In the mid 1960s, at the height of the painting-is-dead delusion, Brice Marden painted himself into a corner. He was making reductive monochrome works — horizontal and vertical canvases in a range of subdued tones of oil paint thickened with melted beeswax. There seemed to be no place to go that someone else hadn’t been before. The critic Barbara Rose, citing two masters of one-color canvases, wrote “if Ellsworth Kelly were to paint a Jasper Johns, it would look like a Marden.”
Indeed Marden, who died on Thursday at the age of 84, had studied Johns’s art while working as a guard at the Jewish Museum, during the older painter’s 1964 survey, and always acknowledged his influence. In 1970, he made a generously proportioned three-panel painting titled “Three Deliberates Grays for Jasper Johns.”
At a time when Abstract Expressionism had faded and Pop and Minimalism were solidifying their hold on the New York art scene, Marden wasn’t the only artist to find himself in a corner, edging toward what was sometimes called “the last paintings that could be made.” There was Frank Stella — known for his black-striped shaped canvases and his blunt assessment that in his work “what you see is what you see” — and Robert Ryman, who like a brilliant engineer endlessly varied the physical components of paintings that were almost always white.
But Stella’s art was soon spiraling into three-dimensions with protruding shapes and bright, glitter-inflected color, while Ryman, remarkably, stayed the course, always finding ways to extend and sustain his formula.
Marden, who believed that looking at paintings could be transporting, left the corner by another route, building on his monochromes at first by adding panels and then by making marks, starting with loosely outlined shapes. In this process, he turned to the history of painting for inspiration, opening up new possibilities for abstraction and beyond. Again and again, he showed that art from any time or culture was contemporary and alive, if it offered artists something they could use.
Unlike Pollock, Johns or Stella, Marden never stopped the history of painting in its tracks. He talked, like a traditional painter, of the importance of light and nature and reverentially considered the rectangle one of the great human inventions.
He retained the Abstract Expressionists’ belief in personal expression and the handmade artwork. Yet his thick-surfaced one-color panels gave his paintings something of the “objecthood” associated with Minimalism. They resulted from multiple layers of the oil-paint beeswax mixture. He said he believed that each of his rectangular canvases had a color that perfectly fit its proportions, if only he could find it.
In 1966 he had his first exhibition at the by-now storied Bykert Gallery on East 81st Street, which gave early or first shows to prominent young artists of the period Chuck Close, Alan Saret, Dorothea Rockburne and Joe Zucker. Almost from the beginning, his shows were anticipated and his development closely watched by younger painters.
Marden and his wife, the painter Helen Marden, formed one of the most dazzling couples on the New York art scene of the 1970s and ’80s, exuding a rock-star glamour. He favored cowboy boots, and was rarely without some kind of well-made headgear — Borsalinos but most often black-knit watch caps. An early 1970s visit to their Bond Street loft left one writer stupefied by the large geometric, beautifully worn leather sofa and Helen’s pet fruit bat.
In keeping with the gentleness of touch implicit in his surfaces, Marden tended to be soft-spoken, laid back, even mild-mannered. He wasn’t prone to big pronouncements or displays of ego. In what was a statement of both ambition and goofy gratitude, he appeared in a photograph on a Bykert show announcement, sitting on what was assumed by some to be Cézanne’s tomb — an enamored yet irreverent fan. But it was actually the empty pedestal for Aristide Maillol’s “Monument á Cézanne” (1912-1925) in Paris — a bronze reclining nude that was on hiatus, probably for restoration.
Marden was a complex mix of rigor and pragmatism with a penchant for wry self-deprecation. Some of his statements could seem at once corny and profoundly true, as when he wrote that “painting says pain in it.” He titled a small early notebook “Suicide Notes” because he saw his small scratchy ink drawings and their tentative attempts at mark-making as “left behind” (as with a suicide note) — he could not develop them at the time. He set himself up as a business under the name Plane Image, another acknowledgment of the rectangle and its flatness so essential to his work. In a way that at the time seemed cringey, he made collages using postcards of his favorite old master paintings, flanked by column-like planes of black or white, as if suggesting that his work could be obliquely figurative.
Starting in the late 1960s, Marden, working incessantly across painting, drawing and printmaking, rebuilt his art step by step, progressively expanding it with a series of formal moves often imbued with personal resonance. He named his paintings for friends, musicians and locations and events of significance to him.
The title for his Back Series of 1967-68 reflected in part a period of estrangement between him and Helen; the panels used in it were her height, 69 inches. And it cannot be a coincidence that Marden’s Annunciation series, inspired by the theme — and the rich palette — of many Italian Renaissance paintings, was painted in 1978, the year Helen was pregnant with their first child.
Overall, Helen had a tremendous influence on Marden’s work. In addition to usually being the first person in his studio, she was a dedicated world traveler who introduced him to places and cultures that became essential to his work.
Marden said he would never have traveled if not for Helen, while she accepted that he would never go anywhere he could not work. She established a number of outposts, all with studios, where the light, terrain and colors affected his work. The first of these was a summer house on the Greek island of Hydra where the blues of sea and sky and the soft greens of olive groves registered in paintings like “Grove Group V” (1973-76).
Other inspirations reflecting travels would include Greek sculpture and architecture; Indian sculpture and Japanese and Chinese calligraphy; and also Chinese landscape painting and scholar’s rocks.
His development was toward greater complexity, added meanings, giving the viewer more to look at. As he progressed, the panels increased in number, their positions changed, and colors heated up. “Thira” (1979-80), one of the last panel paintings, combined 18 of them across 15 feet in a composition that conjured three crosses as well as the post-and-lintel structures of Greek temples.
Ultimately he eliminated the beeswax and monochrome panels and carefully transitioned to making calligraphic marks on his fields of color, giving his paintings a new sense of movement and rhythm. The transition took most of the 1980s.
For Marden-watchers, this created a kind of what’s-next tension. In the early and middle 1980s he began by improvising fairly straight lines, forming skewed overlapping twisted structures that evoked Cubist versions of grids. He went over his lines repeatedly and also corrected them with white paint, which made them look shakier and more fragile. In the mid 1990s, the lines began to relax, thicken and unfurl, into floating ribbons of color. In the early 2010, when Marden focused on the small intricate patterns of moss, his lines shrank accordingly, almost to the fineness of porcelain craquelure. A prime example here is the opulent “Moss Sutra With the Seasons” (2010-2015). Later on, the lines turned heavy, more like ropes or tracks traversing the surface in a kind of road-map configuration — as in “Elevation” (2018-2019) — always acknowledging the edges of the artist’s sacred rectangle.
The shape of Marden’s career was one of continual expansion. As he went, the art world got bigger, art’s audience expanded and he moved from cult artist to art star. More important, he made abstract painting itself larger, both for himself and others. He did this in part by exploring its inherent formal components of color, line and proportion and in part by refusing to accept the narrowness of modernism. This refusal, quietly intractable, constantly moving, looking and learning, is his legacy.