BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
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Issue 26

Brice Marden

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

There is still an underlying wonder in our voices when the subject of Brice Marden comes up; a marvelling over the startling shift in style which he undertook ten years ago. As often as not, critics and historians use the historical moment of that turning point to measure all else. It's a handy BC-AD dating thing. Roberta Smith: 'These latest paintings are in some ways the fruits of the labors underway since the mid-1980s when the artist began breaking his famous monochromes into networks of shaky criss-crossing lines'. These new paintings have made it is necessary to push the discussion back a bit further into history. But still, the wonderment remains.

By 1966, Marden had accomplished a brilliant summation of where painting stood. His was not a theoretical painting, as Robert Ryman persistently practices the art, but a torquing of reductivism toward sustaining his own humanity in the act of painting, rather than using it to excise the author. The act of painting was vital to Marden, consequential in itself. The belief in that idea was flickering in 1966. Recall that Robert Morris' watershed Notes on Sculpture had been published in 1965, and Donald Judd's boisterous Specific Objects would appear three years later. Marden positioned his paintings to give them a reason for existing so near the centre of that doctrinaire culture. His reductive monochromes - leaden, clay and olive coloured - lent painting a serious and meaningful voice without giving in to the creed of Minimalism. Those earlier pictures were diplomatically related to Minimalism but equally respectful of the priorities spelled out by Process Art. These skins of colour were the elegant results of building up layers over a languishing kind of time. And while they were of the present moment - face-to-face, mute, obdurate, complete; stubborn expressions of Marden's sensibility - the horizontal strip at the bottom of works such as Nico Painting (1966), was the record of how they evolved. Like the rings of a tree, the strip of drips and splatters offered a glimpse back in time, and the invitation to reconstruct the way in which Marden's sensibility emerged. The monochrome was an expression of 'being' while the strip was an expression of 'is'.

'Certainly Marden, who is after all a traditional painter, surely recognises that a static attitude can only serve to neutralise his art', wrote Robert Pincus-Witten 20 years ago, more than a decade before Marden's celebrated embrace of calligraphy. Pincus-Witten had been, again, imaginatively prophetic: Marden did change his style. While, at face value, the change seems to be a very broad gesture - an act of treacherous reversal, some thought - it was, after all, only a slight correction of his course. Marden magnified the splinter of time running along the bottom of his monochromes, recasting time and action in a slow motion akin to meditation.

Entertaining claims that Marden re-visits gestural abstraction in the Cold Mountain pictures, or in this newer body of work, only carries us off in an untrustworthy direction. These paintings echo the ambitions he held for his earlier work, but with a changed approach: monochrome to line, flesh to skeleton. Rather than building unconditional fields of undifferentiated colour, Marden drives line carefully and deliberately to the edge of experience - reconstructing his brinkmanship as each moment of the tracery inches along. Like the earlier strips, time crawls back into the picture, back to the picture's origin. These paintings are deliberate and gradual, but not methodical.

When looking at his drawings, I often think back to the way Robert Motherwell would go back to a fresh canvas, still raw with the results of his fiery subconscious, editing out with white paint things that appeared, in the end, unconsidered to his eye. Marden, too, often edits his drawings with white gouache, always letting a ghost impression of that first effort show through. In this sense, these paintings are 'empirical' records of Marden's calm struggle to find his equilibrium in the breach between nature and culture. They try to be of that balanced moment, but they are also reconsiderations of the last moment, in the next. A highly refined consciousness one might call it, made into pictures. The line, the editing, and the effervescent appearance of his delicate scraped surfaces help convey that sensibility of the moment.

Discussing the 'sensibility of the moment' is a tricky matter fraught with compromising entanglements. The word 'experiment', as it applies to art and culture, should only be used with deep reservation. Nevertheless, the word has a use when discussing Marden's paintings because I believe they can rehabilitate it - and it, in turn, shades them with the character of the procedural adventure that they are. 'Experiment' was prompted by one of the new pictures: Corpus (1991-93). This title possesses all the obvious meanings, but it also signifies the following: a 'thing worthless except as object of experiments'.

Here is the description of Marden's paintings. For all their material and visual comeliness, they are the accumulation of a concentration that aspires to deliver us into those inching moments rather than picture them. In their aspiration they are pure research into experience. They are expressions that value experience, his and ours, over themselves; worthless except as object of experiments. Marden has made them that way. Granted, they are so visually awe-inspiring that it's too easy to be self-satisfied and wallow in their surface without regard for their empirical voice. They are so very present, that it's virtually excusable when you fail to see them reach back to history, to the earlier narrow bottoms of running drips and splashes. But if you do, you will have an experience of a higher order as their corporeal beauty magnifies sovereign experience.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.