Summary of Brice Marden
Brice Marden could be likened to a chameleon. Marden himself once compared the relationship between painters and their critics as basically one big chase, where critics attempt to pin down and define artists, who are constantly working to escape the shackles of labels. At various points in his career Marden has been labeled a Minimalist and an Abstract Expressionist, but the way that he has bounced between - and away from - each of these categories has meant that his works take on an intensely personal idiom. Marden bases his art upon a wide range of experiences - new acquaintances, internal crises, and studies of literature, art history, and nature - often distilling his memories to a single key moment of inspiration. As his career has advanced, Marden's works have tended to combine his various explorations of his experiences, thereby creating "layers" of his interests between memory and form that span the full range of his activity.
- Unlike many of the Minimalists and Abstract Expressionists whom he studied and with whom he sometimes worked, Marden does not abandon subject matter while he reveals the process of creation and the materials he uses; instead, these often feed off one another, as the evidence of process often points to the nuanced quality of Marden's experiences that undergird his works. He has described his work occasionally as "taking one of Jackson Pollock's drips and zooming in on a piece of it."
- Marden's works derive from highly specific personal experiences, much like those of Frank Stella, and without knowledge of those personal stories, our understanding of Marden's works usually remains incomplete. Often, Marden's paintings and drawings include numerous clues - dimensions that relate to moments from or facts about the subject of inspiration. Some works strive for a poetic minimalism - describing a road trip through the state of Nebraska in a single color.
- Marden maintains a deep commitment to a modernist mantra of continually revising his work, sometimes "erasing" and reworking his pieces over a very long time. This has caused many to praise the very high standards he sets for himself, but to some extent it has also limited his productivity.
- The difficulty of categorizing Marden's work derives in part from the way that he has gone through several different phases of his career. When he feels like he has exhausted his creativity, he looks to other, often disparate, sources of inspiration. More recently, his work has tended to become more reflective, bringing in several of these interests together in a kind of "layered" or "autobiographical" manner.
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.
Oil and beeswax on canvas - Collection of the artist
Star (for Patti Smith)
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.
Oil and beeswax on canvas - Collection of Donald L. Bryant Jr. Family Trust
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.
Oil and beeswax on canvas - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
Mirabelle Addenda 3
Measuring slightly more than nine by six inches, Mirabelle Addenda 3 is representative of Marden's numerous works on paper from the 1970s, when he began working with long twigs as his main implements. Marden would sharpen and dip the ends of the twigs in ink, then apply them to the paper with an outstretched arm while standing a significant distance away. The results, as these drawings attest, consist of some of the rawest traces of the artist's hand, even though Marden discovered that he could actually manipulate the twigs with relative ease. As the upper boundary of the inked area of Mirabelle Addenda 3 reveals, Marden achieved such proficiency with these "natural" styluses that it appears that some of the lines were made with a pen or other precise writing instrument.
Yet the Mirabelle series carries the recording of the artist's creative process further than Marden's previous works. The paper that Marden uses is handmade by the artist himself, and left uncut, leaving Marden to literally push the boundaries of his craft in stretching his lines all the way to the ragged edge (thus risking tearing the paper). Furthermore, the works' title references Marden's first daughter Maya Mirabelle Zahara Marden, whose birth a year earlier meant that, in his capacity as a father, he drew these works with one hand while he was often holding her in the other arm, late at night, as she drifted to sleep. The "imprecisions" of how Marden renders the lines in these drawings thus arguably reflect not only the physical balancing act he performed as he worked, but the simultaneous balancing between both work and family obligations that are common to virtually all human experience.
Ink on paper - Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, New York
In late 1977, Marden received a commission to design a set of stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral Stained Glass Trust, a project that occupied him for most of the next eight years and ultimately came to naught save for several derivative works. Five Elements paintings, including this one, took the cathedral project as inspiration. On one level, the Elements works returned Marden to the study of light and its translation to painted form on canvas, particularly the problem of transparency on an opaque surface. As such, Marden substituted terpineol, a solvent-like substance that works as a drying agent, for beeswax, which had the effect of transforming the dense, thick surfaces of his works into a gem-like shimmering panel approaching that of a pane of colored glass.
Here Marden also renews the dialogue with older sources and methods of art-making seen in earlier works like Summer Table. The orientation of three vertical panels - in this case, red, green, and yellow - topped by a horizontal blue one arguably refers to the tau cross, a Christian variant of the crucifix that omitted the top arm of the cross (thus approximating a T), which sometimes appeared in Renaissance art. Its form also resonates with that of post-and-lintel construction that provides the structural backbone of ancient Greek architecture, whose buildings had become very familiar to Marden by this time. Finally, the choices of colors in the Elements paintings are based on a formula derived from medieval alchemy, reflecting the historical era during which the stained glass for most European cathedrals was fabricated. In this system, each color corresponds to one of the four "elements" of the nature: red represents fire; blue, water; green, earth; and yellow stands for air; in turn, each color respectively is associated with the mystical entities of mind, body, spirit, and soul.
