Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Meaning of Brice Marden

Brice Marden: Study for Muses, Hydra, 1997

I envision a moment--perhaps two hundred years from now--
when people, not institutions, get to decide what hangs on museum walls.

Brice Marden was floating around the Internet earlier today. I found a New Yorker article on Reddit Art, which I tweeted. And then a friend, in response, sent me the Charlie Rose interview with Brice Marden.

Who is Brice Marden?

He is an abstract expressionist painter who gained worldwide attention in 2006 because of the Brice Marden Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (New York).

The show traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in early 2007, and then to Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart . . .

The MoMA called the exhibition "an unprecedented gathering of [Marden's] work, with more than fifty paintings and an equal number of drawings, organized chronologically, drawn from all phases of the artist's career." (Wikipedia)

Brice Marden: Bear Print, 1997-98/2000

Sometimes I use Twitter to get a sampling of public opinion on a prominent artist or intellectual figure. Last week it was the Lacanian-Marxist political philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. This week it is Brice Marden.

I'm interested in what people think. I tweeted the New Yorker article to see what people think of Marden's work, and the merits of the article itself.

We already know what the Museum of Modern Art thinks of Brice Marden.

If for some reason the show does not make that clear to us, we can always read the 330 page hardcover book (published by the Museum of Modern Art) about Marden's importance to the art world, "Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective."

At the time of this publication and retrospective, Charlie Rose also thought Brice Marden was important. So he interviewed him.

And surely, forty years of painting must mean something!

A detail from "The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version," 2000-2006

So what did people say on Twitter when I asked if they liked Brice Marden's paintings?

@TDeregowski love it, saw a big show at the whitechapel.

@LT78 brice bardon = snooze. sorry. (This comment was erased, probably b/c the author realized she spelled his name wrong)

@twicklicious Brice Marden, excellent marketeer, not so much "artist" though.. (personal opinion)

@ownnothing I've never liked Brice Marden's work. Flat, lifeless, doodles, color studies. Are these paintings for the ages?

Now let's look at what the New Yorker had to say in 2006:
Marden’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art confirms him, at the age of sixty-eight, as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades.

The surface eludes them. Sombre color seems at once to engulf you, with a sort of oceanic tenderness, and infinitely to recede. This effect distills that of the furry-edged, drifting masses of ineffable color with which Rothko aimed, he said, to evoke a mood of “the single human figure, alone in a moment of utter immobility.”

His grays and grayed greens and blues recall the ungraspable nuances of Velázquez and, at times, the simmering ardors of Caspar David Friedrich. (Am I dropping too many names? There’s no helping it. Marden, an artist bred in museums, communes rather directly with all past painters whose temperaments correspond to his own.)

Regardless of the merit of these aesthetic judgments, never has a writer been so accurately self-conscious of his own journalism.

The Peter Schjeldahl article in the New Yorker drips with what the anonymous commenter (from my recent essay Art, Taste, Money) detested as art-speak, intellectual art babble, hyperbole, and so on . . .

We can almost picture the anonymous commenter, after reading the New Yorker, lifting up Peter Schjeldal by his shirt collar and shouting, "Just tell me what you think of the goddamn painting!"

The interview with Charlie Rose is also revealing.

Marden: There is a real responsibility of being an artist. I mean you’re not just doing this stuff to make pretty things for people to hang on their wall.

You know, there is some meaning to it. You are living in the culture and you are reflecting on the culture.

I mean they’re going to know more about this stuff in three hundred—I mean, this stuff is made to last . . . You look at Venetian painting and you have some idea about what’s going on—you don’t have to read about all the battles--

CR: Art is the permanence of a civilization.

Marden: Yeah, well, it’s a reflection of a culture.

Brice Marden: Cold Mountain 6 (Bridge), 1989-91

Terence Clarke, a blog critic, finds the trumpeting of Marden's work absurd. As for the meaning that everyone seems to be talking about, he writes:
In the case of Marden's work, Stella's dictum (what you see is what you see) is an accurate assessment. You theorize about its deeper meanings at the risk of describing the emperor's new clothes. There is little here of the great intentions that I've read about in descriptions, by many critics, of Marden's art. They may think such intentions are there. Maybe even Marden thinks they are. But they aren't.
Clarke also has something to say about feeling.
Metaphor is what makes good art so riveting. It opens the soul to variegated depths, to an acknowledgment of emotions. To conflict. To soul-saving resolution. It stirs the heart's blood, surely one of the classic purposes of all art.
And of these particular elements--emotions, conflict--he finds a definite dearth in Marden.

Brice Marden: For Pearl, 1970

In another segment of the Charlie Rose interview:

Marden: I think there’s a lot of painters around doing it (abstract expressionism) . . .

CR: There’s a line that goes through Pollock and you and . . .

Marden: Yeah, but I don’t know who they are. I mean, I sort of know some of them. I mean, it’s still going but . . . it seems to me the big thing going on now is like non-abstract expressionism—

CR: It is?

