An Old-School Radical; in a MoMA Retrospective, It's Not Just Brice Marden's Ego at Stake. If He Can't Save Straight-Ahead, No-Gimmicks Painting, Who Can?

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Byline: Peter Plagens

At 68, Brice Marden is still a trim, handsome man with knowing eyes. Which must be why--since abstract painters aren't usually celebrities--he's recently appeared in a Gap ad. Even while installing a show in black jeans, long-sleeved T shirt and stocking cap, there's an elegance to the man, and a boxer's looseness in the way he moves.

But today he's nervous. This "show" is "Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings"--in the august Mu-seum of Modern Art, where it will be on view Oct. 29 through Jan. 15. True, he's long been represented by such top-o'-the-heap galleries as Pace, Mary Boone and Matthew Marks, and a drawing of his once fetched half a million dollars at auction. But he's never seen many of these 56 canvases and 50 drawings together before. Something might go wrong. Like what? "Someone will prick the bubble," he says, "and say it all looks like bulls--t."

With this show, however, there's more than just an artist's reputation at stake. In an art world increasingly given over to carnivals of video and installation art, Marden is the consensus champion of straight-ahead painting. That is, he works in oil on flat, rectangular canvases: adding no assemblages, appropriated photos or anything else peculiar. For more than 40 years--through his early monochrome abstractions to his recent paintings that resemble intricate Hot Wheels setups--he's taken the esthetic high road. If the fruits of his subtle sensibility and deft touch can't convince people that painting isn't passe, it's hard to imagine what could.

Marden grew up in pleasant Bronx-ville, N.Y., where his adolescence was graced by his father's best friend, an advertising executive turned artist, who gave him tickets to MoMA's first Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1956 and a subscription to Art News magazine. Heading to college, Marden (who readily admits "I wasn't a great student") went to Flori-da to study the reliable backup trade of hotel administration. Then he transferred to Boston University's somewhat conservative art school. "If you worked at home and did abstract paintings," he says, "you were a lot better off showing them to the color and design teacher than to the painting professor." While still in school, he got married--to Joan Baez's sister Pauline. After graduate school at the Harvard Law of the art world--Yale--Marden spent several months in Paris with his wife and in-laws. (Her father worked there for UNESCO.) After 50 or so applications for teaching jobs yielded nothing, Marden decided to return to New York and simply be an artist. It meant a divorce.

He got a job as a part-time guard at the Jewish Museum during its 1964 Jasper Johns retrospective, and had his epiphany: the way to keep abstract painting vital in the face of the Pop art pandemic would be to combine somehow the openness and improvisation of Pollock with Johns's density and attention to detail. …