Brice Marden is a pivotal figure within the 20th century canon of art history, who is known as much for his drawing as for his painting. Untitled, the present example, represents a relatively large-scale graphite and wax drawing, executed through boldly inking the vertical and horizontal lines, while creating movement within each cell through a form of painterliness. While seemingly expressive, the composition in the present work 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 was always looking for new and momentous ways to transform the plane before him, utilizing a range of tools and mediums—wax, graphite, pencil and sandpaper, as well as an intuitive mark-making—to do so. “Whatever the tool employed, the pressure and directionality exerted on it are always light-and-space responsive. No mark or series of marks is permitted to become self-proclaiming; each is infused with duty to the plasticity of the plane. The identity of the marks and the identity of the plane become an organic unity. As gesture becomes rectangular plane, so does rectangular plane become gesture” (Klaus Kermes, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 36).
Like Jasper Johns, Marden challenged Abstract Expressionism and reconciled it with his own artistic vision. He was 26 when, as a part-time guard at the Jewish Museum, he sat “all day long” with 30 works as the museum mounted Johns’s retrospective in 1964. The influence is palpable: Marden’s use of the grid and his investigations of gray tonalities mirror Johns’s own seminal explorations. The example generally cited is Johns’s Alphabets series, 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, machine-made 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’s gray, however, which the elder artist used as a neutral hue, led Marden, in contrast, to body forth gray 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 gray is dark and mottled, and reads as a stunning tonal enhancement of the picture plane. Rejecting Johns’s neutrality, Marden works the surface, making gray “the basis of the new palette” (P. Galvez, “Painting into Drawing,” Brice Marden: Graphite Drawings, Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 2013, p. 31).