Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moma this week: Brice Marden

Last week I was able to see the Brice Marden retrospective at MOMA prior to my workshop at Poets House. A retrospective, the show offers fifty paintings and an equal number of drawings (which I didn't have time to see). You enter into the first room and see four nearly solid colored canvases with titles such as "Dylan" and "Nebraska." Immediately stress levels plunge. There is something very calming, very slowing, about the work. It has give, it has room to enter, no pressure to translate or process. At least this earlier work, which is very much in the vein of minimalist art that was common in the 1960s a la Martin, Rothko, etc. The grays here are more Jasper Johns than Rothko, and somehow as sweet. Yes, sweet, and that is a surprising achievement in a gray palate, no?

If you access the audio guide you eavesdrop on a conversation between Marden and Moma curator in which much is revealed about the origins of the work, influences, and most interestingly, the artist's process. You hear details such as "refrigerator door" as palate, and "metal spatula" as paint knife. You begin to imagine the artist stripping away, an approach more like a sculptor who carves away, than a painter who builds up on the canvas. You are directed on how to look at the paintings: stand as far from the work as the size of the canvas, look at the surface, approach the canvas up close, notice the marks, or "events" I think he says, then move back as far as you can and take it in like a horizon... All of this is extremely helpful and pleasant in fact, and I found myself more drawn to the work after listening to the artist discuss it.

The paintings themselves--and incidentally, I'm still in the first room--are soft and skin-like in the way that Marcia Hafif's monochrome work is, but there is something even warmer about these, and I swear that a hint of that is in the scent: Marden added beeswax to his paint. The result is a lovely matte texture, but also, like Hafif's glaze paintings, an intense organic sense about the work, a kind of glow and vibrancy. Yes, Rothko achieves this too, yes, of course, but here one begins to feel the surprising "narrative" of monochrome, and by now, monochrome seems the most sensible response to our time..

What surprises me is the collaborative nature of the work. How have I gone so long not seeing this? After all, when Marden talks about the surprising geographical details of the Nebraska landscape as inspiration for the monochrome gray canvas, one begins to sense that landscape, the scent and movement of viewing it from a car window, passing by at 20th century speeds, the physical nature of painting yes, but also of looking, feeling, sensing.

As one progresses chronologically through the show the canvases seem to shrink and multiply as the artist explores composition and color relationships. There is a studied classical nature to this work that makes more sense to me than some of the more famous minimalist artists. Here's a hint at why this might be:
From single-panel paintings, Mr. Marden moved to two and three panels, keeping theme vertical. One of these is the imposing yet delicate ''D'apr├Ęs la Marquise de la Solana,'' inspired by Goya's portrait of the pert, lavishly gowned aristocrat standing on and in front of an ambiguous plane of shadowy gray. Mr. Marden distilled the basic elements of the image into slablike planes of gray-green (background), gray-gray (garments) and grayed pink (flesh). A collage spells it out, juxtaposing three postcards of the Goya with three rectangles of graphite built into hard, shiny planes.
Perhaps I'm just becoming more comfortable with this vein of work, but there was something utterly timeless about these canvases, a natural progression, a line connecting them back through art time to Goya, etc., in a way I've never seen or understood. When the grid appears as DNA-like stands in the work, there is a moment of shudder, but this gives way quickly as the lines themselves soften both in tone, texture, and shape. Ironically, this shift corresponds to an interest in Chinese characters. The poetic rendering of the lines is deeply satisfying when they achieve a kind of symmetrical unity. There are obvious connections here, to Johns, as I mentioned earlier, to Stella, and at this point, to Pollack. However there is something more confident about these Marden canvases. The abstract more physical, or robust in its rhythms...

I didn't like all of the work here. When Marden dips into orange I couldn't stay in the room for long. But by the end he had won me over again with the plane surface, a series of large, dynamic paintings that seemed to harken back to the first canvases and extend the more energetic explorations of lines and movements from the middle period. I was surprised by this work. Pleasantly. And now I want more. I also want to read poetry, and even a novel that resembles in some way, this approach to the canvas. I want to be in this world for much longer stretches of time. And I want to go back to Moma next week and check out the drawings.

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