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Artist Marden’s Abstract Paintings Evolve over 50 Years

January 8, 2007 at 5:40 PM EST
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BRICE MARDEN, Artist: It should be moving. I mean, it should look as though you can follow the movement through.

JEFFREY BROWN: The abstract paintings of Brice Marden are actually about many things: color, the light that comes streaming through the windows of his studio, shapes and landscapes he’s seen, ideas and people in his life, the material nature of paint itself.

BRICE MARDEN: As the paint builds up, the paint becomes much more important, in the way the line starts moving in space.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marden, who is 68, has been at this since the 1960s and achieved great success. Now his work is the subject of a major traveling retrospective of paintings and drawings that began at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

There, one can chart the evolution so far of an artist dubbed by the New Yorker magazine as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades.

What experience does he want us to have in looking at his work?

BRICE MARDEN: A complicated visual experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: A complicated visual experience?

BRICE MARDEN: You’re forced to look at things and think about things and the way they look in a much more complicated way. I mean, this stuff is called fine art, you know, because the fine artist is supposed to really be thinking very intensely about a depth of visual experience.

Growing up in the New York suburbs

JEFFREY BROWN: Even so, it all started for Marden as what he calls a lifestyle choice. The kid from the New York suburbs wanted to be a bohemian.

BRICE MARDEN: I would cut school, come into the city, go to the museum, go to some -- I would usually go to the museum, and then I would go to a Bridgette Bardot movie. And that was my art experience for the -- then I had to avoid getting on the same train as my father. I didn't want to bump into him and have him know I was doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: But with the path chosen, Marden dedicated himself, studying at Boston University and then Yale.

BRICE MARDEN: Yes, you learn to draw. You learn to paint from figure. You went to the museum a lot. And as you're doing it, you're developing ideas. You know, you're beginning to focus, you know, focusing in on what really interests you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marden's early canvasses fit into the minimalist movement of the 1960s, when artists were pairing things down to essentials: single color panels with many layers of paint put on, scraped down, the canvas worked over to create subtle effects of light, the panels and colors put together in different ways.

BRICE MARDEN: You as the artist are in dialogue with the work, and you do things to it, and then things you do to it, it forces you to do other things. So it's like you're doing things, it's doing things. And, you know, I really like that.

There are ideas, say, just about light or landscape feelings. I mean, there's a whole series -- I did a series based on olive groves. And I spent a lot of time looking at olive groves, making little studies, you know, color studies.

JEFFREY BROWN: So there is an idea of light, landscape, shape. You start with that. And then it becomes this kind of dialogue that you're talking about.

BRICE MARDEN: Yes, I mean, basically you just want a painting. And a painting is just something that's there on the wall that someone can respond to.

And they don't have to know about olive groves. They don't have to know about my feelings about olive groves or what poetry I'm reading or this or that. I mean, it's enough for them -- you hope that there's enough for them to respond to.

Influence of Chinese calligraphy

JEFFREY BROWN: In the 1980s, Marden's work took a dramatic turn after he saw and began to study Chinese calligraphy. His "Cold Mountain" series is named after the 9th-century Chinese poet Han Shan.

BRICE MARDEN: I've always liked to draw, and I wanted to get more drawing in my painting. And then, by looking at the calligraphy, I picked up on certain forms.

JEFFREY BROWN: "The Muses" was painted on the Greek island of Hydra, where Marden has worked since the '70s. A student of Greek myth and art, he began with the figures of the nine muses.

BRICE MARDEN: Well, it's an interesting idea for a painting. You know, why not try making figures, you know, starting with the same form and then -- and so I based it on the muses, because I'm involved with the muses. I mean, the muses are the arts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soon these calligraphic paintings also became more colorful and more layered. Marden showed me "The Sisters," based on his two daughters, Mirabelle and Melia.

BRICE MARDEN: This is Mirabelle, which is the Mirabelle plum color.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mirabelle is plumb...

BRICE MARDEN: Well, she -- you know, the Mirabelle plums, they're like very delicate, apricot color. And so this is Mirabelle. And this is Melia, who, you know, tends to be more serious, so she got the darker color. But it's just the two of them, sort of how they go together and interrelate. And it's also very dancey, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it the playfulness of young girls?

BRICE MARDEN: Yes, yes, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you painted from this distance?

BRICE MARDEN: Yes, I use long brushes, and I'm about this distance. So I get a better view of what I'm doing. And, you know, I put it on with the brush, and then I go in and scrape the excess paint off with the knife.

And I'm sort of redrawing when I'm in here. So I'm close, and then I go far away. And then I go back. And then when I stop and look at it, I go much further away, so it's like a kind of dance.

Every time a human gets involved looking at something, that's when the energy starts flowing. And it's a very, very -- just think of it as something very beautiful, you know? And so many things are going on in the world that are so absolutely horrible, why not have something beautiful happening?

The next step?

JEFFREY BROWN: One thing Brice Marden cannot say is exactly what he'll do next. He completed the two huge and hugely beautiful canvasses in the exhibition's final rooms just days before the opening. The retrospective marks a kind of break or turning point; now, it's back to the studio.

You've been working through a period here where people wonder, "Why painting?" Why paint in the 21st century?

BRICE MARDEN: Well, because there's no reason not to, you know? I mean, there are all sorts of new forms. We have technology, and technology isn't going to go away, you know? And this is pretty old-fashioned. I mean, this is colored dirt on a surface.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, they were doing this in caves.

BRICE MARDEN: Yes, this is basically the same thing we were doing, you know, 30,000 years ago. So I like that. I like being involved with that tradition, you know?

But then again, at the same time, can you make people see things? Can you reveal things to people in a contemporary sense?

I like that human, real human aspect. And I don't want any machine between my trying to express myself and what gets out there. This is my hands right there, and my hand is part of me physically, and me physically is part of me thinking. And it's like a direct human experience.

And I make it that way, and that's the way I hope it gets seen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brice Marden, thanks for talking to us.