[Drawing] is an intimate medium. It's very direct, it's very close. There's less between the artist and the art. There is real closeness, direct contact
Buoyant with air and light, Hemlock 1 presents the fusion of nature and subjective abstraction that has come to characterize Brice Marden's remarkable late drawings. Meandering dark forms disappear and emerge behind a delicate veil of white gouache, creating an intricate web that simultaneously evokes organic form, the energy inherent to human activity, and the deeper recesses of the mind. Inspired by nature, the freely drawn, calligraphic black lines are spontaneous and full of spirit, while the overlying translucent gouache suggests the artist's more contemplative decisions of what to conceal and what to reveal. While Hemlock 1 is an expression of Marden's finely tuned painterly instincts, it is a strong example of the importance with which Marden attributes to the process of drawing, which he sees as a distinct but related discipline to painting. Tellingly, the title of his 2006-2007 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, and was curated so that the drawings were displayed in galleries on a different floor in order to reflect their equal but separate status within the overall context of his career "I don't think drawing is less than painting" he revealed on the eve of this exhibition. "The less you have between you and what you're making the better. The best drawing instruments are the ones where you are what your hand is. When the hand moves with the least resistance. In a way, pencil is much less resistant than a brush" (B. Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 294).
Marden reaches beyond literal interpretations of organic form in his work, choosing instead to use selected aspects of the observed as reference. He has said: "I think my idea of form comes from observation of nature. To me, that's true form, or the best reference. You just try to keep it as interesting as that. And so you make these corrections, and sometimes you choose to leave them" (B. Marden, quoted in "Painters Paintings", ArtForum, October 2006, p. 286). The intimacy of drawing allows Marden a medium with which to more directly channel this deeply felt response to nature, something that has been fundamental to his work from the earliest years of his career. From the 1960s monochromatic wax panels that responded to the close urban environment of his first downtown New York apartment, to the high coloration of the paintings he makes at his studio on the Greek island of Hydra, geography, place and space have always had a guiding influence on Marden's work. "You're really influenced by where you're painting," he has said. "One of the biggest things is the light." (B. Marden, quoted in T. Loos, "A Subtle Sense of Place", The New York Times, October 29 2006.)
In 1991, shortly before Hemlock 1 was painted, Marden bought a property in a densely forested part of Pennsylvania, named Eagles Mere. The studio there has been described by Marden as dark, surrounded by blankets of green moss and enveloped in a thick canopy of hemlocks that filter the light entering the studio. Work of this period appears to respond to the gentle light of this environment, inspiring paintings that carry the same subdued, close toned subtlety of Hemlock 1. The spatial depth and complex intricacy of the tangled lines of Hem lock 1 echo the abundance of wild hemlock surrounding the studio; the complex relationship between dark and light tones in the work evoke sunlight piercing through a lattice of strong stems and lace-like leaves, and how the dense greenery becomes scattered with sprays of the small white flowers that emerge in late spring.
In the early 1980s Marden's career reached a turning point. Although continuing to explore abstract interpretations of light, color and natural forms, the spartan grids and monochromes of his previous works were replaced by the sinuous motifs seen in Hemlock 1. Seeing potential in the physicality of the line was partly a result of a trip to the Far East in the mid-1980s, as well as the works he saw on display in the 1984-85 exhibition of Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th-19th Century at New York's Japan House Gallery and Asia Society, of which he retains several copies of the catalogue in his various homes and studios. This developed his interest in Japanese and Chinese calligraphy, whose lyrical use of line echoed his own understanding of how gesture channels the energy from the acts of observation and mark making into a work of art. Naturally, this led him to revisit the work of Jackson Pollock: "I sort of came back to Pollock. He doesn't apply the image; he lets the image evolve out of the activity. And for me, this is very important, and it's basically what I'm exploring in my own work" (B. Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 296). Uniting the directness of the medium with experienced painterly intuition, Hemlock 1 offers an astute reflection of Marden's delight in the natural world, and in image making itself.