HIS first aesthetic experience, says artist Brice Marden, came when he was 7, at a museum looking at Constantin Brancusi’s abstract sculptures. “I didn’t know anything about it,” the painter says, “but I had this feeling that there was much more to it than what I was seeing.”
Sixty years later, Marden can himself look back on a lifetime of making art that rewards the viewer in much the same way. His lush, generally colorful abstract paintings can be seen simply as beautiful objects, or they can reveal far more.
A major retrospective opening Oct. 29 and continuing through Jan. 15 at the Museum of Modern Art gathers together more than 100 paintings and drawings from one of the most widely shown artists working today. Marden says he is ready for his close-up: “I’m a New York painter, and I like to show in New York. It’s like a philosophical debate. You put out your ideas.”
Marden, who turns 68 today, gathered those ideas like a peripatetic sponge, haunting galleries, museums and artist hangouts and traveling the world. In the ‘60s, he was immersed in the Cambridge, Mass., music scene before moving on to New York and such jobs as a museum guard and studio assistant to artist Robert Rauschenberg. He adapted Matisse’s notion of drawing with twigs, and from Asian calligraphy and, later, the poetry of the Tang dynasty, came philosophy, images and ideas for decades of paintings.
“Seeing is important to Brice,” says Gary Garrels, curator of the MoMA retrospective and senior curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “It’s all about looking and about what happens when that looking gets transformed in the studio into something we call art.”
Few studios seem more conducive to that alchemy than Marden’s huge workplace at the western edge of Greenwich Village, near Chelsea and the meat-packing district. On the 10th floor of what appears to be a relatively new building, it has 20-foot-high ceilings and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that offer unobstructed views of the Hudson River -- and incredible light.
The patrician-looking Marden seems reflective and reserved as he obligingly guides a visitor through his studio. One of four workplaces he keeps in the U.S. and abroad, it is quiet, orderly and spare. Paintings in process are on and against the walls, and shelves run floor to ceiling, filled with books on art, poetry and philosophy.
There are separate tables for painting and drawing, and a cut-off tree trunk holds twigs as well as brushes. Since the early ‘70s, Marden has used twigs to apply ink or sometimes paint to create the curved, almost dancing lines that appear in many of his drawings and paintings. The twigs came first from ailanthus trees that grew in his backyard on New York’s Bond Street, and now from bamboo, hemlock or whatever else he might find in his travels.
“The twigs are really long when I start -- maybe 6 feet -- and when I narrow in on the images, I use shorter ones,” he says. “Then the more you work the image up, the blunter and shorter the instrument becomes so you have more control. At the end, the twig is about 6 inches long.
“I like drawings because there is less material between you and what you’re making, so you get a more direct, spontaneous image,” he says. “Painting is much more constructed.”
It certainly appears to be for Marden, who sometimes takes years to complete a work. On the wall of the studio, for instance, are paintings he has worked on for four years now, on and off.
Does he plan to finish them soon? He smiles. “I don’t know. That’s the nice thing about this job. You can do what you want.”
THE way he tells it, Marden has been doing pretty much what he wants for much of his life. He was raised in Briarcliff Manor in New York’s Westchester County and recalls no artistic influences at home. But neighbor Fred Serginian, the father of his best friend, was a painter-turned-advertising executive who encouraged his interest in art. “When I was a senior in high school and decided somewhat abruptly that I wanted to be a painter,” says Marden, “he kept my parents relatively calm.”
Serginian gave him a subscription to Art News magazine when he went to college and, he says, he was soon hooked. “I think I always wanted to be an abstract artist. Art News was the abstract expressionist trade rag, and I was primed.”
Marden received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Boston University and, in 1963, an MFA from Yale School of Art and Architecture. At Yale, he “already had developed a style and way of painting and drawing that were distinctly his own,” Garrels writes in the MoMA exhibition catalog.
As he studied art, he was also immersed in the Cambridge folk music world. His first wife, Pauline Baez, whom he married in 1960, is Joan Baez’s sister. He met Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and lived for a while at Joan Baez’s house in Carmel.
But he also yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and after Yale he moved to New York with his wife and toddler, Nicholas, set up a studio on the Lower East Side and painted. He took a job as a part-time guard at the Jewish Museum, fortuitously in time for the museum’s landmark Jasper Johns retrospective in 1964.
“I knew about this stuff,” Marden says now, “but it’s one thing to know about it and another to be in a room with 30 Jasper Johns all day long. You’d be there during the day, and at night in a bar discussing it. Then back the next day with questions buzzing in your mind. It was really incredible.”
