Brice Marden’s Complements is a majestic painting filled with the artist’s signature winding loops and swirls of colorful pigment. Yet these seemingly simple ribbons of color belie the complex conceptual nature of these canvases, paintings in which the artist examines both the nature of time and memory, and how this is might be expressed in painting, and also the of contemporary painting itself. Across two conjoined canvases Marden sets out a series of winding paths of rich vibrant color. Often described as ribbons, the artist chooses to refer to them as linear elements to avoid any contextual associations. Upon a glowing orange and rich deep blue ground, Marden’s brushwork traverses the entire surface of the large scale canvases. Each contains four differently colored linear elements, one laid on to top the other. On the left canvas, complementing the orange ground, Marden begins by laying down the green element, followed by the blue, brown and finally red. Conversely, on the blue right-hand panel, the artist begins with the red, before laying down orange and green. The colored bands roam freely, their only constraints being the edges of the canvas, which are in turned defined by a border of painted color. Evidence of Marden’s technique lingers like ghostly apparitions. Going over and over, erasing and redrawing, using a palette knife to scrape down the multiple layers, Marden continually worked and re-worked Complement, until the painting was, as he described it, ‘resolved.’ The end result displays a mesmerizing contrast between a ethereal background and the graceful movements of the lines.
The order in which constructs his canvases is deliberate, part of—in the case of the present work—Marden’s investigations into the visual effects of complementary colors. By laying down intentionally chosen colors in this order, the artist investigates the eyes visual reactions to the effects of these color combinations. Complements continues the formal investigations that the artist began with Extremes, 2004-5, a painting which is now in the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art modern, Paris. In this earlier work, Marden uses a similar systemic system—ground colors of red and violet, which are extremes of the color spectrum. The linear elements are then laid down in sequence, on top of one another (if red is the ground, then the ‘extreme’ violet is laid down on “top”) resulting in an active dialogue on the plane across the two surface.
Gary Garrel’s, the curator of the artist’s 2006 retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, wrote “Marden says he wants his painted planes to be ‘something like an insect caught in amber.’ It is evident that we should take that to mean infinite eons of time, transparent geological layers of time—stratigraphies at once wholly visible to the naked eye. Marden’s commitment to plane image has never wavered” (B. Richardson, “Even a Stone Knows You,” in G. Garrells, Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006, p. 105).
The origins of this interest in ‘planer painting’ can be found in the 1980s when Brice Marden abandoned his highly-potent monochrome paintings in favor of a more calligraphic, gestural style of painting that was influenced by Chinese calligraphy. Beginning in 1984, Marden traveled first to Thailand, then later to Suzhou, China, where he became particularly interested in the ‘Cold Mountain’ verses of the eighth century poet Han Shan. Marden gained a new appreciation of the dual nature of calligraphy, in that those Chinese forms could be beautiful both in terms of their aesthetic appearance and in terms of their actual content, much of which is illustrated in the highly-acclaimed Cold Mountain series of 1988-1991.
Into the 1990s, Marden continued to create works in a literal calligraphic style, beginning in the top right-hand corner and working largely downwards, moving left column by column, but gradually a new, totally independent and self-contained series emerged. By the late ‘90s Marden had let go of the strictly calligraphic model: “I didn’t start off with the characters in the upper right and then work down and over as I had before with the calligraphy paintings. There aren’t any columns anymore or things connecting columns. I just went into these [paintings] and started a line. It seemed much more intuitive at that point. (B. Marden, quoted in http://www.carnegiemuseums.org/cmag/bk_issue/2000/mayjun/feat2.html).
Now in his 80s, Marden still inspires many contemporary artists today as “one of the most important abstract artists of his generation, his work…a touchstone for contemporary art” (G. Garrels, op. cit., p. 22). Born in 1938 in Bronxville, New York, Marden went on to receive traditional arts training at the Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts followed by a MFA at Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture. In 1966, he had his breakout solo show at Bykert Gallery in Manhattan; a retrospective at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York followed soon after in 1975. In the early 1970s, Marden first visited the Greek island of Hydra; he was so enamored that the eventually established a studio there in addition to his Manhattan studio. Hydra brought a new energy to his art and is notably the birthplace of the present work.
From the mid-1980s through the early 1990s, Marden pursued the inspired integration of calligraphic East Asian-inspired gestures into his work. Later on, the curved lines became more ropelike and brightly colored, adopting a different rhythm. In the early 1990s, Marden was the subject of a major traveling show of recent work, the 1991 Brice Marden—Cold Mountain at the Dia in New York, which traveled well into 1993 to the Walker Art Center, the Menil Collection, the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, and the Kunstmuseum. His work of the 1990s was also the subject of a 1999 exhibition that traveled from the Dallas Museum of Art to the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. In 2006, Marden was the subject of a major forty-year retrospective that traveled from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the San Francisco Museum of Art to the Hamburger Banhof in Berlin.
Writing in the catalogue for the MoMA exhibition, the curator Gary Garrels surmised the artist’s practice thus, “For Marden, art wrests out of life an essence of experience and memory, though and feeling, that attains its own autonomy. Human reason and emotion take their place in the world through the experience of the art, both as it is made and as it is viewed. Marden’s work, like that of many artists, is deeply influenced by the places he has lived and worked in , the people in his life, and the cultures in which he has immersed himself, not the least of them the art of the past, both ancient and recent. From his sharp synthesis and distillations of his experience an art is made that in turn gives viewers an incisive means to reflect more deeply on their own perceptions, knowledge, and experience” (G. Garrells, “Beholding Light and Experience: The Art of Brice Marden,” in op. cit. p. 11).
When the artist himself was asked about why he painted, he replied “I paint because it’s my work. And I paint because I believe it’s the best way that I can pass my time as a human being. I paint for myself. I paint for my wife. And I paint for anybody who’s willing to look at it. Really at heart for anybody who wants to see it. And when I say see it, I mean see it. I don’t just mean look at it. Well, I do everything I can in terms of what I put out for people to look at. I mean I supply them with all the information I possibly can. And they just have to take care of it from there on in. As in anything, you know, like the more responsive, the more open, the more imaginative you are when you deal with something, the much better experience it will be...It’s hard to look at paintings. It’s really difficult, a very strenuous kind of activity but very, very rewarding. I mean like it’s strenuous to listen to a great piece of music. Very complicated. You have to think a lot. You have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body. Really get off on it. It’s a very high experience. It’s something very deep and felt. (B. Marden, op. cit. p. 17).