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In His Final Works, Brice Marden Found Freedom

By admin Dec4,2023

Dated between 2020 and 2023, the artworks in Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian are the artist’s final ones. In 2017, Marden, who died this August at the age of 84, learned that he had rectal cancer. When asked about this, he told the New York Times in 2019, “[it] hasn’t made me work any differently. It’s just an extra thing to think about.” Marden, who has often been credited with rejuvenating painting in the mid-1960s, knew that painting and drawing were physical acts for him, the result of movements made by the hand, wrist, arm, and active body. More than 30 years ago, in a prescient interview with the artist Pat Steir printed in a brochure for the 1991–1992 exhibition Brice Marden: Cold Mountain at Dia Chelsea, Marden stated: “I am 5’8 1/2″, and I weigh this much, and I am left handed, and I’m a certain age. That has a big effect on what a thing looks like. The kind of mark I can make physically.”

And in a 2015 conversation about the Nevis Stele series (2007–15), Marden told the artist Matt Connors, “I’m getting to the point where I do things I ordinarily wouldn’t have allowed myself to do. Now I’m a little bit older, so I figure I can do anything I want.”

I thought about these statements, and the sense of freedom Marden seems to have felt in the last years of his life while standing in a gallery surrounded by six paintings, all measuring 72 by 96 inches and dated 2022 to 2023. I reviewed his two most recent New York exhibitions at Gagosian, and starting in 2017, a change clearly began to take place in his work. That year, he completed 10 vertical paintings measuring 96 by 72 inches, each using a different brand of terre verte (green earth) and divided into a square atop a horizontal band. 

Installation view of Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian, New York

In these works, Marden let go of his desire for control and perfection without surrendering his self-imposed restraints, such as a grid. Merging an acute sense of color, geometry, and line with the support, these restraints enabled him to be expressive without becoming expressionistic. Instead of altering his process when he recognized that time was no longer as ample it had been, he continued to paint large, acknowledging that the form his attention would take had changed.

The thinly painted, gauzy pink “Lingerie” (2022–23) is an outlier in both this exhibition and Marden’s oeuvre. A sensualist in color and fleshy surfaces, he had never saturated the picture plane in pink before, nor had he used such an explicitly erotic title. Completed near the end of his life, he let himself enter new territory. The pink surface, which recalls stain painting, is denser in some areas than others, while the gray, muted red, and blue lines vary in thickness and dangle, drip, and fade, stirring up associations that Marden — to his credit — never tried to pin down. The surface feels less painted than caressed. By his earlier standards, “Lingerie” might seem unfinished or incomplete, but that incompleteness imparts a tenderness and vulnerability to the painting. This is one of the work’s strengths. The aging body and erotic memories are integral to it.

The paintings “Dance” and “Chalk” (2013–21), the latter of which was shown in the 2021 exhibition, are in dialogue. “Chalk,” which shares something with the Terre Verte series, is split into a six-by-six-foot square and a two-by-six foot band beneath it. Using a pencil, Marden divided the square into a grid of 225 tiny squares and within each he painted an irregular shape in a whitish outline against a red sandstone ground. Over this, he drew a few linear configurations in Chinese red and ghostly white. The band below is painted a green-infused mustard yellow — obliquely complimentary colors. The band stirs up associations with Chinese scroll painting, in which the scroll is mounted on yellow silk. The painting is a palimpsest in which each layer and mark remains relatively intact, yet the red drips running down the yellow ground convey impermanence and change. 

Installation view of Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian, New York. Center: “Dance” (2022–23)

In “Dance,” Marden drew vertical rows of glyph-like shapes in charcoal. The addition of thin washes of mustard yellow dissolved some of the shapes, particularly in the painting’s lower right hand side. Whereas, in “Chalk,” Marden isolated the drips (or signs of disintegration) from the upper part of the painting, he does something different and more radical in “Dance.” The partial obliteration of the charcoal glyphs suggests time’s effacing power. Over this compression of dark line and yellow washes, the artist drew vertical configurations of open shapes and dangling lines in Chinese red a few rows in from the painting’s left edge. The density of the line changes and none of them are solidly colored. What we see is a surface full of marks that are dissolving, disintegrating, and fading.

In the gallery containing the drawings and a horizontal painting divided into seven separate colors, I was particularly drawn to a group of four drawings, each done in a single color (green, blue, yellow, and violet). In these works, Marden literally marked and shaped his passage through time in the drawings’ 17 vertical rows of glyph-like shapes. At no point does he repeat himself or come across as mechanical. He was concentrating on the here and now, even as time was pulling him forward. Realizing that he could do anything he wanted, Marden chose to stay true to — as he titled one painting — the “marrow” of who he was, a man whose body was spiraling out of control.

Installation view of Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian, New York
Installation view of Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian, New York. Left: “Lingerie” (2022–23); right: “Blue Painting” (2022–23)
Installation view of Brice Marden: Let the painting make you at Gagosian, New York

Brice Marden: Let the painting make you continues at Gagosian (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 22. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

By admin

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