The surface of Brice Marden’s Blue Horizontal displays the full range of the artist calligraphic painterly style, resplendent with series of angular and curved, white and black, dense and transparent painterly trails that are dripped and brushed—sharp-edged and blurred –across the canvas. Marden’s authorial gesture is in evidence everywhere—in the scumbling, daubing, and scraping of paint that has brought Blue Horizontal to life. Taking its cue from the azure sky reflected in the expanse the Mediterranean sea surrounding the island of Hydra where Marden and his family have lived off and on for a number of years, Blue Horizontal nests a series of open triangular forms linked by a network of thick lines woven in circuits that overflow and interpenetrate forming a quartet of vertically doubled glyphs writ large disposed in a grid frame. Several campaigns into the surface result in a palimpsest of drawing in paint comprised both of ghostly and fully realized signs that coexist on the surface plane.
Marden’s word for his painted forms is “glyph,” which, aligned as they are along a gridded frame, suggests systematic writing. Marden had been justly celebrated for the post and lintel works based on classical Greek architecture during the 1970s, works that featured rectangular shaped carved into luscious encaustic surfaces. By the 1980s, Marden, as he stated, was trying to find way to foreground drawing in his paintings. “I wanted to get more drawing into the paintings, trying to work it in, it just wasn’t happening. I was making these very vertical brush strokes or strokes with a knife and there were variations with stuff like that, but you couldn’t see it. You had to get down on the floor and look up and see it in drastic lighting situations…. And I just like went into crisis, and I just had to figure another way, so I basically took a year and just worked out this other way of painting” (B. Marden, “On Asian Art,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, video, 2009).
What catalyzed Marden’s breakthrough into his justly celebrated calligraphic style was the exhibition Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th – 19th Century exhibition at the New York’s Asia Society Galleries and Japan House Gallery. And it is from the schematization of Chinese characters that Marden’s symbolic writing arises. They seemed the perfect mirroring of his own desire to conflate drawing with the purity of the fully realized planar surface, and this experience along with travels to Thailand and Japan, catalyzed Marden’s structuring of a new formal vocabulary derived from these Asian pictographs. A 1983 publication by Red Pine of Han Shan’s poetry produced a side-by-side translation of the original with the English version. He recognized the pure geometries inhering in the visual formal structures of this calligraphic language. The vertical columnar disposition of characters and the coupling, right to left, of eight characters into pairs of five vertical characters each, inspired Marden’s own creation of couplets. These couplets – at first conical-shaped “glyphs” arrayed horizontally and vertically that Marden worked through in a series of drawings from 1986 and then in the painting Mimesis, 1985-1986.
Earlier in the century, other abstract artists had worked with pictorial representations of language – pictographs. David Smith and Adolph Gottlieb are two who created indecipherable symbols or alphabets on stacked rows – grids – in seminal work from the mid-1950s, which simulated writing, much as Marden achieves with his abstracted Asian characters. Smith and Gottliebs circular network of symbolic “writing,” become with Marden conical in form, “open[ing] fanlinke, or fold[ing] into soft tent or box shapes. Like cocoons, they emerge in curves and curls, loops and coils, lie twitting into edge” (B. Richardson, “Even a Stone Knows You,” in Brice Marden Plane Image, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2007, pp. 87-88). Marden’s glyphs schematize the hand-written spiritual poetry of the 9th-century, T’ien-t’ai mountain-dwelling Buddhist monk, Han Shan (Cold Mountain) to whom Marden would dedicate his extraordinary cycle of paintings, drawings, and etchings entitled Cold Mountain.
The metamorphosis of Marden’s magisterial canvas Blue Horizontal begins on a more modest scale and in a medium seemingly far removed from the blazing radiance of blue pigment on linen against which free figuration stands in relief. The inception of this vivid expression of Marden’s calligraphic style occurs between 1981-1983, when the artist began to paint on fragments of marble left over from a garden bench being constructed on his property on Hydra. The shapes of the shards – irregular triangles – and the bisecting angles Marden would trace through them mimic the imagistic calligraphic forms that would consume the artist only two years later. Blue Horizontal marks the culmination of the artist’s trajectory from pure planes to a conflation of drawing and paintings, much as the stratification of veining evident in the marbles are fused with their surfaces.
A fluid admixture of what the curator Brenda Richardson avers as Marden’s “grace and authority,” Blue Horizontal evokes the choreography of crisscrossing, looped and layered lines that document the artist’s consecutive “hits,” or what Marden describes using Jackson Pollock’s phrase, “going into” the canvas. The lines, some dark, some light, trace the artist’s intuitive physical response to form, as if Marden used not only his hand, but also his arm and shoulder, indeed, deployed his entire body in a fully realized series of intuitive kinetic gestures. The litheness in the artist’s movements as he speaks about the line’s trajectory is the genesis of those arcing and coursing lines – nearly as if a visual trace of the artist’s bodily movements inhering in the surface. The process is complex, involving the initial mark making, followed by erasing, redrawing, and whiting out or retracing his lines with gouache or pigment. Such pentimenti (visible “corrections”) are a defining element in the final form Blue Horizontal takes, becoming a vivid artifact of the artist’s authorial hand, of his presence in sheer poetic form.
Brice Marden (b. 1938)
Oil on linen
PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED NEW YORK COLLECTION
Signed, titled and dated 'BLUE HORIZONTAL 1986-87 B. Marden' (on the reverse)
Brice Marden , 1980s, Paintings, United States of America, Post War
New York, Mary Boone/Michael Werner Gallery, Brice Marden: New Paintings, 1987, no. 6 (earlier state illustrated).
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
84 x 120 in. (213.3 x 304.8 cm.)
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York
Private collection, Sydney
Richard Gray Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
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