Oil on canvas - Collection of Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version
A significant portion of Marden's work emerged in the 1980s after he visited Asia and developed an interest in the art of the Far East. Beginning with the Cold Mountain series, these pieces have often taken the form of monumental canvases whose direct inspirations are the poems of the Tang dynasty Chinese poet Han Shan, a wilderness recluse whose name translates to "cold mountain." The most obvious traces of Marden's interest in Asian art in these works are the swirling lines, which make reference to the calligraphic forms of much Asian poetry, but also contain an element of winding, uncoiling energy that never seems to end, but continues to move or dance across the surface of the six panels.
The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version reflects the way in which Marden's later paintings often build on his earlier experiences, creating a kind of "layered" autobiographical content. It is steeped in personal references, beginning with Marden's longtime preoccupation with light and process. Its six adjacent panels create one long horizontal band of colors - from left to right, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple - and are embellished with swirling lines using the same base colors. Each panel is not simply one color but rather a combination of layers of each colors of the visible spectrum, which results in the top color. The red panel, for example, was created by subtraction, applying first a purple band, topped by blue, green, yellow, and orange, revealing the red band. Each consecutive panel is created the same way using all the other colors. The notion of process here is also suggested by the swirling lines' resemblance to the dancing streaks of paint of the mature works of the Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, whose works proved an inspiration for Marden's formative activity. Marden's interest in numerology is present here with the number six, his most important figure. There are six panels of the painting, each panel is six feet high, and the length of the work is twenty-four feet, (a number whose digits added together equals six).
Perhaps most telling is Marden's own consideration of this work as a self-portrait, as the notion of the "propitious garden" in the title is meant to reference his own success and fortune. Likewise, Marden identifies with the "plane image," given that his reputation is built almost entirely on painting and works on paper.
Oil on linen, six panels - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York
Biography of Brice Marden
Childhood and Education
Nicholas Brice Marden, Jr. grew up in a middle-class household in Briarcliff Manor, in Westchester County, New York, and his interest in art was influenced from an early age by a multitude of sources. His father, a mortgage servicer, would mount reproductions of paintings on both sides of Masonite panels so he could flip them over when he got tired of looking at them. In the seventh grade, Marden reports, he also experienced a revelation when he fell asleep in the woods near the old farm house where he lived, later waking up with a sense that his life had changed somehow and he knew he would become an artist. In high school, Marden's form of teenage rebellion consisted of cutting classes so he could hitchhike into Manhattan to visit the Museum of Modern Art. These visits were also sometimes facilitated by his best friend's mother, and her husband, a sometime painter who gave the young Brice a subscription to ARTNEWS magazine.
After high school, Marden spent a year at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, intending to study hotel management. Just before Christmas break in 1956, his art teacher handed him a MoMA membership card with the advice to "Go see this guy [Jackson] Pollock," whose recent death in a car crash had precipitated a retrospective at MoMA at that very moment. Soon afterwards, Marden transferred to Boston University, where he earned his BFA in 1961 and lined up a teaching gig after graduation, but spent a few months that summer at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art. Impressed by his interest, Yale's faculty invited him to apply for graduate study and volunteered to cancel his teaching contract. Though classically trained, at Yale, Marden moved away from figural representation and developed an interest in Abstract Expressionism, particularly the work of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Pollock. It was there that he also became classmates with Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Robert Mangold and Vija Celmins, and received his MFA in 1963.
In August 1960 he married Pauline Baez, sister of singer Joan Baez, and their son Nicholas was born in March 1961. Marden moved to New York City after graduating from Yale, taking a part-time job working as a security guard at The Jewish Museum, where he saw a retrospective of artist Jasper Johns in 1964. Marden still has a signed poster of Johns' work that the other guards persuaded the artist to sign since Marden was too embarrassed to ask Johns himself.
That same year Marden separated from his wife after his in-laws dragged the family to Paris for four months and his marriage "hit the skids." Pauline took Nicholas and moved to California, while Marden moved into a Lower East Side studio. There he became mixed up with the Greenwich Village music scene, especially at Gerde's Folk City. It was then that he met one of his musical heroes, Bob Dylan, and promised him that he would make him a painting in the hopes that it would help his career. Ironically, Dylan's career immediately took off after that, and by the time Marden finished The Dylan Painting in 1966, its purpose had become superfluous.
He began creating paintings with thicker, textured surfaces, in part inspired by Johns, which gave them a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. In 1966 he began incorporating beeswax into his paint and held his first solo exhibition in New York City, with the sale of a single painting at Klaus Kertess' gallery, which paid for a plane ticket to see his son in California. Broke, he got a job through Minimalist painter Dorothea Rockburne as Robert Rauschenberg's studio assistant for the next four years. In his spare time, Marden hung out at Max's Kansas City, a beer hall popular among artists and musicians, where he met a waitress and artist named Helen Harrington, whom he married in 1968. To help support them, Marden took a job teaching at New York's School of Visual Art, where he served on the faculty from 1969 through 1974.
