one area of the canvas and the next." The influence of Pollock is also evident in these recent works, both in their increased scale and the way in which the sinuous lines literally dance off the canvas. 

The next important suite of paintings Marden created in the 1990s are the so-called "Muse" paintings, which marry, as Wylie points out, calligraphic structure with a classical Greek subject. Just as he was strongly influenced by place in his earlier Greek paintings, Marden continues to draw on the sensations he experiences in Hydra, as well as at Eaglesmere, his home in northeastern Pennsylvania, producing "Muse" paintings at both locations.

While these new works resist literal interpretations, their titles Ė February in Hydra, Prayer Flags, Aphrodite Ė do suggest the presence of dancing muses or a Venus figure. Like all of Mardenís works, they are about the processóthe physicality of applying the paint to the canvasóbut they are also about something else. "You deal with illusion," Marden explained in 1980. "But itís not illusion about things that you see. Itís an illusion of an abstraction of things that you see. Iím not painting trees and flowers, even if I use a landscape image."

By the late 1990s Marden had let go of the calligraphic model. "I didnít start off with the characters in the upper right and then work down and over as I had before with the calligraphy paintings. There arenít any columns anymore or things connecting columns. I just went into these [paintings] and started a line. It seemed much more intuitive at that point," he told Wylie in a 1998 conversation. One key painting from this period is The Sisters, which represents the relationship between Mardenís two daughters. This work can, according to Wylie, "be seen as two figures next to one another; however, the painting seems to be more about the way in which one human can be part of and separate from another human and remain locked within each otherís orbit of existence."

Although the viewer can see in The Sisters an emotional territory to explore, the gradual loosening of Mardenís self-imposed restrictions over the last four decades also results in a visual delight. Mardenís paintings and drawings are captivating on many levels; and, after all the interpretation and scholarly inspection, fundamentally the works are rather straightforward. They are, at least, to the artist. "I paint nature," he said in 1980. "I mean, I refer to nature. I accept nature as a reality; itís the best reference; itís what the paintingís about." 

"This has been a remarkably rich decade for Marden," Armstrong says. "Recalling that our mission is to acquaintóand reacquaintómuseum audiences with the work of todayís finest living artists, the Marden show became especially attractive for us to present. Recent exhibitions here that might be considered comparable would be the 1998 Georg Baselitz exhibition, and last summerís Christopher Wool exhibition. Marden is older than Wool, and more established. It is a unique pleasure to watch a mature artist reinvent his work."

Brice Marden on Beauty

Q: Most people think your work is beautiful. Is the beauty of the object a consideration for you?

Brice Marden: Beauty. I really relate to form. If the form is resolved, itís beautiful. The idea of beauty can be offensive.

Q: What do you mean?

M: Maybe beauty is too easy. It doesnít deal with issues; political issues or social issues. But an issue that it does deal with is harmony . . . One of the reasons I wanted to do this work was that by using the monochromatic palette in the past basically all I could get were chords. I wanted to be able to make something more like fugues, more complicated, back-and-forth renderings of feelings.

From an interview with artist Pat Steir, 1991

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