HOW CAN AN ARTIST keep high modernism alive when rumors of its death abound? This is the question Brice Marden repeatedly confronts throughout the Museum of Modern Art's majestic retrospective, organized by Gary Garrels. From the show's first galleries on the building's sixth floor (mostly devoted to paintings) to the works on paper three levels below, Marden's answers mix pictorial dexterity and doggedness--cool yet assertive responses to a constant challenge.
Starting in the early 1960s with canvases and drawings that exemplify the lessons of less, the selection ends with two extended compositions--veritable grandes machines in scale and ambition--so recent their paint is barely dry. These foil the initial sparseness with a late abundance that is almost baroque in its serpentine rhythms. Encompassing extremes of reduction and elaboration, Marden has retained a canny knack for infiltrating Greenbergian purity, flatness, and frontality--qualities otherwise reminiscent of what he terms the "plane image"--with tinges of landscape, figuration, and a manifold art-historical pedigree. Overall, these antitheses fuse to present a romantic classicist--a latter-day Ingres of abstraction, as it were.
Marden's singularity comes across in the very first gallery, with pieces from his New York solo debut in 1966 at the Bykert Gallery. Orthodox wisdom regards these monochromes as lyrical riffs on Minimalism. From a heretical perspective, though, they invite comparison with Color Field painting, then entering its heyday. In Nebraska, 1966, and The Dylan Painting, 1966/86, Marden's meticulous marginal effects (not to mention the second's hip title) prompt comparison with Jules Olitski, while the dense textures are a period hallmark--as familiar as Olitski's lush layerings or as virtually forgotten now as, say, Sam Tchakalian's troweled fields. But Marden always managed to inject an air of difficulty or gravitas into his practice that distanced it from Color Field's putative hedonism. By contrast, he took the path of a religious artist without a religion.
Even before visiting the newly opened Rothko Chapel in 1972, Marden was concerned with time (a dimension identified with the spiritual since at least Saint Augustine's meditations) and light (an even older religious archetype). The challenge was to wed these theological or metaphysical properties to avant-gardist materiality and objecthood.
Marden's initial ventures into grids and graphite-laden darkness hint at the work of Ad Reinhardt, among others. Certainly Rothko was on his mind--the later Rothko who took sides against his own more voluptuary aesthetic self. In 1996 I guest-curated a show at the Menil Collection that charted Rothko's activity around the years of the chapel commission and that aimed to map a less stereotypical "Rothko" of the '60s, one who practiced serialism and who was, by his own reckoning, a "plumber"--a shrewd visual mechanic--seeking "precision" and "measures." Evidently Marden esteemed this darker, deliberative painter; the muffled radiance of the chapel's "murals" and related works inspired him. Summer Table, 1972-73, and Grove Group I and II, 1972-73, have the calibrated feel of Rothko's late triptychs and firmer rectangles, while seeming to refresh their shadows with the light of a new day. Furthermore, Marden telescoped time into their trace-ridden, waxy facture.
That I admit an irrational urge to nibble Marden's canvases from this period is hopefully less absurd than it is a clue to their synesthesia. Milky hues and malleable-looking matiere make them delectable objects, like blocks of luxury chocolate or soap, albeit raised to lofty seriousness. Likewise, a subliminal atmosphere--of air, land, light--lifts their message. Famously, Marden's environments are his stimuli: Lower Manhattan; Tivoli, upstate by the Hudson; Eagles Mere in …