The boons the New York art world bestows on its favorites have been lavished on Brice Marden. Good. He's earned them with his pictures, which are stately and entrancing and abstract and exact.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Marden, who is 60, doesn't show videos on television monitors, or lab-made colored photographs, or assemblages of stuff in the middle of the floor. He makes paintings, prints and drawings, costly and august ones, which lead the viewer's mind through an orchard of traditions and yet--New York demands this--still look like forefront art. Twenty-three of his oils, seven ink drawings and a six-sheet suite of etchings are on exhibit here this summer in "Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints" at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, a show that one remembers with an unfamiliar feeling of shimmering serenity, as if one's thoughts had just been cleansed.
In 1963, after Yale graduate school, he moved to the big city, where he worked as a museum guard. Not anymore. A new Marden oil now costs $1 million, and an older Marden monochrome more than twice that much. Marden still keeps a New York studio, in a Greenwich Village walk-up, but now he gets to get away. He has a sun-washed place in Greece, on Hydra in the blue Aegean, and another in the misty Pennsylvania mountains. Once a studio assistant--to Robert Rauschenberg--he now hires them himself.
Distinguished champions praise him. John Richardson, Picasso's biographer, has called Marden "arguably the finest abstract painter of his generation." "He has such charm, such lucid and quirky intelligence, such ironic humor, and such ageless movie-star looks," wrote Richardson, "that one is apt to overlook his inherent toughness. Marden comes over as something of a paragon."
Distinguished museums show him. He had a retrospective at the Guggenheim at the age of 36, and solo shows since then in Paris and in Zurich and at the Tate in London. Admirable scholars, most notably Brenda Richardson (no relation to biographer John) have written deeply on his work.
Manhattan reputations have a way of climbing quickly and then falling. Marden's keeps ascending. His work is far from faddish. His paintings at the Hirshhorn--most show colored fields aerated and occupied by the unexpected movements of swooping painted lines--have the aspirational high-mindedness of old religious objects. Nothing flip or wan or cramped undoes the free but always hard-won beauty of his art.
Beauty is, of course, a problematic issue in most new New York art. Marden understands that. "The idea of beauty," he's acknowledged, "can be offensive. Maybe beauty is too easy. It doesn't deal with issues, political issues or social issues. But an issue it does deal with is harmony."
Harmonies of different sorts are achieved in this art. The word is mostly used when speaking about sounds, but in Marden's work it also fits the orderly and peaceable--though never quite foreseen--meetings of his colors. His colors are so finely tuned they make one think of fugues.
His harmonies are also formal harmonies of line. A single line of Marden's, say the red one in his "Skull With Thought" (1993-95), can enclose a zone of action, or distantly evoke the profile of a bit of bone, or straighten out to parallel the painting's edge.
Marden has achieved as well harmonies of reference. The painter in his younger years was regarded as a minimalist (as if such a term could be applied to the translucent sensuousness of oil-and-beeswax colors). The rectangles he painted then often called to mind those of other artists--the stern, iconic black ones of Kasimir Malevich, or Barnett Newman's red ones, or the blue ones by Yves Klein. And even in his newest works, his ever-dancing lines every now and then return to the right angle--as if to evoke memories of Mondrian and Cezanne and the old cubist grid.
He could have kept on painting his single-color panels, and he surely could have sold them, but something changed his mind. "I was bored with painting. It had become a matter of refinement," he told Brenda Richardson. "All those paintings were set up to be refined--in almost a Libran sense in which you seek perfect balance. There was always a hypothetical state of achievement: If I got it right I could attain true form. I could have gone on making 'Brice Marden paintings' for the rest of my life. But I--just--didn't--feel--like--it."
Instead he started using sticks. He began to tear ailanthus twigs from a tree near his Manhattan home and started making drawings with those whippy, never-rigid, arm-extending sticks. In his newest oil paintings, he still uses his whole body. His lines are made with brushes nearly three feet long.
When Marden started painting the series called "Cold Mountain," he was thinking about China--about hermits writing poems in caves on misty peaks, about the freedom-with-control of old Chinese calligraphies, and early Chinese Zen. And when he made the pictures hanging at the Hirshhorn, he was thinking about Greece as well (the whiteness of its whitewashed walls, the silver of its olive leaves, the oldness of its myths), and of Jackson Pollock. All three of these traditions--the Greek one, the Chinese one and that of Pollock's abstract painting--dance together in the art.
"Cold Mountain" is the pen name of a Chinese poet-hermit, now remembered as Han Shan, who left his city home for a hut high in the mountains 12 centuries ago. Was he completely wild or in full control? Was he wacky or enlightened? Observers were not sure.
When pilgrims sought the hermit, Han Shan would not appear, but he would shout out of his cave, "I tell you, man, strive hard!"
Pollock, in his heyday, was also thought to be a wild man. He smoked too much, he drank too much, he misbehaved in public--and something of that wildness is sensed within the dripped-and-thrown colors of his art.
Marden's work is calmer, its music more melodious.
The last room in his show is devoted to the muses. One can almost see their female forms, their shoulders and their hips and the swinging of their veils. Their movements seem part wild dance, part ritual processional. Freedom and control, Apollonian order and Dionysian frenzy, modern-day New York and time beyond remembering, are somehow balanced in these pictures. The modern and the classical once were thought to be at war. But not in Marden's pictures. He makes classic modern art.
"Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints" was organized by Charles Wylie of the Dallas Museum of Art, where it first was seen last winter. The exhibition will be seen in Miami and Pittsburgh after closing at the Hirshhorn on Sept. 6.
'BRICE MARDEN: WORK OF THE 1990s'
"Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints" will be at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue NW, through Sept. 6.
The exhibit, organized by Charles Wylie of the Dallas Museum of Art, includes 23 oils, seven ink drawings and a six-sheet suite of etchings. Wylie's fully illustrated 79-page catalogue accompanies the show.
The Hirshhorn is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. On Thursday evenings from June 3 to Sept. 2 the museum will remain open until 8 p.m. Admission is free.
CAPTION: Pure and not-so-simple: Brice Marden's "Little Red Painting," left, and "Skull With Thought." "The idea of beauty," the artist has said, "can be offensive. Maybe beauty is too easy. It doesn't deal with issues, political issues or social issues. But an issue it does deal with is harmony."
CAPTION: "Study for the Muses (Hydra Version)" is among the Marden oils, ink drawings and etchings now at the Hirshhorn.