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Apr 23, 2009

As two major shows examine his work, American master painter Brice Marden reflects on what made him an artist.

By David A. Ross

“Can you imagine being in the same room as all this?”

Brice Marden, 70, who is regarded as one of the most important and original abstract painters of the past 40 years, just walked into a large gallery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that is filled with masterpieces by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso—and Marden.
It is the fantasy of any serious modern artist. He sees his work, Red Rocks (I), from 2002 and shakes his head. “I never would I have thought I would have a painting hanging in the same room as Cézanne. Just totally improbable. I’m surprised—I’m not embarrassed, which I would think would be my reaction.”
He has had several opportunities for such embarrassment in his career, especially of late. Last year saw a major touring retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and this year he was simultaneously central to two quite important yet distinctly different exhibitions. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Marden plays a central role in Cézanne and Beyond, the blockbuster exhibition looking at the impact that Cézanne had on a century of modern painting. At the same time, his work is a linchpin of The Third Mind at the Guggenheim Museum’s landmark show that traces the influence of Asian art and thought on American art.
Seeing these two exhibitions through Marden’s eyes, and spending time with him in his West Village studio in New York City discussing his work process provides a very special opportunity to consider the idea of influence, the value of abstract art and what being a painter at the start of the 21st century is all about.
Marden was born in Bronxville, N.Y. in 1938. The son of a bank mortgage servicer whose territory was the Hudson Valley, he grew up with a love of the region which was made famous by American landscape painters in the 19th century.
Though he had his first memorable modern art experience as a seven-year-old—seeing a Brancusi sculpture while visiting MoMA with his father—the urge to become a painter took him by surprise.
Marden took his first art class in high school because he thought it would be a gut course. “My senior year, I took an art class because it took up time, and I thought it would be easy. At one point, I offered to clean the bookshelves, and I opened a book to this.” As he recalls this moment, he gestures toward a great Cézanne landscape, the earliest version of the artist’s Large Bathers. “I just could not understand what this balloon-like figure was doing in this painting. And why this painting was so great. I’m still pondering that question, so it’s something that’s been with me for almost 60 years.”
After graduating from the Yale MFA program in 1963, Marden apprenticed as a studio assistant to the late Robert Rauschenberg—“the most brilliant artist I have ever known.” But unlike Rauschenberg (the protean artist whose legacy is generally linked to that stream of modern art descended from Marcel Duchamp), Marden started as what he calls a “romantic minimalist.” Which is to say, he wanted to pare down the elements in a painting to the bare essentials without losing touch with the human.
In the early 1960s he had early success with a series of mysterious grey paintings (one of them named for a downtown friend, Bob Dylan, in case no one ever learned his name). He began to attract serious attention with what is known as his Grove series, and it is in these paintings that one can see the strong connection to Cézanne’s use of particular greens and blues and the quality of sunlight one finds near the Mediterranean Sea.
In the mid-1980s, he felt as if he had run into a wall. In the kind of crisis known by artists throughout history, he sought some way out—a new way of looking, some new inspiration. Chancing on an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy, he felt an immediate attraction to the way his love of drawing and his commitment to the humanity of his paintings could merge in works inspired by both the form of Chinese ink-brush paintings and by the poetry it conveyed, even in English translation.
His drawings, now made with simple sticks and twigs, first flowed from his study of these elegant ancient works. And soon paintings began to emerge, as Marden worked with twisting lines half-erased by delicate washes of color, then recalled from their traces in new layers, and so on, pentimento on pentimento. This body of work has engaged him for the past 20 years.
Immersion in the world of Asian art led to a reverence for objects that for centuries have been central to the lives of Asian painters, poets and philosophers: the scholar’s rock. These found stones, formed by natural forces, have long served as objects of contemplation for Marden. They also serve as jumping-off points for paintings like Red Rock (I), the painting that now hangs adjacent to Cézanne’s Large Bathers.
Marden keeps a postcard of Cézanne’s Large Bathers lying around his studio—perhaps as a reminder of that pivotal moment in his art school class. “It’s like an indication that you’re involved. Suddenly there’s this question, you know? And you can’t answer it. And I still can’t answer it, but I’m still involved and still trying to figure it out.”

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