Painters' Paintings: Brice Marden and Chris Ofili in Conversation

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Brice Marden came of age amid the artistic ferment of 1960s New York, a context in which many eyed with suspicion the age-old practice of applying paint to a two-dimensional rectangular surface. Yet for more than four decades, he has remained unflinchingly committed to his medium and, largely, to abstraction, creating the singular body of work that will be celebrated this month in a major retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. To mark the occasion, Artforum invited Marden and Chris Ofili to offer the latest installment in the magazine's series of conversations between artists--this, the first between two painters. While Marden and Ofili may initially seem an odd couple of sorts, subtle affinities reveal themselves in the artists' carefully calibrated palettes, lithe arabesques, and finely layered surfaces. Above all, though, it is their obsessive commitment to the practice and process of painting--and to the life of the studio--that animates the following exchange.

CHRIS OFILI: I've been reading this book of Cold Mountain poems. It's fantastic. You can open it to any page, and it's like somebody whispering in your ear. You know, "Don't worry. You'll be OK."

BRICE MARDEN: They're wonderful poems. It was nice to read them when I was working on the "Cold Mountain" paintings in the late '80s; it sort of helped the atmosphere. But now it's hard to remember the original feeling of how I was working with it at the time.

CO: Do you see those paintings and the ones you've been doing since as a departure from the earlier monochromes? Before, you had a much more closed surface by comparison and more controlled statements. And then all of a sudden, to put it crudely, there's no tablecloth. You can see the table. It's like, OK, let's just eat. How did that happen for you?

BM: Well, the earlier paintings started becoming very, very refined. I would begin with this color, and this color, and this color. But I had to keep working the colors up until I got them to really read the way I wanted them to. I'd make changes, but not very many. And then I just got tired of it. It seemed like I was just refining instead of discovering things as I went along. And I had been trying to get more drawing into the paintings.

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CO: Drawing's always ahead of the process, right? For me, drawing is first out of the trenches. The intimacy means it's always a lot closer to you, so in a way it's much more precise a statement. In painting, there's this kind of oceanic lift and moonlight depression just to get the thing to move at times, whereas a drawing is like the wind brushing a leaf along the ground.

BM: There's less between you and the image. You don't have to wade through all this material.

CO: Yeah, the gunk. When you were doing the monochromes, were you working on a different type of drawing?

BM: With those paintings, I was very conscious of the scrape. I would put the paint on with a spatula, and I would have my finger in a certain place so I could get it to go straight. And then in the last couple of hits I would try to make these vertical strokes so you could really see more drawing in them. But it really wasn't coming up. I had been doing much looser drawings based on things in the landscape and Chinese calligraphy, and I wanted to get that in the painting. So I finally just took out all these drawings and spread them around the studio, and I kept trying to make some kind of painting. But it took me about a year before I got something that made any sense.

CO: So you were searching for a new way.

BM: Yeah. I figured I had to do something else. I had just switched dealers from Pace to Mary Boone, and when I had my first show at Mary's in '87, I remember certain other monochrome artists hating that exhibition. And I kept telling myself, "It's not that big a change." But really it was.

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CO: If you read Philip Guston he talks a lot about the changes in his work, moving from a type of abstraction to a type of figuration. …