A moving meditation on mortality in Brice Marten’s late paintings


Brice Marten’s recent paintings and drawings are careful, tender, heartbreaking, angry, vulnerable and open. Since his work requires him to engage with the surface with gestures, pressure and movement – which has been the case since the beginning of his career – it is tied to what he can physically achieve. When I look back on the career of this outstanding artist, I see three fundamental periods. In the first, which lasted from 1964 to the mid-1980s, he worked monochromatically and was known for his thorough attention to the surface and the tangible but elusive color he was able to achieve with encaustic. His restrained painting had an unmistakable physicality, a tension between the expressive and the understatement.

In the second phase he re-imagined how he used lines and how he painted, trading the subtle tactility of encaustic for diluted oil and drawing in what he once called “dirty turpentine” to me. This period was inspired by his window designs for the Basel Minster; his travels in North Africa, where he studied Islamic architecture in Fes and Marrakech; a trip to Thailand, where he began collecting seashells, particularly volutes, and making layered drawings loosely inspired by their markings; and at the exhibition Master of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th – 19th centuries Century, in the Japan House Gallery and Asia Society, New York (October 4, 1984 to January 6, 1985).

In his paintings from this period he went back to the loop lines, using a razor blade to make sure the edges were straight and clean. The lines were flat and moved gracefully, reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s Drip Paintings without resembling them in any way. I never felt that Marden found it necessary either to discard the past or to quote it. He thought it possible to move forward without agreeing to these familiar decisions, and time has proven he was right.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These pictures are self-evident at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian)

While Marten’s meticulousness and clear visual statements characterize the first two periods, the third, or what I consider his late period, shows an artist who knows that change is inevitable, that mortality is approaching, and that art is no bulwark against it Time is . This awareness that the clock is running out has a huge impact on his work and, if I would risk it, on his psyche.

I estimate that this late period began between 2016 and 17 when he made 10 paintings measuring 2.40 x 2.80 m using 10 different brands of Terre Verte oil paint; Each painting was painted in one of the brands, with the paint being applied in successive layers. The process was incremental, cautious and, as in his previous work, its parameters were carefully thought out. At the time, Marden was almost 80 years old.

Marden applied one of the Terre Vertes thinly over the entire surface. Then he measured a horizontal line that led to a square at the top that closely filled the top of the vertical format, while leaving a wide band at the bottom. This compositional structure appears to have been inspired by the proportions of a vertical sketchbook he was using at the time. Next, he filled the square with successive layers of wet, slow-drying paint so that thin lines of paint drip from the bottom edge of the square into the tape below like ragged threads. By dividing the canvas into two unequal areas and covering the surface with severe monochrome, Marden limited his control over the imagery of the painting and relinquished his ability to determine what was happening in the broad ribbon below.

Marden chose Terre Verte (also known as “green earth”) knowing that Botticelli would use it to underline the flesh of his subject in works such as “Idealized Portrait of a Lady” (egg tempera, 1480), where it penetrated the figure’s translucent skin . Known as one of the most persistent of all pigments, it causes 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 the same; it is associated with nature, light and alchemy. It seems to me that nobody has yet dealt intensively with all the meanings and resonances of color in his works, from his reference to the sunlight that shines through an olive grove to the trinity of colors that he uses in his works for the Basler Munster used.

These are some of the thoughts, memories, and feelings that came to my mind shortly after sitting on a bench in the main gallery of the exhibit Brice Marden: These pictures are self-evident, at Gagosian (November 13th – December 23rd, 2021), but as I looked at the work, another train of thought began to crystallize.

Marden started working on in the late 1980s because of his interest in calligraphy Cold mountain, a series of black and white paintings, drawings, and etchings inspired by his reading of the legendary Chinese recluse poet Han Shan, translated from Red Pine. In an interview with the painter Pat Steir, which appeared in the brochure accompanying these works in the exhibition Brice Marden: Cold Mountain, at Dia Chelsea (October 17, 1991 – May 31, 1992), Marden stated:

In the beginning I drew in the shape of the poem in Chinese, then I started to combine picture and calligraphy and use the shape of the poem as a skeleton. I am becoming more and more interested in the ideas of Tao and Zen. Cold Mountain’s poems are very much about that.

Later he said:

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

I don’t think Marden is I tried to make language but as I looked at the paintings and drawings I started to think that these works have an asemic element that should not be ignored. This is especially true for the painting “Chalk” (oil, charcoal and graphite on linen, 96 x 72 inches, 2013-21), which seems to have transformed everything Marden had previously done into something fresh – at the same time 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 Terre Verte paintings, Marden marked a 6 by 6 foot square and left a two foot strip below it. Then he divided the square with a pencil into a grid of 225 squares so that it rests on the tape. The palette in the upper part of the painting consists of sandstone red, Chinese red, and ghost white, while the ribbon underneath is a mustard yellow interspersed with green – oblique complementary colors. The band also arouses associations with Chinese scroll paintings, in which the work is mounted on yellow silk.

In each square of the grid, Marden has used white to reproduce a rounded shape, sometimes as an open line and sometimes as a halved shape, reminiscent of nature (i.e. rocks) and linguistic signs. The grid can also be read as a diagram, but from what? The faint white lines are reminiscent of chalk (the title of the painting) and suggest an indecipherable language, a record whose meaning we can only guess, as well as a state of impermanence. He drew a series of lines in red and white over this grid of white, organic shapes. One of the white lines seems to define the silhouette of a figure. (How do we read it?) The other white lines are used to partially cover up a red line, sometimes painted wet on wet to give it a specific shade. Some of the red drips over the greenish ribbon.

“Chalk” is a layered painting or palimpsest in which Marden brings together different materials – graphite, pencil and oil paint – and two monochrome backgrounds, with additional markings and lines being made on the larger area. In contrast to his tendency to control, which certainly has the monochrome paintings and later works, such as the six-part painting “The happy garden of the plan picture, third version” (2000-6) in the MoMA collection, Marden has since the Terre-Verte- Pieces going on. His use of asemic characters recognizes that everything cannot be said in language and that part of our experience remains indecipherable. And yet with this knowledge he does not end up in the same void twice; he never makes a theme or a variation of this inability to write the incoate in the language. Every painting is different. By his earlier standards, these works are unfinished and conditioned by the artist’s aging body.

Installation view of Brice Marden: These pictures are self-evident at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy of Gagosian)

In his interview with Steir, Marden recognized the role of time, its effect on the body, and made no move to seek refuge in style:

I am 5’8½ inches and weigh this much, am left-handed and of a certain age. That has a big impact on how a thing looks. The kind of mark I can physically leave.

The Tao teaches the adept to let go of expectations and live in the here and now. When Marden continues the vertical row of marks on the far right of a drawing, he is not refilling the ink, but rather is recording himself disappearing from view. The signs he makes may not be decipherable, but they spoke directly to my heart. They are the diary of an aging man who lives in time and at the same time conveys his love for certain places and sights. I think they are among the most open, deeply moving paintings and drawings that Marden has made in his already historic career.

Brice Marden: These pictures are self-evident continues at Gagosian (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23rd.

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