|Brice Marden, Sennelier (2016-2017) and Holbein, (2016-2017)|
I can’t remember ever having fallen in love as if for the first time with paintings of an artist whose work I have been looking at for so many years. Everything about the Brice Marden exhibition at Larry Gagosian’s expansive, light drenched new London gallery left me breathless. The paintings are luscious, the space is everything that London architecture is not—open, light, reflective—and the two together make for an exquisite exhibition. I realize that not everyone will find beauty and joy in abstract painting, but I do think visitors to the Grosvenor Hill space will find it mesmerizing.
I have written an entire book on why paintings, even if they claim to be a single color, are never monochrome. Although it’s not an assertion that I make in the book, until yesterday, I was convinced that there was no such thing as monochrome painting. Marden’s new work undoes all expectations about color, about monochrome, about the need for variegation on a surface to ensure that painting makes sense.
The exhibition consists of ten identically sized canvases (244 x 182.9cm), each of which is painted with a terra verde manufactured by a different company. In turn, each painting takes its title from the manufacturer of its particular terra verde. The names and titles themselves already remind us of the long history with which Marden engages: Holbein, Rublev Antica, Vasari Ancienne, Old Holland, and so on. I assume that each canvas is primed in the same white ground, before layer upon layer upon layer of terra verde is applied to create a thick, dense colour field. The surface is then flattened with a palette knife to ensure the removal of the brushstroke. A band of thin color, presumably made by a single layer, fills the bottom of the canvas, creating a transparent, luminescent, field of what looks to the human eye to be an entirely different color. It is in fact the same terra verde as the top of the canvas, in its “authentic” hue. Unlike the upper portion of the paintings, the surface of these lower bands might be evened out by the palette knife, but the density of the paint is not even. Drips from the application of paint in the upper section fall on these translucent areas to create tears.
The number of levels of meaning and affect in these paintings is almost equal to the number of layers of paint applied to thesurface. The first question that I am still wrestling with is whether or not these works are monochromes. Yes, Marden uses the same paint on a single canvas, but the effect of the paint application and its working over creates two different greens on each painting. Immediately, we are pushed to keep questioning what we know about color. Not only is the vast difference between each of the terra verde in the otherwise repeated canvases suggesting that the names we give to color are inadequate—how can all these different colors be the same color?—but the single color made by one manufacturer is not even singular. It doesn't take long before we realize that the words used to designate color can never be equal to the nuances of that color when it is applied to the canvas. Similarly, language can never really approach what an artist like Marden does with color.
Marden also intervenes in a narrative on the history of art, a narrative that reaches well beyond Holbein. I remember seeing the terra verde works of Paolo Uccello in the cloisters at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. In the renaissance, artists typically used the iron silicate/clay pigment of terra verde as the base to balance flesh tones. But for Uccello, terra verde was elevated to the entirety of the painting as a way to emphasize the pomp and circumstance of parades on horseback. Vasari claims Uccello uses green to transform painting into the illusion of sculpture, but I am not convinced. For me, the cloister horses are infused with movement through the use of the green pigment. And movement lies at one end of the spectrum of Marden's paintings’ connection to art history. That is, they push paint to do something beyond itself: to represent movement. At the other end, surrounded by the paintings in the vast open space of the Grosvenor Hill gallery, they are unmistakeably landscapes. The green and the innate transparency of the terra verde encourage our minds to wander and conceive of them as deeply connected to the most traditional of genres: landscapes. And yet, they are also inverted. The “sky” is at the bottom, and the dense green fields fill the top of the images.
|Brice Marden, Installation View, Gagosian Gallery|
Some of the top sections are worked up and over so much that the surface has become a mirror in which we get to see ourselves looking. This is a familiar Marden strategy that I always think of as a pushing the spectator away to ensure she doesn’t get too close. This is the coldness that encouraged Marden to soften his painted surfaces in the 1980s. But unlike the earlier works, the ten terra verde are also inviting: the bands at the bottom are open, light and filled with an air that we cannot resist. Thus, first is the repetition of terra verde from one painting to the next, a repetition we find is filled with differences. And second, is a repetition within Marden’s oeuvre, a repetition that is, nevertheless, also developed and complicated by difference.
Brice Marden's Studio, Tivoli, NY, June 2017. Photo by Eric Piasecki
In another, more pressing layer of representation, the removal of the trace of the artist through the use of a palette knife transforms the surfaces into one that has the look of the industrially produced. And so, as if it is not enough for these breathtaking works to examine the substance of painting as well as its history, they converse with reproduction in addition to repetition within the world. The endless game of these doubling mechanisms, where one meaning is immediately withdrawn by its opposite, make me want to be with modernist abstract painting always. And when this is done in the vibrant, everchanging greens of Marden’s multiple terra verde, abstract painting is irresistible.