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Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective

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Conversation at a cocktail party can take many turns, especially if the party's guests are involved in the arts. It's one thing to talk with writers, artists, musicians, actors… almost always an interesting lot, if occasionally cantankerous. It's another to chat with heiresses.

Recently I was a guest at a reception given by one such, a Marin County woman, for a famous writer acquaintance of hers. It was a very nice affair, at which many other writers were in attendance, as well as various doyens of the Bay Area arts culture. The house was a tribute to minimalist architecture in the style of Bauhaus or Mies van der Rohe, with an unaccountably beautiful view of Mount Tamalpais bathed in the fine yellow-white light of late afternoon.

Our hostess was the kind of heiress who looks upon others — all others, no matter the state of their own wealth — as a bother. She seemed to be distracted, angrily, by everyone in the room, and she treated her guests as though she wanted them as soon as possible to get out. There was a lot of art in the place, almost all of it very contemporary. One of the paintings was a red and orange piece by Brice Marden, notable for the muddiness of the colors and the rambling, arbitrary way in which the red lines, like a poorly coiled garden hose, wandered about the canvas.

"Did you see his show at San Francisco MOMA?" I asked. A major 2007 retrospective of Marden's work. Many, many paintings.

I sensed that she was grumbling, although I couldn't actually hear it. Her dismissal of me could be read in the downturn of her mouth and of her civility.

"Of course not," she replied.

"You don't care for the work?" I asked.

"I'd already seen the show in New York." The same show, offered earlier in the year at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan.

"Did you enjoy it?"

"Brice took me through it. . ."

"And what did you think of the paintings?"

She sighed, turning her back to me.

". . . privately, of course," she sniffed.

There is a phenomenon in contemporary art in which art is sold for extraordinary prices to people who don't know what they're buying, because of what is said about it by the dealers, curators and critics. Marketing does matter, and the recent history of art in America is littered with paintings by bad artists who have been put forward by dealers seeking high prices, critics writing oracular self-serving piffle, and museum curators afraid to miss out on some bandwagon that may put them on a better career track. Very frequently the art is very bad, but because of the marketing buzz, an awful lot of people are fearful that they'll be viewed as artistically obtuse if they don't contribute to the buzz themselves. It's a problem because many of these artists become very famous, and major museums often give them enormous shows, causing them to be even further lionized.

This was the case with the Brice Marden retrospectives in San Francisco and New York, of which, "Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective" by Gary Garrels, Brenda Richardson, Richard Schiff and Marden himself is the catalog.

Marden has had a remarkably long career, although he has been in the shadow to some degree of others, like Jackson Pollock and Richard Dibenkorn. He's been described as a Minimalist artist much influenced by Abstract Expressionism, elements of both of which were obvious in this show, which was very much of two pieces. There were early paintings (from the 1970's; about one-third of the exhibition) that featured blocks of more or less solid color that did not have any of the subtlety of purpose and feeling that Mark Rothko's blocks of color have, The rest almost all featured the curvilinear lines that so dominated my heiress's painting, and the backgrounds through which these lines meandered were rough-looking and abrasively painted, with little grace.

No one would accuse Marden of wander in pursuit of his muse. The majority of his paintings and drawings in this show were so like one another that, without careful guidance, the viewer could conclude that he started out with one basic idea, changed it after many years and then did not change it again. So we had two kinds of paintings repeated over and over and over.

The artist Frank Stella once said that "what you see is what you see." The remark is a minimalist mantra. I believe he wished the viewer to simply look at the paint and the painted surface for what they are and not to invest the painting with any narrative or metaphorical meaning, as — just to pick a name out of a hat– Carravagio did. Marden himself has said that "modernist painting has been about how the color comes up closer to the surface, and how that affects the viewer. The whole evolution of modernism is about getting up, up, up to the surface, tightening the surface of the plane." It sounds to me that he's been reading the trades, because this is the self-referential, thin language so current in a great deal of contemporary art criticism. It's probably a point not worth making, though, since color has been right on the surface of the painting since painting was invented. But I think that Marden is talking about having the flat surface be the very subject of the painting itself. . . the plane on which the paint rests, so to speak, so that representation of figures, foreshortening, perspective, narrative story-telling, foreground and background, emotional pain, love, physical ecstasy, all the things that have rested inside the painting and have informed painting for so many centuries, is not important. What matters is simply what's on the very plane of the surface, so that what you see is the only thing that you see.

