Brice Marden's paintings of the mid 1980s demonstrate his ability to deftly shift his style from opaque non-gestural monochromatic painting to animated planes of gestural tracery. Glyphs of 1986 is a successful finely balanced composition with lattice-like organization. The primary references in Marden's work are landscape, nature, and the human figure and the work of the 1980s emerged from both the immediacy of drawing and a mesmerizing interest in calligraphy. In the present work, Marden's geometric restraint is loosened from rectilinear architectonics by his growing interest in Asian art and poetry. There is a clear truth and spirituality in Marden's paintings; a confidence of form and a testament to inventiveness.
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 and it became a predominant influence in his work. Marden developed an admiration of Buddhism and Chinese poetry during this time, and in addition to his interest in the content of the poetry, he was also inspired by the way the poetry was aligned on a page, in columns of rectangles. In similar fashion, the forms in Glyphs are separate intimate networks of form, outlined by strong angular lines. Marden's ``glyphs'' come from an interest not only in calligraphy but from forms in nature such as seashells, ocean waves, and blowing leaves. They are typically conical, sometimes open and fan-like, while occasionally they more closely resemble closed boxes.
Encountered during visits in 1984 to a seashell museum in Thailand, the volute shells, which most fascinated Marden, were formed by a process of secretion, evolving in a spiral of gradual growth and additive chambers. Marden sought to combine the curving organic forms of shells with the frontality of calligraphy to explore a method for balancing gesture with planar composition. The present work is arranged in four vertical rows of three triangulated glyphs discretely positioned on the gray ground to be read both vertically and horizontally. Marden's working method often utilized a short thick brush at the end of a very long stick to apply paint, and "the distance between hand and paint forms a bridge of deliberation that imposes restraints on the intuitive urges and surges of the mark-making hand but also makes the brush acutely responsive to the movements of the hand." (Klaus Kertess, Ibid., p. 45) Marden has reflected on calligraphy and his method of painting: "Calligraphy is very personal because it is very physical. It's not a technique or an ideology; it's a form of pure expression. Each time a calligrapher makes a mark, it will be distinctive because he has a particular physicality. Great artists exploit this; their thinking and their physicality should be emphasized. If you're not working with preconceived forms and thinking, then you can concentrate on expression. It is possible, I think, to make art on this instinctive level, out of a deeply felt response. The longer I paint the more I think this is true." (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Plane Image: a Brice Marden Retrospective, 2006, p.21)
Marden gives prominence to the surface of his paintings and always works from the rectangle which can be further bisected into smaller rectangles. In his later works, the "typical" Marden rectangular and idiosyncratic color canvases dissolved into organic and rhythmic linear compositions. The surfaces in all of these paintings demonstrate the close affinity between painting and drawing in Marden's work. There is often a more than necessary application of paint to the canvas before he begins to scrape it away, leaving the work with a thin, almost transparent, smooth veil of paint. The glyphs in the present work are different levels of opacity and color, superimposed on one another and interweaving, over and under, into an organic whole, striving to burst beyond a single function or spatial position. The soft and balanced palette is punctuated with the blues and whites of the webs, creating a shallow depth within the work that engages the viewer in a poetic dialogue which reveals and conceals the painterly layers of Glyphs.
Oil on canvas
58 x 72 in. 147.3 x 182.9 cm.
Klaus Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 121, illustrated in color
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above in May 1987