Success came quickly. By 1966, Marden had his first one-person New York show, at the Bykert Gallery, and, Garrels writes, “almost immediately, artists and critics acknowledged his work as singular, powerful and important in the art of the time.”
But turning out first monochromatic paintings, then monochromatic panels, Marden says, was eventually less than satisfying and triggered, in the early ‘80s, what amounted to a midlife crisis.
“I had enough time to get tired of what I was doing,” he says today. “I wanted to get back to something a little more challenging.” Or, as he once said, “all I could get were chords, and I wanted to be able to make something more like fugues.”
He stopped painting, he says, and reassessed. He also traveled and reflected on what he saw, including such things as patterns in the seashells of Thailand. The spark came in New York in 1984, he says, when he saw an exhibition called “Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th-19th Century” at the Asia Society and Japan House Gallery. His enchantment with the shapes and movement of Japanese calligraphy soon led to Chinese calligraphy and, in time, to the poetry of Han Shan, a 9th century Tang dynasty poet whose name means Cold Mountain.
Marden’s work began to change. His monumental Cold Mountain series, done in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, was critically acclaimed, leading to further experimentation.
“The Cold Mountain series was the fruition of ideas that had begun to be explored in the mid-'80s,” Garrels says. “They are among the greatest paintings and drawings of his career, and among the most coherent body of work. After this, the specific influence of Asian art and culture began to be synthesized with such other influences as Mediterranean culture and New York School painting, continuing to the present.”
In the studios
ARTWORKS are underway today in all of the New York-based artist’s studios. He works in Manhattan and, since 2002, also in Tivoli, N.Y., up the Hudson about 100 miles. He has a large studio on Hydra, a Greek island, where he paints each summer. He also works out of a studio in Sullivan County, Pa., near where his wife, artist Helen Harrington, grew up. In that dark, forested area, he says, the paintings he makes are also usually dark. The work in each studio, in fact, is different, he says, influenced by where he is.
The Manhattan studio is replete with other influences as well. A line of aging postcards balances against a back wall, images of places, museums and artworks that have affected him: statues in Pompeii, artworks by Titian, Pollock and Cezanne.
There are rows of seashells on one table and assorted Chinese scholar rocks scattered around. “The tradition is that scholars, painters and poets would have objects in their studios, and one object they’d always have was rocks that remind you of the landscape. The rocks are small sculptures. They are totally abstract, but they’re about nature.”
Marden says the rocks influence his current paintings, but the leap from subject matter to canvas isn’t necessarily easy for the viewer. Sometimes the title serves as a guide. There are, for instance, paintings named after Helen, whom he married in 1968, and their daughters Mirabelle, an art dealer, and Malia, who is in the catering business. There are the homages painted to such music icons as Dylan, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding and Patti Smith, as well as to such artistic icons as Goya, Courbet and Leger.
His newest paintings are called “The Propitious Garden of Plane Image,” just finished for the MoMA retrospective.
“The propitious part is that I have a friend who is a numerologist,” Marden says, “and he told me that my number is 6. I was born on the 15th; 1 plus 5 equals 6. I use six panels in these paintings, and each panel is 6 by 4 feet, which is 24, which also adds up to 6. There are six colors and six variations.”
Asked how he ever came up with that notion for a painting, he says, “Well, you have to start somewhere. It’s a group of formal ideas. Basically you take a number and you see how much you can relate to that number. There are all sorts of ways of getting started on making a painting. You drive through Nebraska and say, ‘Nebraska is beautiful and I’ll make a painting about it.’ This is another way.”
The MoMA retrospective comprises two separate exhibitions of more than 50 paintings on one floor, 50 drawings on another. It’s scheduled to travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art for an exhibition from Feb. 15 through May 13 and then to the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum fur Gegenwart in Berlin. The Guggenheim Museum here had a retrospective of Marden’s paintings and drawings in 1975, but Garrels calls this show “the first overview of the entirety of his career.” It spans the decades from a 1962 drawing to the newest paintings from the “Propitious Garden” series.
“Brice has been influencing painters for three generations,” says Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, a lender to the exhibition. “He is an artist’s artist, a person who reinvents himself and what painting can be.”
Reached a few days ago by phone at his Tivoli studio, Marden said he had been having a really good time finishing up his last two paintings. “This whole project kept me very nicely distracted,” he says. “They’re still on the wall here, waiting for the truck from MoMA, but they’re ready. It’s just nice to have them up here and to see them. From here, it’s all downhill -- that’s what I always say to the paintings when they leave the studio.”