Untitled stands as a masterwork on several levels. As an example of Marden’s desire to sustain tension throughout the surface plane, it has few peers outside the artist’s own oeuvre. Art historian Paul Galvez points to Marden’s insistence on revealing process as a way of marking time, the passage of time that inheres as much in the artist’s marks as in the beholder’s gaze. Galvez also points to Marden’s grid as the means by which the artist extends “linear tension” (P. Galvez, “Painting into Drawing,” Brice Marden: Graphite Drawings, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2013, pp. 21-38). He does this by boldly inking the vertical and horizontal lines while creating movement within each cell through a form of painterliness, which, while seemingly expressive, may function more as a way to enhance the artist’s frank tactility while inciting the eye to rove from cell to cell in a fever of excitation. Marden’s commitment to continual interrogation of his structure and artistic process becomes apparent in a series of aphoristic statements written in ink on several pages of what he titled “Suicide Notes.” He finds “phenomenal aspects” in three arenas—“in working from nature/from geometry/ from painting.” His definition of “color” includes “light/reflection/absorption.” He then asks, “Am I explaining to myself what I have been doing—formal search for the romantic?” “Suicide Notes” were compiled between the years 1972 and 1973, a time when the artist was working to achieve a way to further assert the materiality of the plane, while attempting to reconcile his subjective “romanticism” with his belief in his ability to use both the formal structure of the grid as the foundation of his expressive vocabulary and to invest that structure with light, movement and hue.
Marden is among the very few to join Jasper Johns’ challenge to Abstract Expressionism and reconcile it with his own artistic vision. Marden was twenty-six when, as a part-time guard at the Jewish Museum, he sat “all day long” with thirty works when the museum mounted Johns’ retrospective in 1964. The influence is palpable: Marden’s use of the grid and his investigations of grey tonalities mirror Johns’ own seminal explorations. The example generally cited is Johns’ series of Alphabets, which the erudite art historian, curator and critic Robert Rosenblum lauded for their “commanding sensuous presence…[and] irreducible potency… [and] their elegant craftsmanship, which lends these pictures the added poignancy of a beloved, handmade transcription of unloved, machinemade images” (R. Rosenblum, “Jasper Johns,” in Arts, vol. 32, no. 4, January 1958: pp. 54–55). As much could be said of Untitled, but for the collaged signs from the everyday, which Johns had deployed as high art. Marden’s investigations of Johns’ grey, however, which the elder artist used as a neutral hue, led Marden, in contrast, to body forth grey as a color, to assert its contrasts of light and shade, which he forces to the surface by means of an enclosing post-and-lintel frame. Marden’s grey is dark and mottled and reads as a stunning tonal enhancement of the picture plane. Rejecting Johns’ neutrality, Marden works the surface, making grey “the basis of the new palette” (P. Galvez, op. cit., p. 31).