Brice Marden's trajectory as an artist encompasses a dramatic shift in his painterly vocabulary and defies critical concepts about the boundaries between seemingly contradictory schools of painterly expression. Striving toward a reinvention of style and a departure from critically acclaimed work can be a risk but it is a vital one for artists to retain a sense of vitality and discovery in their work. Few contemporary artists have navigated this journey with as much success as Marden. Cold Mountain I (Path) is the culmination of Marden's journey toward this new style of painting and a testament to his exploratory spirit. Titled for Han Shan, known as Cold Mountain, a legendary 8th or 9th century Chinese poet, the Cold Mountain series of six monumental canvases manifest the many threads of innovation leading away from Marden's monochromatic, beeswax paintings of the 1960s and 1970s. The gestural tracery vertically arrayed across Cold Mountain I (Path) is a finely balanced composition with lattice-like organization that hints at the influence of nature and the human figure throughout Marden's artistic enterprise. Yet it stands as a work that also announces the primacy of drawing and the impact of calligraphy, Asian art and poetry in Marden's new paintings that followed.
"Path" is a particularly apt subtitle for the first of the Cold Mountain series that was painted roughly six months prior to the subsequent five, all on the newly expansive canvas size of 9 x 12 feet. Little factual detail is known of Han Shan but his legend is as a recluse who retired to seclusion in the mountain range of T'ien-t'ai, known as a refuge for Taoist and Buddhist pilgrims who sought enlightenment. Han Shan was thought to have lived on Cold Mountain or Cold Cliff and was variously described as an eccentric or a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being in Buddhism). Both Tao (literally translated as `The Way' or `The Path') and Zen Buddhism encompassed Han Shan's poetic vision of returning to the solitude of nature as a metaphor for a human's inner quest, as expressed in Gary Snyder's translation of Han Shan's poetry.
Clambering up the Cold Mountain path,
The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on:
The long gorge choked with scree and boulders,
The wide creek, the mist blurred grass.
The moss is slippery, though there's been no rain
The pine sings, but there's no wind.
Who can leap the world's ties
And sit with me among the white clouds?
Han Shan mentions writing his poems on the rock walls of his mountain home and Asian calligraphy and art had a concrete influence on the Cold Mountain compositions. In 1984 Marden attended the Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th – 19th Century exhibition at the Asia Society in New York. Based originally on objects in nature and life, calligraphy, over the centuries, "went on to gather sophisticated aesthetic and pictographic complexity and refinement, [while] it retained the mesh of the traces of the kinesthetic movements of the hand with the patterns of the forces of nature." (Klaus Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 41) Marden immersed himself in the study of calligraphy which he admired both as a graphic art and for the content it expressed. He was inspired by the way the poetry was aligned on a page, in rectilinear columns that echoed the vertiginous depictions of mountains and waterfalls in Chinese landscape paintings as well. The couplets of the Chinese poetry scrolls mirrored the compositions of Marden's multi-panel paintings of deeply saturated color such as Conturbatio (1978). This evolved into Marden's more architectonic paintings of the early 1980s known as the "post and lintel'' paintings, such as the 8 x 15 foot Thira (1979-80, Collection of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). In the single panel masterpieces to come, the structure of these multi-panels would be internalized and become the organizing armature for the linear forms of Cold Mountain 1 (Path).
Influenced by the lyrical gestures of elegant calligraphic poetry writing, Marden reveled in a return to gestural mark-making, through copious drawings on paper and then in the single panel vertical paintings with dusky colored backgrounds of 1986-87. Measuring 7 x 5 feet, these paintings, such as 4 (Bone), document the emerging network of forms that Marden would term 'glyphs' which were also influenced by the organic forms of volute shells he encountered during visits to a seashell museum in Thailand in 1984, the same year as the Asia Society show. Marden was fascinated by the shapes formed by a process of secretion, evolving in a spiral of gradual growth and additive chambers. Marden combined the curving organic forms of shells with the frontality of calligraphy and vertical monolithic space to explore a method for balancing gesture with planar composition. To accomplish this, he began to paint works such as 4 (Bone) from 1987-88, using a brush mounted on a long wooden stick. The strong angular lines exhibit their calligraphic source and now expand physically into human scale, with the arc of a line requiring both strength and control. Significantly, Marden has long admired Jackson Pollock's genius for 'drawing into painting' which also expanded from the finger and wrist to the arm and shoulder. As Marden commented in regard to the Cold Mountain series, "One of the things I wanted to do in these Cold Mountain paintings was to lose myself in the same way that I lose myself when I am drawing." (Exh. Cat., New York, Dia Center for the Art, Brice Marden, Cold Mountain, 1992, p. 70)
