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Etchings to Rexroth

Etchings to Rexroth
the complete set of 25 etching and aquatints, on Rives BFK paper, 1986, each signed, dated, annotated '1-25' respectively in pencil and numbered 24/45 (there were also ten artist's proof sets in Roman numerals), published by Peter Blum Edition, New York, with the title page, with full margins, in generally very good condition, together with the original navy blue linen portfolio case
Each Image: 8 x 6 7/8 in. (203 x 175 mm.)
Each Sheet: 19 1/2 x 16 in. (495 x 406 mm.)
Lewison 40
Special notice
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lindsay Griffith
Lindsay Griffith Head of Department

Lot Essay

Brice Marden is an American painter and printmaker who is best known for his abstract compositions. Born in 198 Marden earned his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art in 1963. Among his fellow students were Alex Katz, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Vija Celmins, and Sylvia and Robert Mangold. Aside from his studies he was immersed in the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based American folk music revival scene, and through it he knew Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. His first wife was Pauline Baez, Joan Baez's sister.

Marden's etchings often feature geometric shapes, lines, and organic forms. He frequently uses a range of techniques, including soft ground, aquatint, and sugar lift, to create intricate textures and patterns in his prints. Marden's use of color is also notable, with many of his graphic works featuring vibrant hues and bold contrasts.

Landscape has long been a source of inspiration to Marden, as evidenced by the Cold Mountain series from 1991, and the many works in all media that reference the terrain of the Greek island of Hydra, where he has had a house for many years.
The present portfolio was executed between January and June 1986 at Jennifer Melby’s print workshop, conveniently located close to Marden’s studio in the Bowery. It consists of twenty-five etchings, each numbered consecutively, executed on copper plates, principally in sugarlift aquatint and hardground etching. The images are variations on triangular shapes, which might loosely be called ideographs. Unlike ideographs, however, they do not have specific connotations. In the first five prints the forms remain relatively separate but, from the sixth image onwards, Marden began to link them up. Although initially the shapes were arranged vertically in columns, by the end of the series he abandoned the notional columnar grid in favour of a more all-over composition.

Although he lived in New York, Marden had previously made etchings principally at Crown Point Press in California but, since 1979, following the birth of his second daughter, he had been unable to find the time to return there. He first worked with Melby on an etching he made for the Swiss art magazine Parkett in 1985 (Lewison 39). His introduction to Melby was effected by Peter Blum, the Swiss print publisher and co-publisher of Parkett. Blum had already expressed an interest in publishing a print project with Marden and he asked Marden to consider the Parkett commission as something of a pilot. Blum suggested that if Marden felt that his collaboration with Melby was successful, then the larger project could be executed with her too. In the event, Marden was pleased with the outcome, and has continued to work with Melby to this day.

Blum’s commission was open-ended and left the artist free to decide how many prints he would execute and what size they would be. Initially, he made prints similar in style and content to the Parkett etching but in a larger size. However, he was dissatisfied with the outcome, feeling that this imagery was substantially different from the images he had been drawing throughout the summer in notebooks in Greece. When Marden brought one of the notebooks to Melby's workshop, she suggested that he could make similar kinds of images to the pen and ink drawings by using sugarlift aquatint. Using a stick to apply the solution, just as he uses sticks to apply ink in his drawings, Marden began to draw on the copper plates, marking a light grid on the edges of the plates as a guide. He halved the size of the plates he had been working on and adopted this size for the whole set. He began each plate in the top right corner and worked vertically downwards, before moving horizontally along the plate to the next column. Being left-handed, working from right to left was the natural course to follow.

The first four plates were very experimental but Marden felt that the fifth plate ‘really clicked’. By the ninth he was familiar with both the medium and the approach and he drew a configuration which had a tightness that excited him. ‘This is the one where it started. I figured this is what I want to get in the drawings and in the paintings’. What particularly pleased him was the spiraling effect which communicated the energy and the layers of meaning of his Greek drawings.

