Brice Marden: A Retrospective
of Paintings & Drawings

The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
October 29, 2006-January 15, 2007

Even those who have put off seeing the retrospective of Brice Marden’s work at MOMA could not have missed the media blitz surrounding the show. In addition to a host of sumptuously praising reviews, The New York Times ran a lengthy article on the show’s opening day profiling not so much the artist himself as his many spectacular houses and accompanying studios. “My daughter joked that the MOMA catalog reads like a real estate brochure,” Marden told the Times reporter, who was clearly more interested in the plutography of art-world celebrity and in mapping the locales of Marden’s estates—most recently in the Caribbean—than in Marden’s accomplishment as a painter.

This Better Homes and Gardens school of art writing would not be worth mentioning if it had not to some degree bled into the more serious appraisals of Marden’s work. A consensus of press-release opinion places Marden as the great abstract painter of the last forty years, and, because he is a painter at all, as the cuddly “conservative” on the scene (one that any broadminded hostess would be keen to include at her Hamptons beach party). That applying paint to canvas and looking to the art of the past constitute for these critics a “conservative” pursuit is bad enough, but there is a larger point that is even more troubling. One would hope that a painter who was purportedly in touch with the tradition of Manet and Velázquez and Chinese calligraphy and Rothko and de Kooning and Pollock would have come up with something a bit more robust than Marden’s fluent, crushingly suave likability. His elegant paintings are eminently clubbable.

The early monochromes in the show—pleasingly cool and tranquil—fall somewhere between Abstract Expressionist spirituality and Minimalist eschewal. Their beeswax-infused pigments cover all but an almost imperceptible strip of blank canvas at the bottom. Such manmade elements—the drips that fleck the bottom margin of the canvas and the hand-smoothed waxy texture of the paint—convey a serenity that in the end feels as flashy as a party trick and as tepid as old tea. Nebraska, with its muted gray-green, would be a subtle and evocative statement, if it were ultimately worth stating at all. (That a couple of these paintings—such as The Dylan Painting and Nico—are named after Warhol factory regulars underscores how badly they want to be liked.)

The accomplishment of the monochromes, while quiet and limited, far outstrips that of the more boisterous, brightly hued, multi-paneled paintings from the late 1970s and early 1980s. If Marden needed to move through this decade to arrive at actually making marks on canvas, then he did not move through it quickly enough. Where the monochromes came out of Jasper Johns (without the targets), the post-and-lintel particolored panels recall Barnett Newman (without the “zips”).

There was a moment, in which Marden first introduced his signature wiry drawing, when he struck something one might actually consider a late contribution to New York School painting. Having said that, it was a fairly brief moment—from about the Couplet series in 1988–89 to paintings like The Studio (1991–1993). There is a vegetable quality to his intersecting lines, which also suggest the human form. The Muses and Virgins (both 1991–1993)—large, cool, lyrical—seem to be the end of something, not the beginning. (When the spidery organic lines move from muted colors to bright sunlight in Study for the Muses [Hydra Version], dated 1991–95/1997, it’s the same move to the Greek islands made by the color panels of the Seventies.)

The Cold Mountain paintings (1989–1991) at their best—along with the accompanying drawings from this period—express Marden’s broadest range of experience and emotion. (It should be said that a number of the drawings in the show are particularly strong. One recent ink on paper, Dragons [2000– 2004], stands out above the rest, its vibrant reds and yellows swirling in dynamic harmony over a ghostly field of white punctuated by twiggy black drawing. If Rothko was the spiritual father of Marden’s monochromes, in these drawings it’s Pollock but with an accent of Marden’s own.) Marden’s marks, often made from the end of a stick with a sweep of the arm, have an expressiveness that derives from an immediacy of thought, a variety of pressures on the brush, and an energetic movement to the line. These are the very qualities—vibrancy, volume, verve—that Marden paints out of his subsequent work. Angles loosen to ooze, as the original idea is contemplated almost out of existence, then offered with buttoned-up reserve.

By the middle 1990s, Marden softens his spindly live-wire lines into a flowing circuitry that rarely musters the strength to break beyond the edge of the canvas, routinely turned back like soft-serve hitting the cone. By reintroducing bright color in the final, room-length, six-panel versions of The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, from 2000 to 2006, Marden repeats the same move that he made first in the earlier panel paintings and then with his signature webs. The more he turns up the intensity on the color, the more the works seem to want to register a trademark. This is especially true of the most recent works, which juxtapose brightly colored panels and arterial strands, each in its own fruit-flavor. This sort of showmanship is tiring, like the all-out barrage of a fireworks finale that tries so hard to grab your attention then tells you it’s time to go home.

It is true that one can see Marden’s development in this retrospective. The limited number of works from any given period lends the show a spareness that keeps it moving and makes it easy to trace his search for new strategies, new ground. In the end, however, the missteps are dispiriting, the show too thin to support the grand claims made for it. If Brice Marden is the last modernist, as has been suggested, then, alas, the reports of the death of modernism have been greatly understated.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 4, on page 46
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