Brice Marden (b. 1938)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more
Brice Marden (b. 1938)

Untitled (Grey)

Brice Marden (b. 1938)
Untitled (Grey)
signed, titled and dated 'UNTITLED (GREY) B. Marden 1986/87' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
50 x 36 in. (127 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1986-1987.
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Private collection, United States, 1987
Private collection, United States, 2012
Acquired from the above by the present owner
New York, Mary Boone Gallery, An Exhibition to Benefit the Armitage Ballet, June 1987.
Special notice
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Lot Essay

Over the course of his remarkable career spanning more than five decades, Brice Marden has deftly assumed the heady responsibility of producing purely abstract painting, often doing so with unrivaled finesse. His paintings continue to rank among the most critically-acclaimed of their era, demonstrating the elegant profusion of undulating, serpentine lines ensnared within a taut, and luxuriously hued, visual plane. The present canvas, with its angular network of raking diagonal lines set within an intimate, window-like space, is an important work from a key moment in Marden’s career. Painted between 1986 and ‘87, Untitled (Grey) demonstrates several significant developments in the artist’s work that anticipate the flourishing of his next great style—ushered in the following year with the Cold Mountain series. 

In Untitled (Grey), Marden has used a long brush to delineate an angular network of diagonal lines. These strong linear elements have been executed in a thinned down, liquified oil paint and limited to two colors: pure white and a dark blue reminiscent of calligrapher’s ink. Together, they create an array of twisting, triangular forms that have been overlaid, one atop the next. Its effect is not unlike the faceting of a crystal into its distinct and individual planes. In this, one of the artist’s first painterly use of linear elements within his heretofore non-representational paintings, Marden tested the thickness of the line, using a particular kind of brush that demonstrates the idiosyncratic touch of the artist’s hand, which wavers, skips and drips as it glides through the painting in deft, muscular strokes. A subdued, smoky grey palette creates an atmospheric backdrop that allows the drama of the artist’s line to unfold, where the network of nesting, triangular shards seem to fold in on themselves whilst also unfurling, creating a dynamic sense of push and pull. 

Created during a moment of profound change, Untitled (Grey) bears witness to the new developments in Marden’s work that took place in the mid-1980s. At the beginning of that decade, Marden had reached a creative impasse with the monochrome paintings that had brought him such acclaim in the 1960s and ‘70s. Deciding whether to continue on in the same vein with the rich, more intense colors of his recent monochromatic work, or to break free and pursue some new, uncharted direction, Marden opted for the latter. “I got to a point where I could go on making ‘Brice Marden paintings’ and suffer that silent creative death,” the artist explained, “[or] make a decision to change things” (B. Marden, quoted in G. Garrels, Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 20). 

Several developments in Marden’s personal and professional career came together to incite this change. From about 1977 until 1985, Marden had been occupied with designing the stained-glass windows for Basel Cathedral, and, although the project ultimately never reached fruition, Marden had become interested in the properties of light as it passed through the variously colored stained glass, and began incorporating the use of diagonal lines in his design. Around this time, he also famously began using ailanthus sticks as drawing tools, sharpening the sticks and then dipping them into ink, to create the wavering, lyrical drawings that began to influence his painterly body of work. This was a natural extension of his time spent in Hydra, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea, where he had been summering since the early 1970s. He also made a series of minimalist paintings on marble shards that he found lying around outside his studio there, which have proven to be useful studies for his later work.  

In the early 1980s, Marden also made one of his first trips to Asia, visiting Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, at the suggestion of his wife, Helen. This trip sparked the artist’s interest in Asian art, particularly calligraphy, Buddhism and Chinese poetry. He also studied the patterns of growth found in the natural environment, making sketches of trees, mountains and seashells. In 1984, an exhibition of calligraphy at the Asia Society in New York, called Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th to 19th Century, proved to be a revelatory moment, ushering in a roughly two-decade obsession with the formal qualities of calligraphy and its expressive possibilities in his work.

In 1981, Marden had abandoned the use of wax in his pigment, which he had previously employed in the monochromes. This unusual medium had imparted a noticeable degree of luminosity to those ethereal paintings, resulting from the countless layers progressively built up by degrees. However, by the early ‘80s he chose instead to liquify his paint with a thinning agent called terpineol, which resulted in a looser, more liquid medium which he could apply in thin scrims that dried quickly. He applied a series of translucent layers that were erased, rubbed down, scraped or sanded, and then progressively built back up again. In Untitled (Grey), this technique has resulted in the especially nuanced background, where the color grey has been infused with the remnants of various underpainted layers.

Marden’s subtle and painterly use of the color grey undoubtedly relates back to his early years in New York, when he worked as a part-time security guard at the Jewish Museum, taking stock of Jasper Johns’s Gray Paintings during his retrospective there in 1964. It also benefits from his in-depth color studies of Old Master painters such as Francisco de Zurbarán that Marden experienced during his undergraduate years at Boston University. He was also particularly taken with a grey painting of Edouard Manet titled Street Singer that he frequently visited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In addition, the boney trails of paint evoke the dramatic angular figures of de Kooning’s iconic Woman paintings of the 1950s.

In the highly-nuanced background of Untitled (Grey), the variety of Marden’s technique is striking, ranging from the thinnest scrims of liquified paint, to denser, more opaque, hovering clouds, to the translucent areas where he has sanded down the top layers to reveal ghosted remnants of those underneath. Scrapes of the palette knife can be seen as well, particularly within the central triangular elements. Herein lies the remnants of Marden’s earlier monochromes, particularly his affinity and flair for creating such luminous color, whilst the white and blue linear elements anticipate what would go on to form the “glyphs” of the following years.   

Up until this point, Marden had always considered drawing and painting to be completely separate enterprises. Now the artist began to incorporate aspects of both; he layered networks of diagonals, creating triangular forms that were sandwiched one on top of the other, all of which laid the foundation for the painted “glyphs” that began to emerge in his work around this time. The paintings were unveiled in 1987 at Marden’s solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, and again in 1988. One reviewer commented, “…the wan beauty of these paintings almost makes you shudder. They are twilight paintings, not only in their palette, but in their vision of what’s possible in painting. ...together [they] produce an effect as ethereal as the memory of a dream” (S. Ellis, “Brice Marden at Mary Boone, Art in America, June 1988, p. 158).

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