Brice Marden's two Untitled works are early pieces of profound gravity and elemental beauty. Through an intricate and devoted layering process, using a spatula, knife and brush, creating grids of monochrome white and gray charcoal on paper, recalling the geometric simplicity of Kazimir Malevich's Suprematism. Marden's squares appear smooth and uniform, but upon closer attention, the surfaces contain a wealth of irregularities, breaks and imperfections, which pay tribute to the human process of facture and the properties of Marden's unique medium. Marden spent the spring and summer of 1964 in Paris, where he encountered the great civic projects of André Malraux, then France's Minister for Culture, refreshing the outward aspects of the city's buildings. As Marden later wrote, "They were re-plastering or stuccoing a lot of the walls. And then when I got back to New York - there were paintings that I had started at Yale, and then I just sort of reworked them, and they became more field-like" (B. Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, New York, 2006, p. 15).
Marden simulated the effects he had seen in Paris, innovatively combining oil paint, turpentine and melted beeswax, subduing the medium's sheen, resulting in a palpably coarse and hand-made texture. Marden cared deeply about the appearance of reality in his paintings, eschewing the impersonal effects of Minimalism. Marden enhanced the appearance of his early monochromes in keeping with this formal ambition, by leaving narrow margins of drips and smears demarcated with a hard pencil line parallel to his grids' bottom edge. This trace of multiple work processes left an "Index or history of the painting" visible to all (B. Marden, quoted in R. Shiff, "Force of Myself Looking", quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), p. 49). As the artist once described, "The dripped edge keeps the painting from looking mechanical when you see it, you know the work was done by hand I exercise little or no control over what happens below the drawn edge" (Ibid.). Indeed as the critic Robert Pincus-Witten aptly noted in 1972, "The spotting [at the bottom margin] denotes that the monochrome was arrived at slowly" (Ibid., p. 50).
In their physical properties, these two works show Marden's debt to the art of Jasper Johns. Marden had just married Pauline Baez, moving to New York and taking a job as a part-time security guard at the Jewish Museum. During his time at the museum, Marden saw the first retrospective of Johns's work held in the winter of 1964. As Klaus Kertess wrote, Marden was "Forcefully struck by Johns's ability to create such a physically convincing unity of shape and painted subject" (K. Kertess quoted in G. Garrels, "Beholding Light and Experience: The Art of Brice Marden" in G. Garrells (ed.), p. 15). In his compositions, Johns left similar areas free at the bottom of his canvases to reveal his painting's material workings, giving the work gravity. On seeing these effects, Marden himself wanted to simulate gravity's pull, imbuing his paintings with a strong sense of top and bottom by adding a margin to his otherwise symmetric grid. The prominent gray in Johns's palette encouraged Marden's to commit to the concept of monochrome work, infused with materiality and process.
Beyond their formal qualities, Marden strongly felt that his works should have an emotional effect. The artist saw his devoted, manual process of layering the paper with beeswax, turpentine and paint as building "veils of feeling" to resonate with his own emotions, and the viewer's. As the artist himself described, "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" (B. Marden, quoted in Brice Marden. Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1975-1980, London, 1981, p.51).