Artist's mid-life desire for change and expression is reflected in retrospective


October 25, 1992|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Brice Marden, who turned 54 earlier this month, had his mid-life crisis right on schedule.

It was the mid-1980s, the art market was booming, and he had become well known for his austere abstract paintings that some critics called minimalist (a pigeonholing he resists). He had become so well known, in fact, that dealer Mary Boone had lured him to her gallery with a $1 million advance for work not yet created. So what could be wrong?

Based on some statements he has made about the period, he was growing bored with the kind of art he was making. "I got to a point where I could go on making 'Brice Marden paintings' and suffer that silent creative death," he said in retrospect.

Now he puts it a little differently. "I didn't feel I was bored [with the earlier work]." But, "I wanted more complexity."

So he dropped out, took up the study of Oriental calligraphy and Eastern religions, and changed his art.

What emerged at the end of the 1980s looks quite different from the earlier Brice Marden. Single-color rectangles and grids of intersecting straight lines were replaced by skeins or webs of lines that loop complicatedly up and down and across the surface, looking vaguely as if they might be the intersecting patterns of slow dancers across a floor. And Marden himself uses musical terms in comparing the earlier with the more recent work. "The earlier works were like chords, and these are more symphonic," he says.

Beginning today, visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Art will have a chance to see both pre- and post-crisis work in "Brice Marden: Prints 1961-1991," a full-scale retrospective of the artist's prints that debuted at London's Tate Gallery earlier this year and then traveled to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris before coming to this, its only American venue. Those who look well will no doubt see both differences and similarities between the earlier and the more recent work, both of which are instructive in getting to know what this artist is all about.

Early vs. recent works

The differences are certainly more immediately obvious. Where the earlier work has a tighter, more controlled look to it, the later seems looser and freer. Where the earlier work is more geometric, the later is more organic. Where the earlier hints of the hand here and there, the later is more openly gestural. Where the earlier is visually both simpler and more reserved, the later is more complex and looks more open and revealing of the artist behind it. Above all, perhaps, where the earlier work looks more in the minimalist vein of the 1960s and 1970s, the later looks much closer to the abstract expressionists of the 1950s, especially Jackson Pollock.

That is no coincidence. Marden calls Pollock "the greatest painter that America has produced," and says that in his recent work he is not trying to look like Pollock but to express himself in a way similar to Pollock's:

"Pollock was really expressing himself very directly, and I would like to be able to very directly express myself. . . .

"If you read Pollock quotes and compare them with quotes by Chinese painters, where Pollock says 'I am nature,' that's close to what a 14th-century Chinese painter would say, [whereas] Edward Hopper would say 'I'm painting nature.' "

The Eastern influence

The comparison with Eastern art is apt, for Marden's recent works are strongly influenced by Eastern art and ideas. Specifically, recent paintings and prints called the "Cold Mountain Series" are named after a Chinese poet of the Tang dynasty, and their visual structure is based on the structure of his poems. And that is exactly where we cross the line between talking about the differences between Marden's earlier and later work and the similarities.

For the structure of the Cold Mountain paintings is essentially the same as that of Marden's earlier grid works. Conforming to the poems, they consist of "characters" arranged vertically into lines (five characters to a line), and then the lines are formed into four "couplets" that proceed horizontally across the picture plane. So you have essentially a surface divided both horizontally and vertically -- a grid, if a loose, somewhat disguised one.

Then, too, Marden has always been concerned with space. "Taking the earlier paintings as a statement of ideas about space, [the recent work] tends to explore similar ideas about space." It's not like space in a traditional picture, but rather what he calls "non-perspectival" and "non-pictorial" space, "not guided towards a single point and more an idea about space as what we're in."

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