Marden: Well, it has much more to do with the kind of literary, storytelling . . . as I said, it’s more literary, it tells little stories. Not little stories, but there’s a narrative, there’s a lot of narrative stuff going on . . .

CR: Does it influence you?

Marden: Ehhhh, maybe, I don’t know . . . I mean these things, these long paintings are sort of a narrative, but no, I don’t want to tell stories in my paintings. If I tell the story, I’d rather it be a symphony rather than like a book.

CR: With movements . . .

Marden: So you respond to it viscerally, rather than intellectually . . . You can look at it, you’re figuring it out, but at the same time, if you’re beginning to have some sort of jump in your stomach, then I think you’re sort of getting it.

I did in fact have a "jump in my stomach" tonight, but it was not looking at Marden's oeuvre, nor any individual painting.

The "jump" came from all of the voices around me, responding to Marden's work. All of the voices that contributed to this meaning of Brice Marden.

I'm interested in what people have to say. Not institutions. Not the MoMA. Not the New Yorker.

Meaning takes care of itself. The artist need not worry about meaning. If the art has integrity, originality, and yes, beauty, it will provoke meaning.


Kate Sherrod said...

I had never heard of Brice Marden before I saw him on Charlie Rose, to be honest.

The Propitious Garden... series is, though, what I had in mind when I said I rather like him. It's the color here that I enjoy, across the series, and its hints of what another friend of mine loves to obsess over -- asemic writing (which, to my decidedly non "street" eyes, a lot of graffiti writing also approaches). I do not find the work challenging or "elusive" or "tender" but rather loopy and strangely restful.

Which is probably the very antithesis of what Marden has gone for.

But as you said, art finds its own meaning. I like abstract work for its ability to take what I project onto it and change it in strange new ways over time. I've friends' student paintings that I've had for close to 20 years that still hold surprises for me, changing with where and how I hang them, what I put near them, and what I bring to each viewing.

Guys like Brice Marden probably have that same kind of "meaning" for the culture at large: a sponge, a mirror, a receptacle -- but not, in any sense, a "commentary" on anything.

anita lobo said...

I like what I see of Brice Marden's work, reacting as I am from a visceral felt level, without reading beyond your article.

I believe art doesn't have to be about 'known' images all the time.

Formlessness can be beautiful - in this case, the colour and movement of lines allow the viewer to create their own meaning.

Takes me back to your earlier post about what is art and why we like some and are indifferent to others.



Joey C said...

I wish I had anything to say that didn't elucidate my position as a layman, but I can't help it: the class-warrior thug in me would like to see this nonsense burn.

The only jump in my stomach comes from the fact that thousands of urban elites and institutions with a sense of self-importance thick as horse glue babble back and forth to each other in a pissing contest about finding the most witty way to explain how absolutely important this artist is to our time.

Of course, being a layman, my opinion's not of any consequence.

Dozens of Mardens will be praised and canonized by the world of high art, and there will never be a shortage of clinched Philistine fists belonging to the unimportant and uneducated masses.

It doesn't happen all the time, but in this instance, I'll stand with the Philistines.

Peter Ciccariello said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

Villa Sevilla said...

I'm a painter and a big fan of abstract expressionism. It's an incredibly difficult world to work in, not least because of all the insensitive judgement out there, but also because of how difficult it can be to make something you are **truely** satisfied with and not just another case of the "phony far-outs". Let's look again at Brice's own words:

"So you respond to it viscerally, rather than intellectually . . . You can look at it, you’re figuring it out, but at the same time, if you’re beginning to have some sort of jump in your stomach, then I think you’re sort of getting it."

It's subjective like any human relationship. Like "Hot or Not", the chemistry is there, or it isn't. You respond or you don't. Searching for meaning isn't the point, because "there's no there there", if you get my reference.

But one thing most all artists can agree on, it's a brave act to create these large scale explorations and put them up for the public judgement. Now I agree with your disgust at the high minded artspeak, but I do see the value in his work.

When I was 19 I spent a year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There was an Anselm Kiefer retrospective that year, and I just didn't get it. At that point I had been making and studying art for about 5 years, so I thought I knew a thing or two, but I thought that guy was a full-on load of crap. Many of your same arguements RE: Brice M floated through my head then RE: Anselm K.

A couple of years ago I had another opportunity to see a Kiefer retrospective in San Francisco. I cried. He broke my heart. I spent hours soaking it all in, and went back to my studio humbled and inspired. I have a lump in my throat just thinking about it now.

But the thing that affected me most was the comparison of my own two different experiences. Twenty years ago my sassy punk ass wrote him off as an art poseur. Now, as a practicing artist for over half my life, I have deep respect for the work.

I truely, honestly hope that after another twenty years of making art, I will discover an appreciation of the exalted contemporary artists of our day such as Matthew Barney and Damien Hirst.

jamie nadalin said...

