Archive for December 2015
For something that would seem so simple, so cut and dried, the idea of the monochrome painting has proved incredibly elastic. Supposedly a single color supported on a plane, its basic structure lacks analogy in other artistic mediums. [i] Reducing the object under view to such a supposedly atomic unit separates the time spent looking at a painting as distinct from engaging with other media. A painting can be taken in ‘all at once’ whereas the unspooling of narrative media cannot. Even within the boundaries of abstraction, sculpture’s requirement of a form existing in three-dimensional space pushes the actuality of shape and material to the fore. The time one must take to walk around a sculpture is the same progression to view a dance or film.[ii] Conversely, looking at a painting can be entirely contained between the frontal two-dimensional plane of the painting and the viewer, each mirroring the other. Perhaps this accounts for the totemic aspect of the monochrome, a painting which by virtue of its supposed reduction is traditionally placed at either the beginning[iii] or the end of painting.[iv]
Academic simplicity would place the monochrome at a nexus of geometry and gesture, between minimal reduction and the ecstatic expression of wide fields of color, in theory allowing for a painting that removes all but the barest traces of drawing. But as with totems, the range of implementation and function is as diverse as the people who make them, and their real world existence is far messier than is often intimated.[v] Painters have been exploring and pushing the boundaries of a single plane of color since Malevich opened his “desert of pure feeling.” The point at which one color turns into another is nebulous at best; turning as much on the stuff, the paint, and how it is applied: thick or thin or mixed with what; with what energy and direction, over what ground and with what medium. One of the most obvious stratagems has been making monochromes that include more than a single hue; even Makevich’s first Constructivist icon was a black square on a white ground after all. Painters, perhaps like shamans before them, seem to bristle at imposed restraint. This brings us to Brice Marden’s new exhibition at Matthew Marks Gallery, and his return to the monochrome.
Walking into the central space at 522 22nd Street the viewer is confronted by ‘Summer Square’, a large brown monochrome that stands as a seemingly stark refutation of his paintings of the last two decades.[vi] Turning to the right the multi-panel ‘Small Seasons’ cycles through subtly tuned variations on four basic colors seemingly propped up on underlying washes of paint that form a familiar footer at the bottom edge of the canvas. The show, spreading across two galleries, is intended as a statement, the argument of an exacting artist for the ground he finds himself on.
In a previous exhibition I felt that he was starting to search for a unity and synthesis between his two iconic bodies of work, the monochromes and calligraphic paintings. In works like ‘Second Letter (Zen Spring)’ rectangles of color flanked his more recent curvilinear networks. Those flat sections even had nearly identical proportions to earlier sections in his multi panel paintings, such as ‘Thira.’ However upon further reflection I would now argue that his return to the monochrome has been portended for far longer. Marden is noted for being a very particular and careful painter, with so much as a dangling line seen as a momentous change[vii], so it shouldn’t be such a surprise that the groundwork for this move was laid long ago. His original glyphs turned and twisted with the energy of calligraphy[viii], but eventually their contours regulated and flattened, becoming broader and far less dynamic, but deeper vessels for color. They became ribbons rather than writing, holding one color next to another just as a single panel interacted within a larger assembly of panels in the seventies and eighties. He has been been emptying out everything but color in his paintings for longer than we might recognize; the touchstone references of his work have largely resided in Asian art and calligraphy, so much that when he exhibited a single monochrome[ix], the focus was on its basis in the colors of delicate Ru ware porcelain, and his attempt to recreate it from memory. I do not recall these nine small panels of solid color pointing to a re-engagement with the monochrome, but in retrospect it seems obvious.
