"Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings & Drawings"

Article excerpt

"Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings & Drawings" at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. October 29, 2006-January 15, 2007

Even those who have put off seeing the retrospective of Brice Marden's work at MOMA could not have missed the media blitz surrounding the show. In addition to a host of sumptuously praising reviews, The New York Times ran a lengthy article on the show's opening day profiling not so much the artist himself as his many spectacular houses and accompanying studios. "My daughter joked that the MOMA catalog reads like a real estate brochure," Marden told the Times reporter, who was clearly more interested in the plutography of art-world celebrity and in mapping the locales of Marden's estates--most recently in the Caribbean--than in Marden's accomplishment as a painter.

This Better Homes and Gardens school of art writing would not be worth mentioning if it had not to some degree bled into the more serious appraisals of Marden's work. A consensus of press-release opinion places Marden as the great abstract painter of the last forty years, and, because he is a painter at all, as the cuddly "conservative" on the scene (one that any broadminded hostess would be keen to include at her Hamptons beach party). That applying paint to canvas and looking to the art of the past constitute for these critics a "conservative" pursuit is bad enough, but there is a larger point that is even more troubling. One would hope that a painter who was purportedly in touch with the tradition of Manet and Velazquez and Chinese calligraphy and Rothko and de Kooning and Pollock would have come up with something a bit more robust than Marden's fluent, crushingly suave likability. His elegant paintings are eminently clubbable.

The early monochromes in the show--pleasingly cool and tranquil--fall somewhere between Abstract Expressionist spirituality and Minimalist eschewal. Their beeswax-infused pigments cover all but an almost imperceptible strip of blank canvas at the bottom. Such manmade elements--the drips that fleck the bottom margin of the canvas and the hand-smoothed waxy texture of the paint--convey a serenity that in the end feels as flashy as a party trick and as tepid as old tea. Nebraska, with its muted gray-green, would be a subtle and evocative statement, if it were ultimately worth stating at all. (That a couple of these paintings--such as The Dylan Painting and Nico--are named after Warhol factory regulars underscores how badly they want to be liked.)

The accomplishment of the monochromes, while quiet and limited, far outstrips that of the more boisterous, brightly hued, multi-paneled paintings from the late 1970s and early 1980s. If Marden needed to move through this decade to arrive at actually making marks on canvas, then he did not move through it quickly enough. Where the monochromes came out of Jasper Johns (without the targets), the post-and-lintel particolored panels recall Barnett Newman (without the "zips").

There was a moment, in which Marden first introduced his signature wiry drawing, when he struck something one might actually consider a late contribution to New York School painting. …