Marden’s imagery had undergone considerable change in the previous months. At the beginning of the 1980s he had felt himself to be in crisis. Not only had he temporarily left his family but he also parted company with Pace Gallery who had been acting as his agents. Furthermore, he was advised to refrain from taking narcotics and alcohol, which had played a large part in his life hitherto. His dissatisfaction spread to his work, and he reached the point of having to decide whether to continue to make paintings in the manner for which he was now well known – on multiple panels of canvas, initially in muted tones and subsequently in rich, more intense colours – or whether to break away and adopt new forms and interests.

He had also been aware for some time that his drawings and his paintings differed in terms of imagery, the drawings being looser and more gestural than the paintings. He decided that the way forward would be to try to use the imagery of the drawings in the paintings. The results of this change of approach were first shown in his solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, New York in March 1987.

While Marden had been making quite freely executed drawings since the early 1970s, his approach to mark-making now had a calligraphic feel. In autumn 1984 Marden had visited an exhibition held jointly at the Japan House Gallery and the Asia Society Galleries, New York, titled Masters of Japanese Calligraphy 8th–19th Century (Oct. 1984–Jan. 1985), and he returned to see it several times. Marden had the idea that he would train to be a calligrapher but was disappointed when he was told, erroneously as it turned out, that being left-handed would make this impossible. The Etchings to Rexroth portfolio developed from this interest.

During his visit to Asia Marden made many drawings using sticks dipped in ink. A number of these were done before nature and often one drawing was made on top of another, producing layers of images which gradually merged and became interwoven. He continued this practice on his visit to the island of Hydra in Greece, where he has a house and studio. What particularly pleased Marden was the spiraling effect in the drawings. Rather than depicting motifs, Marden considers that he acts as a transmitter for the energy he senses before nature.

There were three principal sources for the imagery of the Rexroth portfolio. A number of the prints were derived from the experience of drawing the landscape in Greece. Marden was interested in ‘the shape of the mountains and the sea beyond. I drew these spaces between the mountains and then just started to bring them together’ (quoted in Lewison 1992, p.49). The triangular motifs are partly derived from such observations but may also have been based on similarly shaped symbols printed in a table of correspondences (see ibid., p.56 n.66) which he consulted while working on a project to make stained glass windows for the cathedral in Basle (begun 1977 but never completed). A third source was the spiral markings of volutes (a deep-water marine mollusk with a thick spiral shell that is colorful and prized by collectors.) On a trip to Thailand in 1984 Marden had visited a seashell museum and, since then, has been a keen collector of spiral shells.

When it came to printing the plates Marden experimented with a number of options. He tried printing three plates on one sheet, then two plates on the same sheet separated by a plate of pure colour, and he also tried printing the plates themselves in different colours. Chine collé, the imposition of a fine sheet of paper on top of the base sheet, was another option he tried and subsequently abandoned. Finally he decided to print the images in black.

When Marden embarked on the project he was reading Cathay by Ezra Pound (1875–1972), which included a large number of poems by the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po. Some months later Peter Blum gave Marden a first edition of Cathay in recognition of the latter’s enthusiasm for the book.

The prints were called Etchings to Rexroth to imply they were an accompaniment to the work of Kenneth Rexroth (1905-82), the American poet, translator, and critical essayist who was one of the leading poets of the San Francisco Renaissance and was influential in the Beat Generation literary movement. Marden discovered Rexroth's translations of poems by the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu midway through the project. Marden has always had a strong interest in poetry, and Rexroth was not only a translator of Chinese verse but also a poet in his own right.

One year after the publication of the prints Peter Blum published a book of Rexroth’s translations of the poems of Tu Fu and, alongside them, Marden’s images. However, Marden has stated that the prints are not to be regarded as illustrations to the poems.

Jeremy Lewison, Brice Marden Prints 1961-1991: A Catalogue Raisonne, Tate Gallery Publications, 1992.
The body of this note is drawn from an article published in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986–88, London 1996.

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