The key to Marden’s painting has always been his engagement with the plane, and how he delineated the subtle aspects of its geometry.[x] His early monochromes measured the grid off as a container for color, and the inherent regulation of the surface plane restrain his monochromes from entering the vast, open spaces of color field painting. This has always been the beauty of the early paintings: the material density is pitch perfect, allowing a sense of light to emerge from the weighty reality of paint without pushing into vapor or deep space (the muting of his paint with wax and his colors with gray probably helped). The relation of his body to the individual canvas was how he brought drawing into paintings that are typically seen as removing graphic engagement; early individual canvases regulated his gesture, and later single panels were individual units in a complex whole.[xi] Of course the calligraphic works were also based in drawing, and these new works are also based in drawing; the key to his new monochromes lies in the suite of small ‘African Drawings’, their importance revealed by their inclusion in the main exhibition space. [xii] The modest works on paper are where the paintings structure comes from, down to the proportion of the margin at the bottom.[xiii] Careful looking at the paintings will reveal the trace of an original formation of squiggles and scratches that have been subsumed in later layers of color. He is still charting and dividing the plane by incremental gesture, and using these to build up a wall, rather than a field, that nonetheless glows.[xiv]
Marden’s tentativeness expands the exhibition, perhaps beyond what is necessary. Paintings from the Nevis Stele series show the ribbons emptying out[xv], and ‘Uphill with Center’ serves as a bridge, albeit one that feels contrived. The ground of the center panel is the same pale blue[xvi] as the Nevis Steele paintings, and the ribbons that snake across the surface are the same colors as the monochrome panels that flank it, two on a side. It is as if he felt compelled to show us that this was an organic transition between bodies of work, but the constituent parts don’t work together. The color relations aren’t enough to overcome the graphic contrast between the horizon line created by the bottom margins of the four monochrome panels and the curvilinear tracery; it reads as a juxtaposition made in the studio, not a resolved painting.
The new work doesn’t need any such artificial joinery with the past. If there is anything tyrannical in contemporary art, it is the relentless demand for something new, paradoxically coupled with the expectation that the artist will maintain something close to a brand. Perhaps Marden is conscious of the strictures of his market, or perhaps his overall practice does as much to reveal who he is as do individual paintings. Either way, as an artist approaches their own winter no one should fault them for steps backwards, or those forwards that appear to miss. Marden should still be able to show us a thing or two; the paintings on Marble that he exhibited with the Ru ware monochrome harkened back to the works he made between monochrome and calligraphy, the so-called graph paper series. Underappreciated, these works, mostly on paper, pose a unique engagement with drawing and measuring the plane that would present a fascinating challenge to realize with the same sense of light in his painting. Energy and movement are preferable to a slow decline into hibernation, and there is certainly a precedent among shamans and calligraphers for expelling rather than conserving their final energies. Here’s to hoping that Marden can increase the tempo of his dance.
‘Brice Marden New Paintings and Drawings’ continues at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York through December 24th.
[i] Perhaps the closest relatives come out of experimental film; Warhol’s ‘Empire State Building’ attains a similar aesthetic stance while effectively neutralizing film’s temporal aspect. One could also look at Cage’s 4’33” as a musical equivalent that
[ii] … but perhaps inverted, with the viewer providing the movement rather than the medium supplying it.
[iii] As a blank canvas.
[iv] See ‘Ryman’s Tact’ in ‘Painting as Model’ by Yve-Alain Bois.
[v] When handling totemic or ceremonial objects, what is often surprising is how sticky they can be.
[vi] Although in an age of press releases and teases, it’s not like anyone interested is unaware of the change in his work.
[vii] “(Real Marden-watchers will notice he’s even let a couple of lines dangle in space — a huge move for this ultra-circumspect artist, one that creates local concavities, triggering a sense that the whole surface is undulant.)” – Jerry Saltz.
[viii] It is worth noting that this energy is still contained in his drawings, and the artist allows an abandon in ink that is missing in his large paintings.
[ix] And a much more “pure” monochrome than the works found in the current exhibition, for the colors of each panel
[x] See Klaus Kertess’ essay ‘Plane Image’ in ‘Brice Marden Paintings and Drawings’ (Abrams).
[xi] This is where Marden distinguishes himself from Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly’s colors are typically flat and generic, and define space by their shape or relation in relief. Where Kelly’s shaped canvases project into and engage space, Marden remains committed to the single plane of the rectangle, and creates paintings where the color is embedded in the paint, rather than reflected off of it.
[xii] The main space at 522 West 22nd Street is the central thrust of the show, with drawings that follow from the African series and additional ribbon paintings residing next door at 526. The show focusing on prints at 502 West 22nd is not referenced in the press release, and serves to connect earlier ideas in Marden’s practice to the current show via a different medium.
[xiii] These margins again harken back to his early work, but are so wide as to be almost a caricature of the thin, revelatory strip he gleaned from Johns.
[xiv] That Marden gets such dark colors to glow connects his work to European painting more than Asian art. The nine panels of ‘Eastern Moss’ pose a nice rejoinder to ‘Ru Ware’; the shift between green and brown is subtle, and though not belied by the title, the colors are reminiscent of the deep color of rough, industrial linen, a coarse relative of the material that Marden paints on.
[xv] And the dates of these paintings showing us that it took a while.
[xvi] Or “pale blue” as much as anyone can identify a specific color in any Marden painting. They are not so distant from the colors Marden remembered in the Ru ware painting.