By Shiff, Richard
Artforum International , Vol. 37, No. 9
DALLAS MUSEUM OF ART
People are drawn to Brice Marden's paintings, but I'm not convinced they know why, even his collectors and curators. They share in the fascination, but without much understanding. I too like Marden's art. The situation is a credit to the material beauty of his surfaces, "that heavy earthen kind of thing, [turned] into air and light," as Marden himself describes painting's wonder, alluding to alchemy and transmutation. His aesthetic magic is powerful enough to mask significant formal tensions and contradictions, which would otherwise attract a more analytical engagement than his work usually receives. Yet viewers can grow suspicious of their own unquestioning responses. Marden's compelling beauty leaves us somewhat wary. Is it really there?
Marden has been disarmingly honest about the critical insecurity he creates, which affects even him: "I just get closer to some impossible thing. . . . What I like is when I see paintings of mine that I just don't understand." If we're ever to understand the "impossible" in Marden, a decade's view - the "Work of the 1990s" - promises more opportunity than any piece alone. His titles help by establishing themes correlated with broad aspects of his career ("I've always been very romantic about titles," he admits). Marden developed an interest in Asian aesthetics during the '80s (hence, Cold Mountain, Chinese Dancing, Suzhou) and has summered on the Greek island of Hydra since the '70s (The Muses, Kalo Keri, Calcium). Through distant cultures and places, he has opened himself to sensuousness, leaving conceptualized anxieties to his self-consciously postmodern peers. He thinks - how obvious, how naive of him - the localized light he observes is real: "When I go someplace, it's in my work." We think - how anxious, how critical of us - he must be deceived. Light is an imaginary, ideological construction, isn't it?
Check the paintings. A certain formal evolution marks Marden's sensory journeys through the decade: His "light" was changing, whether real or constructed. He gradually converted the relative angularity of his Cold Mountain series, 1988-91, and Kalo Keri, 1990, into the more elastic loopings of his Muses series, 1989-99, and Little Red Painting, 1994. The "impossible," the incomprehensible, is glimpsed in this transition. Although Marden's thick bands derive from a fine calligraphic line, they no longer follow a calligraphic order. Stretching and bending without obvious beginning or end, they neither become figures in their own right nor delimit anything else. Nor are they distinguished, materially, from the plane of their ground. Both figure (the bands) and ground become little more than stains.
Marden's most quoted statement is his 1974 reference to "the indisputability of The Plane," which suited his waxy monochromatic panels of that moment. His recent work preserves The Plane just as literally: he dissolves (with terpineol), scrapes (with palette knives), or sands his applied paint down to the linen, into its very weave, tattooing the linen skin. …