At the beginning of the seventies abstract painting had reached in impasse, and was divided into two warring camps – Greenberg’s painters on one side and hard edged reductionism on the other. There were agreements among the warring parties – anything pre-Modern and European was discredited, anything illusionistic or allusionistic was to be avoided, and any personal or poetic narrative was to be avoided at all costs. And for those artists who actually wanted to explore painting from an older visual tradition, or god forbid, a romantic tradition, there was no way to participate in the advanced painting war of the day. But a few younger painters began to devise ways around these censures. One of the first artists to connect the reductionist present with a more “traditional” past and a European sensibility of figuration and narrative was Brice Marden.
PAUL CUMMINGS: It’s interesting in all of this that you’ve never mentioned somebody like Barnett Newman. Does his work say anything to you?
BRICE MARDEN: Yeah, I think Newman is a fantastic painter. That show last year was just beautiful. But I don’t really think I was working with those ideas. And the same with Reinhardt. That’s another favorite with writers. They try to hook me up with Reinhardt. Reinhardt I’ve always found very uninteresting. I mean he made a lot of really mediocre paintings and some good ones, but I just don’t find them that interesting. Johns was interesting, and Stella was like very interesting, and I think Noland is a fantastic painter. Warhol is very interesting, but I can’t think of any immediate contemporary influence. I mean I got to painting the way I painted more through old master influence than through contemporary influence.
PAUL CUMMINGS: How do you mean by “old master influence” because it certainly isn’t traditional image?
BRICE MARDEN: No, but it’s like attitude. I mean it isn’t like the formal intellectual kind of attitude. I just never had that attitude towards painting like a Stella attitude. It really left me cold. But I like the paintings, you know, and now they look warm and sensuous, very painterly. But at the time they didn’t. [Paul Cummings in conversation with Brice Marden]
On a page of his 1964–67 journal, underneath a small cutout of Manet’s 1862 painting of Victorine Meurent, Brice Marden wrote, “Cézanne tried to kill painting by denying forms for the sake of painting. He seems to have come closest to painting painting out … I think a painter should paint to end painting for himself and some others. With this in mind and man in mind it seems inevitable that painting will go on.” [Emmie Francis on Brice Marden’s notebooks]
If you look at Marden’s notebooks you’ll find all kinds of personal connections and figurative narratives being explored and collected – these notebooks are almost Victorian in their intimacy and declarative structures. They are also a far cry from Johns’ quotidian recipe for art making – Take something. Do something to it. Do something else to it – or Stella’s elliptical structures of process – What you see is what you see. Marden’s approach to abstraction, Modernism and the European figurative tradition was deliberately provocative to his contemporaries. His use of traditional materials and his connection to the handmade, drawing, and mostly to color made his abstract paintings into something “older”, lush, and inevitable. What Marden was after in these reductive works was not pure formal structure, but ephemeral beauty.
“…during a 1964 Jasper Johns retrospective, Marden studied Johns’s early works extensively and considered them in relation to the Baroque masters he has long admired, such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Francisco Goya, and Diego Velázquez. Marden’s works from the 1960s include subtle, shimmering monochromes in gray tones, sometimes assembled canvases into multipanel works, in a manner similar to the black paintings and White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, who hired Marden as a studio assistant in 1966.
A trip to Greece in the early 1970s led Marden to create the Hydra paintings (1972), which capture the turquoise hues of the Mediterranean, and Thira (1979–80), a painting composed of eighteen interconnected panels inspired by the shadows and geometry of ancient temples. To heighten the effect of each color, plane, and brushstroke, Marden developed the unique process of adding beeswax and turpentine to oil paint and applying the mixture in many thin layers.” [Gagosian Gallery on Brice Marden]
“In 1967, shortly after meeting his future wife, Helen, at Max’s Kansas City, a New York nightclub that was a meeting place for artists and musicians, Marden completed For Helen, a two-panel painting based on her dimensions, each panel measuring 1.75 metres by 45 centimetres. Marden described the colour of its skin-like surface as a ‘warm pinkish grey,’ which could refer to Helen’s skin tone, yet Marden’s titles are rarely obvious or literally descriptive. Instead, its hue is evidence of a telepathic connection. That summer, Helen had travelled to the south west of England where she was taken by the vast mudflats revealed at low tide along the Cornish coastline. She later telephoned Marden and vaguely described these silt and clay deposits as pink. When she returned home and saw the finished painting, she realised that Marden had captured her memory of their colour exactly.
His second exhibition, at the Bykert Gallery in 1968, featured his renowned Back Series, a set of paintings based on Helen’s height. Their illusion to her physicality is underscored by the exhibition announcement card, which featured a nude photographed from the back. Marden titled one of the seven paintings Flesh. Their surfaces are as creamy and delicate as skin, yet one is done primarily in green. The suggestions of flesh is reinforced by the extreme physicality of the paint and wax throughout the series.” [Phaidon Focus on Brice Marden]
BRICE MARDEN: No, not at all. Mine are really very intuitive. I mean like I said most of the paintings will start with a natural experience, but some of them don’t at all, like there are these two Hydra paintings. One dealt with like a landscape color of rock; it’s kind of this strange grey and strange green and very bleached out, bleak sun, bleak light thing. Then another painting that I did in the same group was just a very dark and light painting which didn’t have anything to do with anything visual. I was dealing with this kind of reaction to the place like an intuitive, or spiritual reaction. So it’s not always based on natural but more and more it is. You get a color memory in mind and then you try to make that color and then you start working from that color.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So it’s really very different from the Albers classes, the Albers ideas.
BRICE MARDEN: Yeah, I mean there’s no rules. Then things start repeating, you know, like you get certain value jumps that start repeating themselves. So you work away from them. Perhaps it’s maybe really interesting and you work into it a little bit more. I’ve been wanting to do more one-color paintings. I haven’t been doing one-color paintings lately, or I’ve been working on them but just keeping them in the studio. I’ve wanted to do some, but somehow I’ve been compelled into doing this other thing. But there’s lots of things I still want to do. It’s just gotten to the point where there’s lots of things to do so you work more and it’s much more fun to work.
PAUL CUMMINGS: So you weren’t being painted into a corner at all.
BRICE MARDEN: No, not at all, it’s really very wide open. [Paul Cummings in conversation with Brice Marden]