In 1963 Marden graduated from the Yale School of Art and Architecture, where he studied alongside Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, and Richard Serra, and moved from New Haven to New York with his young family. While it was at Yale that Marden began to explore the vertical and horizontal strictures of the rectangle, it was in New York in the sixties that he developed his signature monochrome style for which he is celebrated. 1963, the year in which Marden painted For Joanie, predates what would become his signature medium—encaustic, an ancient technique in which pigment is suspended in wax—by a year; it was not until the following spring when Marden, working as a security guard at the Jewish Museum (a post he assumed as soon as he relocated to New York) during the Jasper Johns retrospective, was prompted to experiment with Johns’ chosen medium of encaustic. As such, For Joanie exhibits a more reflective and varnished surface quality than his later works.
Characterized by a restrained, at times almost foreboding, palette and a somewhat horizontal format, Marden’s early work is charged with pictorial incident and dense painterly evidence. As he wrote in his master’s thesis earlier that year “the paintings are made in a highly subjective state within Spartan limitations. Within these strict confines, confines which I have painted myself into and intend to explore with no regrets, I try to give the viewer something to which he will react subjectively. I believe these are highly emotional paintings not to be admired for any technical or intellectual reason but to be felt.” (Unpublished Master of Fine Arts Thesis, Yale University, School of Art and Architecture, New Haven, 1963, 3-4, cited in L. A. Svendsen, Brice Marden, exh. cat., Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1975, p. 10).
While a seemingly a classic example of reductive painting due to the artist’s color choice and embrace of the square, the heavily worked surface of For Joanie evidences Marden’s quietly gestural utilization of both the paint brush and a palette knife. It is also an early example of Marden’s unique contribution to the genre of portraiture where only the title reveals the “sitter’s” identity. In this case, Marden memorializes his sister-in-law, folk singer Joan Baez. Married to Pauline Baez from his years as an undergraduate at Boston University through the mid-sixties, the Mardens lived with the famed folk singer in her Carmel, California, house over the summer of 1962.
It was through his sister-in-law that Marden met Bob Dylan, the subject of one of his early monochromatic portraits. The Dylan Painting, 1966, is closely related to For Joanie in terms of both its grisaille palette and its dimensions. While The Dylan Painting is composed of one long rectangle, it can be divided into a double square; this play between the square and the rectangle is evident in the dimensions of For Joanie as well where two rectangles make up a near square. Both portraits evidence Marden’s involvement with the Cambridge folk music scene as well as the artist’s commitment to abstract portraiture. “For me,” Marden commented recently, “abstraction is the real way of the twentieth century because you’re not leading the viewer too much. One of the great things about abstract art is that it allows the viewer a different kind of experience.” (B. Marden, “Brice Marden and Chris Ofili in Conversation,” Artforum, October 2006, p. 221).
Yet despite the artist’s career-long allegiance to abstraction, his work is undeniably indebted to the Old Masters due to both his classical undergraduate training at Boston University’s School of Fine and Applied Arts from 1958-61 and his graduate studies at Yale. Indeed, Marden directly references Manet’s Street Singer, 1862, a painting he was familiar with from his undergraduate days, in his master’s thesis: “I saw the warm umber and the color fell into place, it became a total color sensation. Each part built towards this total which came slowly, as if being mysteriously revealed. I try for this in my work” (B. Marden, op. cit., p. 9). The connection is clear in the surface facture of For Joanie and the painterly strokes that make up the street singer’s skirt, particularly in the way her skirt fades into the doorway and floor.
The austerity and lucid precision of the Spanish Masters also held a lasting impact on the painter. As he wrote in 1963, “I tried to get more of the quality of my drawings into my paintings. This led to more exploration in the use of my materials and a loosening up of the handling of my paint. These involvements have led me to Spanish painting. It is with them that one finds an uncompromising reality. They were confronted with something and they faced up to it. No embellishments except the all too rare quality of humans honestly coping with themselves. They did not search for ‘truths’ but their own truth. They smack it right up in front of you and you have to take it. Zurbarán, Velasquez and Goya are the ones who do this” (ibid, 3).
Certainly For Joanie shares a brooding somberness with Marden’s Spanish heroes. And it was from Zurbarán in particular that Marden connected the object-like nature of the portrait panel to the human body—a conceit he would later mobilize by constructing his panels to the height and shoulder-width of his “sitter.” “I always end up thinking of them as a figure,” Marden recently relayed in an interview with fellow painter Chris Ofili, “it comes out of this tradition of painting that are about the size of people” (op. cit.). The emotive control of Zurbarán’s panel portraits of Saints Francis, Cyril, and Peter Thomas, which the young painter knew from his Boston period, strongly influenced Marden. (In fact, after graduating from Boston University, Marden submitted a failed Fulbright application to study Zurbarán’s work in Spain). The Spaniard’s spare palette and thoughtfully tight compositions surface in the nearly ascetic For Joanie.
Marden’s deft ability to negotiate the metaphysical and the concrete—the spiritual and the object-like nature of painting—continually set the artist apart from his contemporaries. As critic Peter Schjeldahl canonized him on the occasion of his 2006 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art: Marden can be recognized “as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades” (“True Colors,” The New Yorker, 6 November 2006, 130). One of Marden’s earliest adult works, For Joanie is of great consequence in the development of one of today’s most important abstract painters.