In December 1988, the large scale canvas that would be used for the Cold Mountain paintings was delivered to Marden's studio. The height was the same as paintings such as 4 (Bone) but the width was now equally heroic: previously separate panels had been used in monumental scale, such as in the "post and lintel" works, but now Marden's vertical linear abstractions would be the organizing principle on the large-scale. In the catalogue for the 1991-92 Dia exhibition of the series, which marked the only time the 6 paintings would be exhibited together, Brenda Richardson writes "Marden started the painting that would become Cold Mountain I (Path) by applying black oil paint directly to the white primer of the canvas. He purposefully decided to use only black, wanting to bring to both canvas and large scale something of the spontaneity and fluidity of his drawings in black ink on white paper. Working top to bottom and right to left (as in a Chinese text), Marden drew in black his own idiosyncratic calligraphy: eight lines across, four couplets in subtly linked pairs separated ever so slightly from their neighbor pairs, each composed of a vertical row of five characters or 'glyphs' (as the artist often, more accurately, calls these abstract non-language forms). ...'I was thinking in terms of a calligraphic handscroll, and I wanted the painting to be black on white... The canvas began to show through as I applied the thinned oil and then scraped the surface and made 'erasures' with terpineol, and instead of black, I got gradations of grey.' " (Ibid., p. 56-7)
With Cold Mountain I (Path), the eight columns of elegant glyphs herald the direction of the five paintings to come, as well as Marden's oeuvre onward, where his `glyphs' begin to overlap in complex networks that obscure the discrete couplets and slightly more overt figuration implied in the first. The group of six was immediately highly prized among private collectors and museum curators as a dramatic statement of painterly re-invention. Cold Mountain 2 (1989-91) is in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D. C. and Cold Mountain 6 (Bridge) is in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, while Cold Mountain 5 (Open) is part of the promised gift of the Meyerhoff Collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. In her review of the major 1991-1992 traveling exhibition of the series, organized by Dia Center for the Arts shortly upon completion of the paintings, Roberta Smith wrote, ``The paintings reveal what used to be hidden. The colors – the palest of greens, grays or yellows – recall the moody, withdrawn feelings of Marden's early canvases, except that they now share the stage with the tensile, outgoing networks of line, which explain their genesis to the viewer at every turn.'' (New York Times, October 20, 1991, section H, p. 37 )
In November 1989, more than six months after completing the present work and about the time Marden began the remaining five paintings, he gave an informal talk on Jackson Pollock at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Marden could well have been characterizing his own journey in the creation of the penultimate Cold Mountain 1 (Path) when he commented "To maintain any kind of life as an artist is to make change. Yet for most observers change in an artist's work is the most difficult thing to accept." (Ibid., p. 40) Marden's ability to master both the opaque and the transparent, the monochromatic and the multi-hued, the non-gestural and the gestural attest to his desire for evolution and progression that mark him as an artist of true talent. The recluse Han Shan composed his poems in the high regions of Cold Mountain and wrote "Accepting my fate I fled to the woods, to dwell and gaze in freedom" and "for the key to immortality, within ourselves is the chief of spirits''. Marden's assured linear touch, floating amid a misty ground, perfectly evokes his original inspiration in Cold Mountain 1 (Path).
Oil on canvas
Cologne, Galerie Michael Werner, Brice Marden, May - June 1989, n.p., illustrated
New York, Dia Center for the Arts; Minneapolis, Walker Art Center; Houston, The Menil Collection; Madrid, Museo Nacional Reina Sofía; Bonn, Städtisches Kunstmuseum, Brice Marden Cold Mountain, October 1991 - June 1993, p. 13, illustrated in color
Helsinki, Museum of Contemporary Art, Finnish National Gallery, Private, Public/Yksityien. Ars 95, February - May 1995, cat. no. 10, pp. 78-79, illustrated
Zürich, Daros Collection at Daros Exhibitions Löwenbräu-Areal, Brice Marden, June 2003 - January 2004, cat. no. 15, illustrated in color
108 x 144 in. 274.3 x 365.8 cm.
John Yau, Vogue, July 1989, p. 190, illustrated in color
Sabine B. Vogel, ARTIS, November 1989, p. 37, illustrated in color
Paul Gardner, ed., "What Artists Like About the Art They Like When They Don't Know Why: Pat Stein on Brice Marden," Art News, October 1991, p. 119, illustrated
Klaus Kertess, Brice Marden Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 135, illustrated in color
Kay Larson, "Brice Marden: Different Strokes," Atelier, February 1992, p. 51, illustrated
Octavia Zaya, "El proceso creativo: Entrevista con Brice Marden" Atlantica, Spring 1992, pp. 34-39, illustrated
Brenda Richardson, "Heart Print: Brice Marden's 'Cold Mountain' Paintings," Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Fall 1992, p. 61, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Bern, Kunsthalle Bern, Brice Marden Paintings 1985 - 1993, 1993, fig 10, p. 36, illustrated in color
Bijutsu Techo, January 1995, p. 206, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., New York, Matthew Marks Gallery, Brice Marden, October 1995, n.p. (text reference)
Charles A. Riley II, Colour Codes, Modern Theories of Colour in Philosophy, Painting, and Architecture, Literature, Music, and Psychology, Hannover, 1995, p. 7
Paul Taylor, After Andy: Soho in the Eighties, Melbourne, 1995, pp. 73 and 78
Stephen Bann, "A Cold Coming: Brice Marden's Wager with Tradition," in Lynne Cook and Karen Kelly (eds.), Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art No. 1, New York, 1996, p. 2, illustrated
Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection 1945 – 1995, 1996, p. 133 (text reference)
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, New York, 1997, fig. 335, p. 556, illustrated
Brenda Richardson, "Brice Marden: Lifelines," in Peter Fischer (ed.), Abstraction, Gesture, Ecriture: Paintings from the Daros Collection, Zürich, Berlin and New York, 1999, fig. 56, p. 93, illustrated and pp. 10 and 85
Galerie Michael Werner, Cologne
Thomas Ammann, Zurich
Daros Collection, Zurich
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above