Am I hung over? I feel achy. I was all prepared to write something about Brice Marden today but, my God, that task seems pretty arduous given how I feel—I feel achy. I don’t feel like writing about Brice Marden.
I went out to a bar last night with Dyna Moe and Julie Klausner and two of Julie’s friends, one of whom had a cool haircut and was wearing a Russian Constructivist-style dress. Good going, with that dress! The bar was serving free vodka. So I drank a lot of free vodka tonics. Is that what bars do nowadays—just serve people free vodka?
The Brice Marden show at MoMA is certainly worth a look. I saw it about two weeks ago with Kaveri, so my memory of it has dimmed a bit. And somehow, Kaveri and I forgot to see the drawing part of the show so I can only comment on the paintings. They are good.
It’s like coming face to face with some Protestant view of the almighty—massive, austere, humane. The exhibition begins with a bunch of his early monochrome paintings. I remember them being mostly green and grey and beautiful. Beautiful because the color is so subtle—greens…greys…like being in the English countryside on a damp day—and because they have a waxy surface. He mixes beeswax into his paints. How does he do it? I think he dilutes the beeswax in turpentine and then mixes that into oil paint, but I’m not sure. He lays it on with a spatula. There’s a tiny strip of primed canvas with waxy drips at the bottom. If he were my age, he would just go out and buy some Gamblin Wax Medium and mix that in, but he’s too old-school for that. I could see how most people would be bored silly by these monochrome paintings and, eventually, I was one of those people.
In the next rooms there are some more monochrome paintings, but this time they’re made from canvases of differing colors, placed side-by-side or stacked. From a distance they look like flags—flags from a very sensitive country, a country whose flag designers decided to differentiate the left band of yellow ever-so-slightly from the one on the right. The larger ones look like the best Amish quilts you ever saw. You’ll see a painting made up of seven canvases stacked together with three slightly different reds plus a dark grey and light grayish-blue. “Very stately,” you’ll say to yourself. Like all his paintings, the surface has this soft waxyness to it that makes you feel like the paintings are your friends.
Then, all of a sudden, the monochromes are replaced by many large-scale gestural works—lots of beautifully-colored squiggles on a light-colored ground—like Jackson Pollock, distilled through the ersatz-Scientific Method of Minimalism. They’re very majestic and grand, the type of painting that would make a humanist like Lucio Fontana blush. If America had a tradition of making religious paintings, they would look like this. Actually, America does have a tradition of making religious paintings and they do look like this—Pollock, Ad Reinhart, Rothko—Marden basically falls into that tradition. A real minimalist would probably not like these paintings because they don’t adhere to a “what you see is what you see” philosophy—to appreciate them requires a leap of faith that what you’re seeing is not merely a bunch of squiggles on a surface. Painting is like that—it creates a world beyond the literal. This is annoying to some people.
The final paintings in the show are also of squiggles, but a different sort of squiggle—not gestural but carefully-painted and wider, like the train paths of some crazy subway map. The lines take very eratic paths but almost never go off the canvas, they skirt along the edge for a while and dive in to the center of the painting. I really love these final paintings; they’re my favorite paintings in the show.
These weren’t in the show.