Marden has frequently experimented with new creative approaches; for instance, he began moving from early monochromatic paintings to multi-paneled works that introduced a wide range of colors. Marden's travels have greatly influenced his development as an artist, particularly his time spent in Hydra, Greece, where he usually summered since his first visit in 1971. Marden has experimented with many media: in addition to works on canvas, he has produced drawings, etchings, and later paintings on marble, inspired by pieces of the rock he found while in Greece. In 1977 he received a commission in Basel to design a set of stained-glass windows for the cathedral, which ultimately came to naught after eight years of work. Back at home in New York, he got the idea to sharpen twigs he found on the street and in his backyard to use as drawing implements.
In the early '70s Marden separated from Helen, though eventually they reconciled and moved back in together, and in 1978 and 1980, his two daughters, Mirabelle and Melia, were born. However, Marden became well-known during the decade for his frequent marijuana use, though he has denied that the drug had the same creative influence on him as nature. Later in the decade Marden got into cocaine, eventually using it so heavily that his behavior became erratic, and in 1983 his wife (then oblivious to his coke habit) gave him an ultimatum to decide whether he wanted to separate again. Intensive therapy helped mend his marriage and kick the drug habit, though Marden himself has maintained in recent years that he ultimately distanced himself from drugs because he just felt tired all the time and was sick of constantly waking up on the studio floor.
Marden's problems with drugs coincided with a professional crisis that caused him to question whether he had reached the end of his creativity. He pushed his art in new directions by drawing from several alternate sources, one of which was the familiar ground tread by Jackson Pollock, whose alcoholism had caused his premature death at nearly the same age that Marden was during his period of heavy drug use. Helen dragged him on a trip to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India in 1983-4, and, once they returned, to an exhibition of Japanese calligraphy in New York, where he became fascinated with the energy of the bold strokes of the characters in concert with the gestural forms that Pollock had painted. At the same time, Marden's curiosity with Eastern cultures also developed into an interest in the work of Tang Dynasty poet Han Shan, on whose writings he based his Cold Mountain series, beginning in 1988, which also drew inspiration from Chinese mountain and nature paintings. Later, mythology provided inspiration for Marden's work The Muses (1991-93).
In the late 1980s, Marden's demand on the art market began to take off. He was picked up by gallery owner Mary Boone on a $1 million advance against future sales of paintings. Soon other advances followed, including one from Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann and the then-young New York dealer Matthew Marks, with whom Marden has maintained a close professional relationship for now close to thirty years, and who currently represents him. Marden's paintings, as of 2016, have realized upwards of between $9 million and $11 million at auction. In 1988, Marden was named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2000, Brown University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.
Between 1987 and 2000, Marden located his studio in the Bowery in lower Manhattan, before moving it to his current location, a tenth-floor duplex space on West Street with a view of the Hudson River.
In 2015, Marden's exhibition of twelve paintings and twenty-five drawings at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York featured new works that evoke the colors of nature through the use of pigments common during the Renaissance. It was the largest exhibition of Marden's work since a retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006-07.
In addition, Marden has recently assumed the role of hotel manager. He and his wife run a hotel on Nevis, in the Caribbean, and have opened a country inn, Hotel Tivoli, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. There, Marden and his wife also maintain an estate called Rose Hill, which includes an 1843 house that also overlooks the Hudson, and a studio space in the converted carriage house. They also own a 400-acre property in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, which includes a large barn as studio space with, curiously, almost no natural light.
The Legacy of Brice Marden
In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl described Marden as "the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades." Marden's demonstrated ability to translate autobiographical moments and memories into visual form, often while simultaneously revealing the process behind his work, has set him apart from his peers. It has also paved the way for a new generation of contemporary abstract artists. His juxtapositions of bold, rectilinear panels of color bear comparison with the efforts of Sean Scully from the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, Marden's early "Minimalist" attempts to reproduce the luminant colors from objects and people with strong personal resonance - ceramics, important mentors, for example - have inspired artists such as Byron Kim, while the influence of calligraphic forms on Marden's work parallels the graphic explorations in painting by artists like Jose Parla. Candacee White has publicly acknowledged her debt to Marden, particularly his working method, stating, "I often stare at one line for a long time before I put down the next one, considering how it will relate the past and future lines, how close to the edge of the canvas, and so on. I like to let the line change, to get light, dark, thicker, thinner, which appears more natural."
Influences and Connections
- Klaus Kertess
- Nancy Graves
- Sean Scully
- Jose Parla
- Chuck Close
- Robert Mangold
- Richard Serra
- Vija Celmins