Eastern Promise: Brice Marden at Matthew Marks
Brice Marden: New Paintings at Matthew Marks Gallery
April 21 to June 23, 2012
502 and 526 West 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-243-0200
Brice Marden, first famous for accomplished monochromatic works from the heysday of minimal art, later made interesting, but also to some extent naive, cultural appropriations of Chinese painting. Searching for a tradition through which he could find a way out of the reductivism of Western thinking, Marden based paintings on Chinese calligraphy and ink works. His calligraphic canvases and works on paper are certainly beautiful, but when one takes into consideration that the art he was inspired by comes from such a different place, it proves hard to envision his paintings solely as graceful meditations on Chinese painterly art. It is particularly dangerous, I think, when someone reaches so far across cultures and epochs for imagistic support. I am not suggesting that Marden is a dilettante—he is far too accomplished to be given that label—but it is relatively easy to see the body of work as an act of borrowing, undermined by the attempt to take on too much.
So it was with a certain degree of wariness, even pessimism, that I made my way to Matthew Marks’s two gallery spaces on 22nd Street to see his latest, and again Chinese-inspired shows. But I found much that was stunning. At Number 502 there was a fragment of Ru ware, a Chinese ceramic marked by a slate blue color, that served as a measure of hue for the nine smallish panels—Ru Ware Project (2007-12)—done by Marden after he had seen a show of the ceramics in Taiwan, where he had gone on a trip in 2007 (following a major retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). The press materials indicate that he painted the colors of the 11th-century ceramic glaze from memory; nine canvases, each 24 by 18 inches, make up the piece. Lined up across the wall, the colors are mostly blue, with the exception of the fourth panel from the right, which is a dark tan. These monochromatic panels effectively join Marden’s interest in historical Chinese culture with his minimalist work done two generations earlier. The painting exquisitely makes use of colors that come from a thousand years ago, in ways that dazzle through subtlety. And because the work refers both to a specific Chinese cultural production and to Marden’s earlier efforts, we fully understand the motivation behind the piece.
Then, at 526 West 22nd Street, there is a group of new works done on marble, which inevitably refer to the six-year period, 1981 through 1987, during which he painted on marble and bridged the minimalist paintings with the calligraphic ones. In the new group of paintings, it is possible to see how inventive the artist is; First Square (2011) looks like a transformation from the ancient to the very new. Two bands of color, first blue then white, sit atop a yellow triangle whose lowest side is met by a triangle of two stripes, one white and one green. A dark smudge (the graphite in the piece) cuts across the middle of the painting, rising up on the right-hand side. The work is particularly successful for the way Marden paints the idiosyncratic surfaces of the marble. We see much the same happen in Joined (2011), a narrow, vertically aligned slab of marble marked by pigment and graphite. The top two-thirds of the marble is painted a light green, while graphite is randomly applied, filling in hollows and creating abstract patterns of their own. Here we see Marden’s remarkable versatility adapting itself to the materials at hand, and creating lovely, subtle paintings on the stone. The results are so successful it makes one rethink the calligraphic paintings, which admittedly can be seen as a late revision of abstract expressionism. But little matter the past, for Marden has created a fine body of work now, in the present.