A moving meditation on mortality in the late paintings of Brice Marden


Brice Marden’s recent paintings and drawings are hesitant, tender, heartbreaking, angry, vulnerable and open. As his job requires him to engage the surface with gestures, pressures and movements – which has been true since the start of his career – it is tied to what he can physically accomplish. Looking back at the career of this preeminent artist, I see three fundamental periods. In the first, which lasted from 1964 to the mid-1980s, he worked in monochrome and was known for the thoroughness of his attention to surface and the palpable but elusive color he could achieve with encaustic. There was an unmistakable physicality in his muted paintings, a tension between the expressive and the understated.

During the second period, he reconsidered the way he used line and the way he painted, and traded the subtle tactility of encaustic for diluted oil and drawing in what he thought to me. was once described as “dirty turpentine”. This period was inspired by his window designs for Basel Cathedral; his travels to North Africa, where he studied Islamic architecture in Fez and Marrakech; a trip to Thailand, where he began collecting seashells, especially scrollwork, and made layered designs loosely inspired by their markings; and by exposure Masters of Japanese calligraphy, 8th-19th century, at the Japan House Gallery and Asia Society, New York (October 4, 1984-January 6, 1985).

In his paintings from this time, he would loop back into the lines and, using a razor blade, ensure that the edges were straight and sharp. The lines were flat and moved gracefully, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock drippings without resembling them in any way. I never thought Marden thought it necessary to throw out the past or quote it. He thought it was possible to move on without consenting to these well-known choices, and time has proven him right.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These paintings are on their own at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian)

While Marden’s meticulousness and definitive visual statements characterize the first two periods, the third, or what I consider his late period, reveals an artist who knows change is inevitable, mortality draws near, and art is not a bulwark against time. . This awareness of the ticking clock had a major effect on his work and, I would venture, on his psyche.

I estimate this late period began around 2016-17, when he made 10 paintings measuring 8 by 6 feet, using 10 different brands of green earth oil paint; each painting was done in one of the brands, with the paint being applied in successive layers. The process was incremental, restrained and, as with his earlier work, carefully thought out in terms of its parameters. At the time, Marden was nearly 80 years old.

Marden applied a light wash of one of the green lands over the entire surface. He then measured a horizontal line, which resulted in a square at the top, tightly filling the top of the vertical format, while leaving a wide stripe running along the bottom. This compositional structure appears to have been inspired by the proportions of a vertical sketchbook he was using at the time. Then he filled the square with successive coats of slow-drying wet paint, allowing thin streaks of color to flow from the bottom edge of the square into the strip below, like ragged ropes. By dividing the canvas into two unequal areas and covering the surface with a strict monochrome, Marden limited his control over the imagery of the painting and gave up his ability to determine what happened in the broad band ci -below.

Marden chose green earth (also known as “green earth”) knowing that Botticelli used it as an underlay for his subject’s flesh in works such as “Idealized Portrait of a Woman” (tempera to the egg, 1480), where he peeks through the translucent skin of the figure. Recognized as one of the most permanent pigments, it evokes both damp moss and rot.

Brice Marden, “Prelude” (2011–21), oil and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches (© 2021 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio. Courtesy Gagosian)

For Marden, color is never just color; it is linked to nature, light and alchemy. It seems to me that no one has yet delved into all the ways color signifies and resonates in his work, from his reference to sunlight shining through a grove of olive trees to the trinity of colors he used in his works for Basel Cathedral. .

These are some of the thoughts, memories and feelings that came to mind shortly after I sat on a bench in the main gallery of the exhibition. Brice Marden: These paintings stand on their ownat Gagosian (November 13-December 23, 2021), but as I looked at the work, another line of thought began to crystallize.

In the late 80s, following his interest in calligraphy, Marden began working on cold mountaina series of black and white paintings, drawings and prints inspired by his reading of the legendary Chinese hermit poet Han Shan, as translated by Red Pine. In an interview with the painter Pat Steir published in the brochure accompanying these works in the exhibition Brice Marden: Cold Mountain at Dia Chelsea (October 17, 1991 – May 31, 1992), Marden said:

At first, I made drawings using the shape that poems take in Chinese, then I started to join the image and the calligraphy, using the shape of the poem as a skeleton. I am more and more interested in the ideas of Tao and Zen. The Cold Mountain poems talk a lot about it.

Later he said:

It is not a form of writing. I am not try to make a language.

I don’t think Marden is trying to create a language, but looking at the paintings and drawings I started to think there was an asemic element to these works that shouldn’t be ignored. This is especially true of the painting ‘Chalk’ (oil, charcoal and graphite on linen, 96 by 72 inches, 2013-21), which seems to have transformed everything Marden has done before into something new – both calm, accepting, and exposed.

Brice Marden, “Chalk” (2013–21), oil, charcoal and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches (© 2021 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bill Jacobson Studio. Courtesy Gagosian)

Using the same proportions he chose for his green earth paintings, Marden outlined a 6-by-6-foot square, leaving a two-foot strip below. He then divided the square into a grid of 225 squares, using a pencil, so that it rested on the tape. The palette across the top of the painting consists of sandstone red, Chinese red and ghostly white, while the lower band is a mustard yellow infused with green – obliquely complementary colors. The group also sparks associations with Chinese scroll painting, in which the work is mounted on yellow silk.

In each square of the grid, Marden has used white to render a rounded shape, sometimes as an open line and other times as a bisected shape, which evokes nature (i.e. rocks) and signs linguistics. The grid can also be read as a graph, but of what? Evoking chalk (the title of the painting), the faint white lines suggest an indecipherable language, a recording whose meaning one can only guess, as well as a state of impermanence. On this grid of white and organic shapes, he traced a series of lines in red and white paint. One of the white lines seems to define the silhouette of a character. (How do you read it?) The other white lines are used to partially cover a red line, sometimes painted wet on wet, so they take on a particular hue. Some of the red runs along the greenish band.

“Chalk” is a layered painting or palimpsest in which Marden brings together different materials – graphite, pencil and oil paint – and two monochrome backgrounds, with other marks and lines drawn over the larger surface. In contrast to his penchant for control, which was certainly a feature of monochrome paintings and later works, such as the six-panel painting “The Auspicious Garden of the Plane Image, Third Version” (2000-6), in the collection of MoMA, Marden let go from the green land pieces. His use of asemic signs recognizes that we cannot say everything in language and that part of our experience remains indecipherable. And yet, knowing this, he does not arrive twice at the same void; he never transforms this inability to write the inchoate in the language into a theme or a variation. Each painting is different. By his earlier standards, these works are unfinished and dependent on the artist’s aging body.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These paintings are on their own at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian)

In his interview with Steir, Marden acknowledged the role played by time, its effect on the body, and he made no attempt to seek refuge in style:

I’m 5’8 ½”, and I weigh that much, and I’m left-handed, and I’m a certain age. It has a big effect on how something looks. The kind of mark I can make physically.

The Tao teaches the adept to let go of expectations and live here and now. When Marden continues the vertical row of marks on the far right of a drawing, even as the ink runs out, he is not replenishing the ink but recording himself disappearing. The signs he makes may not be decipherable, but they speak to my heart. They are the diary of an aging man living in time, while transmitting his love for certain places and curiosities. I think they are among the most open and moving paintings and drawings Marden has produced in his already busy career.

Brice Marden: These paintings stand on their own continues at Gagosian (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.


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