Brice Marden. (Reviews)

Article excerpt

MATTHEW MARKS GALLERY

Ever since I saw my first Brice Marden show, in Houston in 1991, I have been trying to figure out why I don't like his paintings more. They are well made and worked out over time, they develop a set of personal concerns and preferences, and they're often beautiful--many of the things I look for in art. His pair of spring shows, his first in New York in five years, provided an occasion to think about what is going on in his work. The exhibitions, at Marks's two Chelsea venues, encompassed a selection of his work from 1996-2002 and his most recent paintings.

My problem with Marden isn't necessarily the same one that other people have. While critics who are roughly his contemporaries rave about these paintings, praising them for their beauty, skill, and subtlety, younger viewers and artists are much more likely to see the work as conventional, blue-chip bohemianism. Marden's paintings, in a very traditional sense, describe the encounter of a sensitive centered self with outside experience, usually of art or nature--here, China (where he saw tomb sculpture and scholars rocks) and rural Pennsylvania (where he met a bear). This model of the artist as a unique, contemplative spirit stands in contrast to the currently fashionable one of the artist as an entirely socially formed entity, completely devoted to topical media references, irony, and conventionality, referring to other artworks and their collective reception. Seen in this light, Marden's paintings can seem simply out-of-date.

But this definition of what it means to be contemporary is limiting and fails to pinpoint the real problem with these paintings. In the earlier works in the show the muted, scraped-down colors rely too much on tastefulness, and one gets the impression of decoration that insistently signifies seriousness: "History" is implied by a kind of weathered look, a more refined state of consciousness conveyed by quiet color and spare lines. …