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Brice Marden (b. 1938)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Frances R. Dittmer
Brice Marden (b. 1938)

Couplet Painting Study III

Brice Marden (b. 1938)
Couplet Painting Study III
signed with initials and dated 'BM 87.8' (lower right)
ink on paper
22½ x 10½ in. (57.1 x 26.6 cm.)
Executed in 1987-1988.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne
Marianne Holtermann Fine Art, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, July 1989
Cologne, Galerie Michael Werner, Brice Marden Paintings and Drawings, May-June 1989.
Aspen Art Museum, The Shaman as Artist/The Artist as Shaman, February-April 1994.
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Lot Essay

A modernist in the fullest sense of the word, Marden embraces the notion of an autonomous work of art, one that is self-generating and that describes an authorial hand at work. Marden’s “belief in the hand” (B. Marden, remarks read on May 14 2012 at the Tate Gallery, London) undergirds his insistence on fully realizing the flat, non-illusionistic planarity of his surfaces. As he often repeats, “The whole evolution of modernism is about getting up, up, up to the surface, tightening the surface to the plane….” (J. Yau, “An Interview with Brice Marden,” in Brice Marden, Zurich, 2003, p. 51). With Couplet Painting Study III, the choreography of crisscrossing, looped and layered lines compose the plane such that what may seem at first glance a morass of random linearity, in fact, documents the artist’s consecutive “hits,” or what Marden describes using Jackson Pollock’s phrase, “going into” the canvas. The lines, some dark, some light, trace the artist’s intuitive physical response to form, as if Marden used not only his hand, but also his arm and shoulder, indeed, deployed his entire body in a fully realized series of intuitive kinetic gestures. The grace and litheness in the artist’s movements as he speaks about the line’s trajectory is the genesis of those arcing and coursing lines – nearly as if a visual trace of the artist’s bodily movements inhered as much in the surface as do the cadences and metric accents of the artist’s voice as he relates the process of working through his drawings and paintings (B. Marden, “Brice Marden on “Cold Mountain 5 ‘Bridge,’” San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, February 2007, video). The process is complex, involving the initial mark making, followed by erasing, redrawing, and whiting out or retracing his lines with gouache or pigment. Such pentimenti (visible “corrections”) are a defining element in the final form these works take, an artifact of the artist’s hand, of his presence.

Marden “goes in” to the work wielding a stick dipped in ink rather than a brush. Using the loaded stick forces a distance between the artist and the surface, allowing the whole sheet to remain in focus. “It was at that distance that you’d get a better focus; you’re seeing drawing in a different way than if you’re right on top of it.” At the same time, using the stick undoes learned technique, the “effects,”
he calls them, of brushwork mastered through years of art school training. “I’d use one stick and you didn’t really have any control; you have a certain amount of control, but you’d have accidents” (quotations from Brice Marden, “Marden on Asian Art,” Guggenheim Museum, 2009). Marden accepts these “accidents,” such as the sporadic ink drips and splotches that enrich the sheet with a surprising texture, as part of the work, so that like Gerhard Richter’s squeegie, Hans Arp’s torn and pasted paper scattered from random height of the sheet (Collage Arranged According to the Laws of Chance, 1916-1917), or even Willem de Kooning’s blind drawings, Marden’s use of sticks or twigs rather than the brush systematically undermines controlled gesture in a self-conscious act of “de-skilling. Yet, unlike surrealist artists of the early 20th-century engaged in automatic processes, for Couplet Painting Study III Marden’s automatism is carried out within a systematic structural framework—the elaboration and dynamic form of the double image. Doubling as a structural scaffolding is a trope of Western art history, and modernists were no exception: Pollock in his paintings and line drawings from the 1950s, Franz Kline in his scaled-up black and white broadly brushed bands, and de Kooning in his works where he averts his eyes from the page while drawing, tie the doubled images together through various means—dense skeins, contiguous or intersecting figured arcs, or even faint ink drips.

Couplet Painting Study III emerged from a moment of creative crisis in the early 1980s. Marden had brought to a close his cycle of architectonic rectilinear-based monochromes with Coda, 1983- 84, a “post and lintel” format work based on classical Greek architecture. Consisting of three discrete canvases in contiguous formation, the title, Coda, indicated that the artist had come full circle in his investigation of the monochrome canvas. Marden had been trying during this final phase of insistent rectilinearity to foreground drawing in his paintings.

I wanted to get more drawing into the paintings, trying to work it in, it just wasn’t happening. I was making these very vertical brush
strokes or strokes with a knife and there were variations with stuff like that, but you couldn’t see it. You had to get down on the floor and look up and see it in drastic lighting situations…. And I just like went into crisis, and I just had to figure another way, and so I basically took a year and worked out this other way of painting (Brice Marden, “On Asian Art,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, video, 2009).

For Couplet Painting Study III, Marden worked with a vertical orientation to elaborate in compelling complexity the double image of the paired diamond-shaped schematic structure. Several so-called studies in the Cold Mountain cycle reveal Marden working out the linear relationships between the doubled cone-like forms, which first appear in his “Work Books” from 1983-84. Marden abstracted in drawn lines the visual linkage of couplets that would be undertaken in their original language, tracing the act of reading the poetry from top to bottom and from right to left, while creating vertical and horizontal joins in a web of optical and haptic associations, a tangled choreography of figure and counter-figure, where discrete limbs converge and cross, which in turn create a multiform network of extraordinary muscularity and beauty. It is as though Marden danced through his markings, creating sinews of arabesque-like traces in the manner of Pollock. Indeed, ten years on, Marden would paint Chinese Dancing, 1994-1996, based on dancing figurines found in tombs of the Western Han dynasty, carrying into this and larger scaled-works the spatial complexity, immediacy of gesture, and almost lyrical linear migrations out of which the visceral dynamism of Couplet Painting Study III evolved. Marden’s thoughts about Cézanne’s painting is just as true of his own: “Cézanne was not painting a subject. [He was] painting the thing that nurtured him his whole life… there was an identification with the act… with going beyond visual reality.” Couplet Painting Study III describes in its expressive complexity what Marden calls “one of the most compelling aspects of modernism –[…] its commitment to constant striving” (Brice Marden, “Brice Marden on Cézanne,” n.d., video, and in B. Richardson, Brice Marden Cold Mountain, Houston, 1992, 76).

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