"[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. A painting is about refinement of image. And drawing isn't. I don't think drawing is less than painting... 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" (Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 294).
Executed in 1989, Untitled with Green perfectly demonstrates the unique fusion of the forms of Nature and oriental calligraphy by way of Abstract Expressionism that has characterised Brice Marden's work since the mid-1980s. Gone are the grids and the monochromes of his previous works, replaced now by the graceful, sinuous columns of tracery-like webbed forms in subtle colours that tumble down the surface of Untitled with Green. While there is some echo of the grid in the layout of these three pillars of variously-hued, expressive marks, it is altogether a more organic structure that underpins this work, all the more clearly linked to Nature, demonstrating Marden's quest "to make a glyph for paradise" (Marden, quoted in K. Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 41).
During the mid-1980s, Marden had reached a crisis point in his career when a range of influences and ideas converged and provided a new means of expression for the artist. Increasingly, he had been intrigued by the forms that Nature provided, be it in the shape of shells or trees or rocks. In particular, while travelling in the Far East, he had begun to draw objects and views from his surroundings superimposed upon one another:
"One day I would draw a tree, the next day we would go to the same place and I would draw a sea shell on top of it, and then the next day we would go somewhere else and I would draw rocks, and I would layer it all on top on the same drawings... You are observing nature and yet you are just trying to respond to it. You are not trying to draw a picture of it... It deals with a certain kind of abstraction. You can accept that as energy coming through and going back out into [drawing and] painting" (Marden, quoted in J. Lewison, Brice Marden: Prints 1961-1991 A Catalogue Raisonné, exh.cat., London, 1992, p. 48).
In a sense, Marden was exploring the echoes, the curves and lines that occur in so many different aspects of Nature, which form an underlying canvas to the entirety of existence. The swirling matrices of the net-like colored pillars of Untitled with Green recall those shells, trees and stones, and therefore prefigure Marden's interest in the decorative rocks used in Chinese gardens and even the sinuous Han Dynasty statues of dancing figures that would result in paintings such as his celebrated Attendants a few years later.
In Untitled with Green, Marden is channelling nature; as such, in these deliberately spindly, colored lines he has explored an elegant, even ephemeral, parallel means of expression to Jackson Pollock. "I sort of came back to Pollock," Marden recalled of this period. "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" (Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 296). That ability to allow the work to come into existence while the artist takes a step back, becoming a medium or channel as well as the creator, allows organic forms to come into existence on the picture surface which themselves convey not only some of the underlying character of nature, but also the artist's own quest for it. As Marden explained, in words that perfectly convey the dancing energy of his own reaction to Pollock as it is encapsulated in Untitled with Green, "I tend to follow the lines, and in a way it's like a journey" (Marden, quoted in H. Cooper, Marden Attendant, pp. 9-27, Brice Marden, exh. cat., London, 2000, p. 22).
The meandering forms that Marden was looking at in Pollock's paintings and which he was finding around him in the natural world were also echoed in the works that 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 led to an increasing interest in Japanese and, perhaps more importantly with regards to the development of his own work, Chinese calligraphy.
Initially, Marden responded to Chinese calligraphy mainly through the medium of prints, of which he is considered one of the contemporary masters; the influence of the pictograms was already clear in his 1986 Etchings to Rexroth, named after a celebrated translator of Chinese verse. However, it was in his Cold Mountain series of paintings, drawings and etchings, to which Untitled with Green clearly relates, that he found a more profound and accomplished means of expression of the strange, meaningful harmonies at play in the universe. This was in part because of the influence of Red Pine's translations of the verse of the Tang Dynasty poet Han Shan, or Cold Mountain. In Marden's copy, the original Chinese poems were presented, in rows of couplets, alongside the translations. Seeing this, Marden gained a new appreciation of dual nature of calligraphy, of the fact that these diagrammatic forms also contained language. While his own works such as Untitled with Green avoid any such objective, fixed interpretation, the fact that those Chinese forms could be beautiful both in terms of their aesthetic appearance and in terms of their actual content was a huge revelation to Marden that introduced intriguing and exciting notions of the ability of a picture to convey meaning which he explored in his Cold Mountain works and in Untitled with Green alike. And in these, he has added another painterly dimension by introducing color, retaining some of the verve and formality of ancient calligraphy while infusing it with a new, contemporary energy.
In part because the roots of his aesthetic are in Chinese poetry, Marden has continued to create works such as Untitled with Green by beginning in the top right-hand corner and working largely downwards, moving left column by column. This adds a certain formal, ritualistic dimension to Untitled with Green, a meditative, near-Zen aspect that also recalls Marden's own affirmation that artists, "are amongst the priests-worker priests of the cult of man-searching to understand but never to know" (Marden, quoted in R. Schiff, 'Force of Myself Looking', pp. 28-75, Garrels, loc. Cit., 2006, p. 56). Marden often paints using a long stick, a technique which has a range of advantages, creating a direct dialogue with nature, adding an extra perspectival gap between the artist and his surface, and also heightening the degree to which the expressiveness of his brushstrokes is captured, as is so clearly the case in Untitled with Green. This allows Marden to channel both nature and his own personality: "Calligraphy is very personal because it is very physical," he has explained.
"It's not a technique or an ideology; it's a form of pure expression. Each time a calligrapher makes a mark, it will be distinctive because he has a particular physicality. Great artists exploit this; their thinking and their physicality become one. Paintings are physical. So is the act of creating them. This physicality should be emphasised. If you're not working with preconceived forms and thinking, then you can concentrate on expression. It is possible, I think, to make art on this instinctive level, out of deeply felt response. The longer I paint, the more I think this is true" (Marden, quoted in G. Garrels, 'Beholding Light and Experience: The Art of Brice Marden', pp. 10-27, Garrels, loc. Cit., 2006, p. 21).