Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Painting Impossibilities

“Mr. Marden may have been able to evade Modernism’s breakthrough requirement because he made his entrance at a time when painting as a whole had supposedly ground to a halt,” wrote Roberta Smith of Brice Marden in her New York Times review of Marden’s 2006 MOMA retrospective. “This was the late 1960’s, when painting was being forced through the eye of the Minimal-Conceptual needle and proving a trifle bulky and balky. It was having a near-death experience.” Marden, born October 15, 1938, survived that near-death experience by painting works such as The Dylan Painting (above, from 1966), an homage to the protean musician Bob Dylan as well as a Jasper Johns-influenced attempt to paint the textures and nuances of life after painting had seemingly ceased to exist. Like Dylan, Marden saw the world around him and re-envisioned his art form, stripping away everything until he found a core upon which to build.

Marden’s philosophical approach owes much to his 1963 MFA from Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture. Like his classmates Richard Serra and Chuck Close, Marden struck out a new path in art, seeking out different cultural viewpoints, falling eventually under the influence of Chinese art and calligraphy. As Francoise Jullien argues in his The Impossible Nude: Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics (reviewed by me here), Chinese art concentrates on process, such as the endless workings of nature and the spirit of dao within nature, rather than on the individual figure and any idea of individual essence. Similarly, in works such as Post Calligraphic Drawing (above, from 1998), Marden removes the figure and revels in pure process, in this case pure line flowing and sometimes sputtering across a page in pure, egoless dao. To answer all questions of painting’s demise, Marden changes the topic of discussion from the individual to painting itself, bringing Eastern philosophy into play over the domineering Western aesthetic.

In recent years, Marden had brought a greater sense of color to his work, as in The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Second Version (above, from 2000-2006). Marden continues his exploration of the calligraphic line as an egoless solution to painting’s ego-driven excesses while adding bold color to please the eye. Whereas Jackson Pollock’s personality flowed all over his Abstract Expressionist canvases, there is no Brice Marden shouting from these images. Marden comfortably stands behind his works rather than in front of them, achieving a connection with the viewer some thought impossible after the meteoric rise and flameout of painting in the late twentieth century.

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