The trouble with this is that the result is just decoration. It's boring. Metaphor is what makes good art so riveting. It opens the soul to variegated depths, to an acknowledgment of emotions. To conflict. To soul-saving resolution. It stirs the heart's blood, surely one of the classic purposes of all art.

In the case of Marden's work, Stella's dictum is an accurate assessment. You theorize about its deeper meanings at the risk of describing the emperor's new clothes. There is little here of the great intentions that I've read about in descriptions, by many critics, of Marden's art. They may think such intentions are there. Maybe even Marden thinks they are. But they aren't.

In her New York Times review of this exhibition when it appeared at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Roberta Smith wrote that Marden is sometimes accused of painting "Jasper Johns backgrounds". "[His] dense planes of color simply emphasized to the exclusion of all else the most obtrusive fact of most paintings — shape and background color. He brought them forward and made them unavoidable . . ." This reminds me of the evening some years ago that I saw The Pips singing on television without Gladys Knight. It was a comic schtick in which they did only their background riffs. Good for laughs. But it wasn't much else. Marden's work suffers similarly.

Richard Dorment wrote about some of the details of Marden's paintings in a breathless, applauding article in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books. At one point he described how Marden's painting, titled "Nebraska", was executed. Dorment says that "unlike the old masters, Marden then shows us exactly how he made the painting by leaving an inch or so of unpainted canvas at the bottom edge so that we can see for ourselves the drips left over from each 'hit' or layering of paint. By revealing the many different layers of color used to create each work, Marden undercuts any attempt to read the picture as a representation of anything in the natural world because when your eye comes to the bottom of the canvas, you see that it is, after all, a flat surface covered in layers of green and gray paint."

When you look at the painting, this is self-evident. Indeed, this description was right on the mark when it came to all of Marden's work in this show, and that was the problem with the work. Layers of green and gray paint do not amount to much as a profound aesthetic statement. They're just layers of paint. Worse, when you looked closely at this painting — and many of the others in the show — you saw that even these details were not very carefully painted. They were sloppy, ungainly, arbitrary. In a description of Marden's famous 1969 "D'Apres la Marquise de la Solana" (based on a painting by Goya, although were he not told so, the viewer would have a very difficult time making the connection. The painting is essentially a triptych made up of three gray rectangles.) Dorment writes that "when you walk around to its side you discover smears of scarlet paint on the edge where the canvas is tacked over the stretcher. Like a flash of red petticoat under an haute couture dress, it affords us a glimpse of the emotions the artist concealed, damped down, kept out of sight."

Not so. What you see instead are meaningless splotches that seem to have no purpose at all. To congratulate these splotches as some key to the artist's emotions makes me think that this artist doesn't have much connection with emotions, other than as shards of depthless, tossed away oil. Or as featureless asphalt. Or as a view of the side of a house.

In the September, 2002 issue of ArtForum, regarding Marden's Red Rocks series of paintings, Katy Siegel wrote: "Something is wrong — the grounds are too saturated, too close in value to the lines. The lines themselves are too busy, creating all over compositions that often melt down into a mess."

This too is a fair and accurate assessment of most of Marden's work. I think that art can appear meaningless, but it must not be meaningless.

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About Terence Clarke

  • http://www.amycohenbanker.com amy banker

    Hey, I understand but it was not as bad as you make it out to be.
    But I have always wondered why this guy is so applauded and
    famous enough to have a show at MOMA. If you want to
    see my work at amycohenbanker.com it is far from
    boring and far from monotonous.

  • http://www.theblogofinnocence.com Lethe

    I found this article illuminating, and I’ve referenced some of your passages in my article, “This Meaning of Brice Marden.”

    Thank you.