Marden's pieces are far too simple for me to feel or see anything beyond the scribbled surface. I'm astounded that this man has spent so many years doing such unimpressive work. He isn't even an innovator, it simply follows form with countless abstract expressionist painters that have come before him and whom actually did it better. He certainly does speak of our time though, a time when hype and marketing precede talent and originality.

Mark Kerstetter said...

It's extremely difficult to get a sense of what's going on in paintings like this from a little jpeg.

Also, before jumping in to criticize (as so many like to do with geometric or color field painting) one should pick up a brush and paints and just try it.

The movie "Pollock" made by and starring Ed Harris is instructive - Harris really learned how to paint to play that role, and in his interview with Rose it is apparent that that learning experience opened his eyes to the magnificence of Pollock's painting.

K. Kayin W. said...

The critics know the power of their words will influence viewers many of whom can't decide whether a work is "good" or "not" simply by basing their opinions through their own eyes, the same people who are not going to bother to read through a 300 pages plus catalog of the artist's works.

I have never heard of Brice Marden, either. I have never heard of many of these abstract expressionist artists.

I came across a book on Mary Heilmann, titled "Save The Last Dance For Me" I was intrigued by a book that discussed in context this single work of hers.

What I'm getting at is that the artists normally are not involved in the various discussions about their own works and their importance.

When you keep that in mind, you will find you can let go of any preconceptions of that particular work or body of work because so and so thinks this artist is the best thing since slice cheese, and just appreciate (or disprove, or whatever you please) the art itself from whatever impulses that it came from. It is a major plus if this interest sparks your curiosity to investigate and find out more about the particular artist to give a context to what you have seen, and decide for yourself whether that work has any importance TO YOU.

Cheers, Kayin.

ChaSchva said...

While I would never say I dislike Brice Marden's work, the fact that MoMA is having such a field day with him is pretty much unfathomable. However, practically everyone in the art world has perpetual hard-ons for the abstract expressionists, so I can't say I'm surprised. My personal favourite is Rothko, who never even considered himself an "abstract expressionist".

Also, I could rave all day about artists I'm sure many people dislike (Rothko being among them, I'm sure). But I'm going to have to disagree with Schjeldahl's assessment that "Sombre color seems at once to engulf you, with a sort of oceanic tenderness..." This is an exemplary demonstration of the role of the critic in achieving contemporary art clout. I don't see "oceanic tenderness". That is maybe something I would say about Rothko. Maybe. I mean, one of Marden's series is coloured like the spectrum for Christ's sake. How blasé.

And careful with the "O" word (originality). I uphold the integrity and beauty parts. I would certainly tack meaning on there as well, being from a conceptual vein (however for something as nonobjective as Marden, perhaps not). Originality, though... that is a touchy subject on which any die-hard postmodernist would assault you at the drop of a dime. I'd say the topic is at least ambiguous, and I have mixed feelings, but I could argue if I felt the need, but I see where you are coming from, so I do not.



K. Kayin W. said...

Oh, and may I say "For Pearl" reminded me exactly of the makeup color in my compact?

Lethe said...

Thank you everyone for your comments:

Here is my extended response to everyone . . . I had to put it in another post it was so long!

My response

darinwilson said...

Fascinating post, and equally fascinating comments. The dispartity between what the institutions choose and what "the masses" choose is a weighty issue, especially in this era of "the wisdom of crowds".

Should "people rather than institutions" choose what hangs on the walls? There are compelling arguments either way, but it's rather extraordinary that we live in a time where the latter is actually conceivable.

Nelson Levine said...

I was a student at the School of Visual Arts in 1973 where I had the then relatively unknown artist Brice Marden for my instructor in a painting class. I got to know him and watched his meteoric rise in the art world. At that time I was very bewildered by his success, as the paintings he was doing then were first, the single colored panels in encaustic and then the two and three colored works. There seemed to be some fanatical Marden worshiping going on that seemed not to be related to the quality of the art itself. I remember something that Dorathea Rockburn, who was also a teacher of mine at SVA, said at that time: "If Marden was'nt doing those painting, I would have to". Huh? Were those one, two and three colored panel paintings really so earth shattering that someone had to do them? I never got it, and though I think the squiggle paintings are miles better then those early encaustic ones, I still have a problem getting how he was "the man who saved painting" as a New York Times article said, published the weekend the MOMA show began.

Lethe said...


Good to hear you say those words.


Antonio said...

I really like these Marden paintings, specially Cold Montain series.
I´ve been wondering about what made like his abstract art. Well, to me it´s real abstract art ´cose I´m not able to recognice anything while watching it, and really catches my eyes. Besides this, there are other significant factors: movement (there is a subtile movement that does not stop), form (the way curves come and go trying to scape the canvas limits but never being able to), infinity (I get lost trying to find the beginning and end of each line), and color (how color lines add movement, and the interesting way in which the cross each other).


Antonio Basso

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