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.
Brice Marden cited in Brice Marden. Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1975-80, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1981, p. 54.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Brice Marden executed paintings using a stringent compositional syntax and self-evident materiality that nonetheless retained the power to evoke emotions. While remaining committed to the idea of pure abstraction and the physicality of paint, he subverted Minimalism's positivist imperatives in favor of the ineffability of subjective expression.
Inventing this emulsion so that the viewer could apprehend pure color without interference from the reflection and shine produced by varnish and oil paint, he lent color genuine physicality, which when applied with a spatula and palette knife to the canvas fused into wall-like opacity. While remaining resolutely committed to the materiality of painting, Marden managed to coax poetry out of his monochromes. Within his established constraints, Marden elicited variations in hue, facture, scale and format imbuing these seemingly formalist concerns with deeply personal resonance.
Visiting Hydra, a Greek island on the Aegean in the early 1970s, Marden became increasingly sensitive to color; the Nordic dampness that had pervaded his gray and beige monochromes slowly dissipated. The artist also found profound inspiration in Mark Rothko, especially in his ability to make color deeply resonant and emotionally evocative. Marden's visit to the Rothko chapel in Houston in 1972 would prove crucial; on seeing the monochromes and triptychs of his predecessor, he began joining panels of pure color into composite units that allowed him to explore color relationships without compromising the singular identity, space and unified surface of each panel, nor imposing figure-ground tensions on them.
In 1981, he began a group of paintings called Elements that were constructed of three vertical rectangular panels joint to a capping horizontal in a post and lintel configuration. Despite the obvious architectural implications, these works embraced the elements of alchemy. They were typically dominated by variants of red, yellow, blue and green--colors that in medieval alchemy represented the four states of fire, air, water and earth. Marden became interested in the spiritual treatment of materials after being commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral in 1978. Although the project never materialized, it led to his study of alchemist recipes. "You put silver into the glass to get yellow. You did all these things which alchemists worked on" (cited in E. Heller, "'I Think Of Myself As A Romantic Artist,'"Brice Marden, Zurich, p. 21). Of the elements to which these paintings referred, Klaus Kertess wrote, "It was through these states that the primordial emanation (Telesma) was thought to pass from the sun to transform the material opposites into a new unity of the immaterial. Here employing colors more symbolically than referentially, Marden sought a unity that like alchemy would dissolve and resolve the material into immanence. The transmuting powers of liquid solutions that were so crucial to its practices made alchemy a viable metaphor for artists, long after its rejection from analytical science. Marden aligned himself with the tradition of this metaphor and revised the concerns of many an early modernist when he turned to alchemical models in search of colors suitable for executing both his stained-glass proposal and his paintings" (K. Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, p. 31) Indeed, these works reflect Marden's desire to transform a painted composition as more than a sum of its parts. He states, "Not that it becomes magical or anything like that, but it takes on meaning at the point that it gains its own kind of life" (cited in E. Heller, Ibid., p. 21).
Elements V is comprised of three vertical columns of dulled, darkened red, yellow and blue--elemental as primary colors in the color spectrum--capped by neutral black horizontal in a T-shape composition. By 1981, Marden had dispensed with his wax based technique because of its physical vulnerability and because he wanted the challenge of a new technique, and turned to oil based terpineol that dried to flat surface. Unlike the soft modulations of surface texture produced by the wax pigment, color was pulled into an even tighter alignment to the surface. In Elements V color is totally identified with the plane of its individual supports. The color of each plane retains its own light and space, but is drawn together into a higher unity. Seemingly archaic in its post-and-lintel structure, Elements V channels ancient history, classical architecture and primitive spirituality reminiscent of Stonehenge. Marden frequently alluded to mythology and religion through abstraction, drawing from the prior efforts of Rothko and Barnett Newman to objectify the transcendent. Alluding to alchemy, paganism and ancient, religious forms, Elements V channels a higher order in all its blatant color and austere flatness. Yet, this duality is equivocal; the beauty of Marden's work is that it leaves the viewer and creator in doubt as to whether the material can ever be transformed into the spiritual.