When Brice Marden (b. 1938) said ‘the rectangle is a great human invention’, it was a clarion call for painting at a time when artists were breaking free of the frame, and, in some cases, rejecting the canvas altogether. ‘People were saying “painting is dead”,’ he explained. ‘It was my way of saying what can be done.’
Born in 1938 in Bronxville, New York, Marden trained in fine art at Boston University and the Yale School of Art and Architecture (with Richard Serra, Chuck Close and Robert Mangold), before emerging as one of the art stars of New York in the early 1960s. Unlike many of his Pop peers, Marden made his name creating large, waxy, monochrome paintings.
These works were partly inspired by the abstract expressionist painter Jasper Johns (b. 1930), whom Marden discovered in 1963 while moonlighting as a gallery attendant at the Jewish Museum. ‘I was guarding a huge white flag painting all day long,’ said Marden, ‘so I really got to know the work and he became a big influence on me.’
Between shifts at the museum and making paintings, Marden lived a bohemian existence, hanging out with the troubadours and beat poets of Greenwich Village. He became acquainted with Bob Dylan and Nico through his first wife Pauline, the sister of Joan Baez. In his first solo show at the Bykert Gallery in 1966, he paid homage to Dylan in a bruised purple monochrome, and to Nico in a tawny blonde work.
Critics remarked on Marden’s technique of revealing the painting process by incorporating splashes from his palette knife in thin horizontal bands at the base of his canvases. The artist had conceived the idea during a trip to Paris in the early 1960s, where he had witnessed workmen stuccoing war-damaged buildings and become fascinated by the drips accumulating on the pavement. ‘There was this intense physicality to it,’ he recalled of the experience.
Marden continued to explore minimalism throughout the 1970s, expanding his spectrum to include colours from the natural world, but in 1984, he had a sudden shift in style. On a trip to China, the artist encountered the Cold Mountain Poems of the 8th-century poet, Han Shan. Keen to incorporate drawing into his paintings, he realised that Chinese calligraphy could be his way in.
The Complements diptych has been worked and re-worked with a palette knife, scraping down the multiple layers until their traces are nothing but ghostly impressions
Back in New York, he started to break up the flat planes of colour with gestural marks. To begin with, these were spiky and intense, but gradually they evened out to flow freely. The effect was hypnotic, like a live wire flexing across the painting, or as Marden reflected, the lines created by ‘an insect caught in amber’.
The Complements diptych, above, painted between 2004 and 2007 and exhibited at New York’s Matthew Marks Gallery in 2007, is a vibrant example of this later style. The orange and blue rectangles are traversed by a wiry collection of snaking coils, continuously circulating until they are forced into abrupt turns by the edges of the canvas. The painting has been worked and re-worked with a palette knife, scraping down the multiple layers until their traces are nothing but ghostly impressions.
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When asked, during his 2006 MOMA New York retrospective, how he knows when these endlessly undulating lines and overlapping layers are resolved, Marden said:
‘When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop. There are times when a work has pulled ahead of me and goes on to become something new to me, something that I have never seen before; that is finishing in an exhilarating way.’