Important Art by Brice Marden
Marden was inspired to create this painting in the wake of a cross-country drive whose route took him through the state of Nebraska, part of the vast American Great Plains, in the summer of 1966. Nebraska interested him because "[i]t was the kind of landscape that looked as though it was supposed to be very boring, but it wasn't. There were these subtle changes in the landscape [wherein] you'd suddenly go over a little rise, and there was this incredible gorge or something - not a big, huge thing, but with little trees in it.. the green I saw was exquisite." While the greenish-gray color of Nebraska does not describe a particular tree or patch of grass, it allows Marden to fuse discrete moments of sensual experience such as the subtle and transient ways that light falls on foliage, crevasses, and hillsides that typifies one's immersion within landscape.
As with the works of the mainline Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s, the revelation of process becomes an important aspect of Nebraska. Marden mixes beeswax with oil paint and turpentine, heating it before applying it to the canvas and building up a dense layer of colored wax and pigment that both absorbs and reflects light, creating a surface much like encaustic, a technique influenced by the work of Jasper Johns, which also reflects the three-dimensionality and almost object-like aspect of the work. (It is also a quality of the work that is difficult to capture in a photograph.) While Marden's goal was to minimize the shine that was reflecting off the paint on earlier works, the beeswax also better preserves individual marks made by the artist's touch. Typical of many of Marden's works from the 1960s, Nebraska also contains an unpainted horizontal band at the bottom of the canvas, which catches the visible drips of paint created while he applies it to the canvas. Thus the painting, like the landscape, becomes a series of "subtle changes," full of bumps, nicks, drips, and contours that recall Marden's own experiences of continual surprise from his drive, spread out over a vast surface, much like the expansive land area of the state of Nebraska. Nebraska might thus best be described as a distilled visual record or translation of Marden's trip, and fittingly, remains in the artist's personal collection.
Star (for Patti Smith) is one of Marden's best-known "portraits" and extends his condensation of experience to the human form, particularly representations of family and friends, and in this case, the singer, songwriter, and critic Patti Smith. In the early 1970s Smith frequently came to Marden's studio to use his Olivetti typewriter, as she thought that her music criticism that she was writing for various publications read better due to the type produced on Marden's high-end machine. Because Marden's painting was produced before Smith released her first album, Horses, in 1975, it might be best read as a composite of his familiarity with the musical artist prior to her formal debut.
Of course, the simplicity and highly abstract quality of the work - Star consists of two vertical matte black panels flanking a gray central band - questions the traditional notion of portraiture as a figural composition. Instead, Marden uses other strategies to represent his subject's identity. The height and width of each corresponds to Smith's height and the width of her shoulders; Marden had previously used this trope of measurement in his 1967 portrait of his wife, Helen. Likewise, Marden's use of beeswax in Star contributes to the contoured yet resonant materiality of the surface and further suggests Smith's own physical form. Critics have also pointed out the correspondence between the black panels and Smith's black hair with blue streaks, but it is also worth noting that the presentation of twin black panels separated by the strip of pale gray suggests the arrangement of type on a page - or black musical notes in a score - particularly in the way that black typeset characters make the white space between them appear gray in an optical illusion. The painting's A-B-A rhythm, meanwhile, could be said to reflect the arrangement of musical phrasing - or the uniform spacing between characters produced by a typewriter - thus making the painting a double referent to Smith's artistic endeavors.
On its surface, Summer Table appears to be largely a reflection by Marden on the effects of light as it fell on objects populating a dinner table - specifically, as he recounted: a glass, a lemon, and a bottle of Coca-Cola - while he enjoyed a meal on one of the many sojourns to Greece that he and his wife Helen have taken on an almost annual basis since 1971. Marden was struck by the brightness and intensity of the light on the Greek islands of the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, and he credits his time in Greece with introducing a more luminous color palette into his work. The title seems to naturally harmonize with the finished product, as the blue and yellow are normally associated with the colors of the sky and sun, while the equal division of the canvas into three regions mimics the pattern often seen on a tablecloth or other textile, as if such a tabletop has been lifted, turned on its side, and mounted on the wall.
Unlike Star (for Patti Smith), however, Summer Table makes stronger connections to older methods of painting. Its horizontal, three-panel layout consciously references the (usually) religious form of a triptych, in which the central panel occupies prominence but is related, usually differently in each case, to the two individual side panels. Here, of course, the lighter and darker blue hues to the left and right of the yellow band, respectively, create different effects in contrast. Marden himself cultivates an intense interest in numerology and the number 3, long associated with Christian symbolism of the Holy Trinity as well as the tripartite narrative divisions of beginning, middle, and end; and the unity of mind, body, and spirit. It is thus possible to read the painting as a translation of a religious experience for Marden, an epiphany that "illuminated" a new method or prompted him to take his work in a different direction.
Meanwhile, the fact that Marden's inspiration for the blue hues here included a Coca-Cola bottle arguably is a subtle nod to the work of Andy Warhol, famous for his own two-dimensional depictions of the containers and their luminous ways of refracting light, which pioneered the use of direct references to commercial products in painting.