What is an old-fashioned abstract painter and sec- ond- generation New York minimalist like Brice Marden doing showing at a hip joint like the Serpentine? Funnily enough, Brice Marden had asked himself a similar question as he was hanging the work in London this week. "When I stood back and looked at them on the walls, I thought to myself: it all looks almost primitive, doesn't it? There ought to be something electronic going on here..."
But there isn't. All there is at the Serpentine this month is an extraordinary retrospective of Marden's work of the past decade, painted in his late loopy, gestural style, large-scale oils on linen, displayed against walls of a white and pristine purity. It could be any big, top-lit, top- of-the range gallery in Manhattan. Maybe to some, Marden might seem like an anachronistic throwback to the painterly values of the Fifties. But there's nothing anachronistic about the prices his canvases continue to command - last year, for example, one of his encaustics of 1972 fetched US$1.48m.
I'm made aware of this in two ways when I turn up for our interview the day before the show opens to the public. First off, the doors to the gallery are locked, and I have to be let in - and then locked in alongside a few friends of his. When he turns up a few minutes later, he mutters something about insurance which I don't quite catch, because he's shy and very difficult to hear. But he doesn't look as though he would be shy. A man of medium height, he's dressed almost entirely in black - T-shirt, figure-hugging trousers, well-cut jacket, with a thin slash of a red scarf around his neck. His long, tousled, silver-grey hair laps at his neckline. He weaves a little as he walks, hands thrust deep into his trouser pockets - a sleek, good-looking, mildly narcissistic teenager now pushing 63.
We walk around the gallery as he talks to me about the work. Marden has always been an abstract painter. His first one-person show took place in 1966, at the Bykert Gallery in New York City, and consisted entirely of rectangular, monochromatic works. For years he made single, monochrome pieces with densely saturated surfaces, and then, later, monochrome panels, diptychs and triptychs. "He paints panels that are all one colour, but they're such beautiful colours," a smitten Fairfield Potter once said of him.
Then, in the mid-Eighties, he made a dramatic shift away from that severe minimalist style towards a kind of loopy, gestural abstraction, a seam that he's still mining today. We're standing in front of a painting called "Cold Mountain 2" (1989-91), one from a series of six that occupied him for two years - he always paints in series - and the earliest canvas in this show. The lines, some jagged as thorns, frenziedly, spikily interweave, grey, black and a pale olive green. They drip, dribble and fray like a late homage to Pollock.
"I'd been reading a lot of translations of Chinese poetry by Kenneth Rexroth," he tells me. "Then I found a translation with the Chinese calligraphy on the facing page..." The visual experience of this calligraphy introduced him to an entirely new way to draw. "I didn't understand the ideographs. They didn't have to signify. It was a purely aesthetic thing."
He soon found himself engaged in a new kind of abstract drawing. He made "couplet …