O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
-- William Butler Yeats
THE IMPORTANT, recent work of painter Brice Marden looks like Silly String writ large -- call it Serious String, if you will.
Organized by Charles Wylie of the Dallas Museum of Art, a retrospective of 24 paintings, seven drawings and a half dozen prints made by Marden since 1990 is now on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, after which it will travel to the Miami Art Museum and Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art. The gracefully-installed show, which gives Marden's graphically crowded canvases and works on paper ample room to breathe, consists for the most part of rhythmic, writhing masses of serpentine scribbles.
Jumbles of multihued garden hose seem to intertwine and dock with electrical power cords. Tangled knots of leafless, gray vinery wrap themselves around ribbons of spilled entrails in an arcane and ghostly choreography. The purity of Marden's line, form and color -- what Wylie calls the "most basic building blocks of drawing and painting" -- evoke the music of poetry, the random beauty of the natural world and the different kinds of light that filter through Marden's various studios in Manhattan (silvery gray), rural Pennsylvania (granite pink and forest green) and the Greek island of Hydra (the blue of the Aegean and the high, hot yellow of the sun).
It's as if the rigid grids and color blocks of a Piet Mondrian painting somehow broke out of their "Broadway Boogie Woogie" lockstep and began dancing to the beat of a feverish, unheard jungle jazz.
Marden began this latest exploration of sinuous abstraction in the mid-1980s, after years of making near-monochrome canvases in which he was able to coax feeling (his own emotions about a particular person, place or thing) out of the blankness of paint and wax. The inflection of those coolly Minimalist early works derived not from the painted gesture, but from color and surface texture alone.
But what began with an interest in the aesthetic and symbolic potential of Chinese calligraphy (observe the elegant simplicity of his "Dance Glyphs" at the Hirshhorn) as well as an abiding admiration for Jackson Pollock's seemingly slapdash symphonies (like Pollock's unorthodox methods, Marden paints and draws with long, ailanthus twigs dipped in pigment or ink) gradually evolved, for the 60-year-old artist, into an expressive language entirely his own.
In the thin, spindly black lines that delineate the suggestive figures of his etchings and drawings from the early '90s, you may detect shadows of Alexander Calder's bent-wire sculptures (minus Calder's whimsy). And, in the anatomical contours of such works as "The Golden Pelvic," you may see hints of Georgia O'Keeffe's bone studies. You will surely be reminded, when looking at Marden's trio of huge canvases depicting the Muses of ancient Greek mythology, of friezes on crumbling temples, but you may also catch shades of the stop-action cubism of Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase" or the whirling ring of nudes from Matisse's "The Dance."
Despite these reverberations from the history of art -- and Marden is known to be a scrupulous listener to the echoes of his forebears -- there is nothing derivative about his work.
To the extent that it looks familiar -- to the extent that you are able to recognize in the idiosyncratic ravel of his handwriting -- the canted hip of a goddess, an arm raised in ecstasy, a human skull -- it is there only through the hard process of artistic digestion, not imitation.
"If it gets easy," Marden told an interviewer earlier this year, "then it's not right."
Marden doesn't like it when it's too obvious what's being painting, when his coded language is too easily deciphered -- but that is rarely a problem here. Does the apparent silhouette in the center of "Bear" depict the animal of the title (having showed up one day outside Marden's country home) or is it suggestive rather of the artist's dog (who had to be rescued from the ursine encounter)? Perhaps it is neither, merely the wishful thinking of the viewer, desperate to find any visual anchor in a painting with so literal a name and so nonrepresentational a bundle of lines.
If you look carefully, the forms of two young women can be discerned in "The Sisters," a picture inspired by the relationship between Marden's daughters Mirabelle and Melia, but these restless subjects never stand still. They appear to crouch, to rise, to approach and then recoil from each other in an electric pas de deux. It's like one of those neon advertising signs whose tubes blink on and off in sequence, creating the semblance of motion.
Similarly, nine bodies can clearly be counted in each of the Muse paintings, but they are obviously engaged in some shape-shifting, dervish dance. Their "bodies" not only seem to move up and down, right and left, forward and back within an illusion of three-dimensional space, but to spin 360 degrees. What one sees, however, is not the dancers themselves, but a memory of of the dance, much like the contrails of a jet that linger in the sky long after the jet has flown away.
An eerie thing also happens when you turn your back to Marden's art. On second glance, it frequently appears to be a different painting than the one you just looked at.
This slippery sense of understanding comes from the glacial way Marden builds up an image -- ("I paint very slowly," he says. "I think about it a lot.") -- often over years of accretion, scraping away and painting over old layers with a milky wash. Eventually what's left is not only the current painting but the pentimento of its older selves.
Marden calls his working methods a "collaboration" and a "dialogue" with the paintings themselves, but his creative process can also be seen as a kind of dance with the audience -- one that tingles with living emotion, one that gives to the museumgoer only as much as it takes.
MARDEN, WORK OF THE 1990s: PAINTINGS DRAWINGS AND PRINTS -- Through Sept. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue at Seventh Street SW (Metro: L'Enfant Plaza). 202/357-2700. Open 10 to 5 daily; Thursdays through Labor Day until 8. Web site: www.si.edu/hirshhorn.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
June 10 at noon -- Video: "Brice Marden."
June 19, 10 to noon -- "What's My Line?": Marden-inspired dance and movement workshop for children ages 6 to 9 accompanied by adults. Call 202/357-3235, Ext. 114.
June 24 at 7 -- Judith Zilczer, curator of paintings, discusses Marden's work.
Sept. 5 at 3 -- "New Voices": Art student Christine Fisher leads a gallery talk on Marden.
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 1 through Sept. 2 -- Docent-led tours of the exhibition.
CAPTION: What you get is more than what you see. Brice Marden's "Study for The Muses (Hydra Version)" (1991-97) and "Little Red Painting" (1994) reward your viewing efforts in direct proportion to what you put into them. Both are oil works on linen.