Exemplary Abstractions: The Notebook Drawings of Brice Marden

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Brice Marden, for many years highly, highly regarded and now a mature artist, is one of the few noted painters to have been active during the heyday of minimalism–and to have kept up with such sculptural stalwarts as Richard Serra, Carl Andre, and Donald Judd. He began as a painter of monochromatic canvases, notable for their lush resiliency of a single color. In the 1990s, he decided he was Chinese, imagistically speaking, and painted in a calligraphic manner, even commissioning an essay by a well-regarded Sinologist on his Eastern proclivities. This is in fact problematic; a few Chinese painters have remarked to me that his work is unusually unsuccessful as Chinese art. But Marden’s effort does in fact attempt, rather bravely, a merger between Chinese lyric abstract effects and the equally lyric impulse of post-expressionist abstraction, in a way in which the Asian calligraphic hand is used with admiration if not necessarily notable understanding.

In fact, Marden’s appropriations bring up larger issues now–the eclecticism of this body of work might be challenged by the arbitrary decision to make use of a culture that cannot be said in any way to connect with the artworld that spawned Marden’s own creativity. There is nothing wrong with Marden’s working like this, but it must be said that such work reflects the extreme difficulty of borrowing from so major an achievement as Chinese painting; and that it can be questioned whether the superficial similarities between Marden’s style and the style he has been influenced by are actually congruent. Instead, they may well be random similarities, despite the artist’s conscious intention of respectful imitation, which would push our understanding of Marden’s efforts toward a skepticism and even, perhaps, a moral judgment of the cultural grab.

Yet, at the same time, it would be too easy to dismiss Marden’s efforts as theft. In the subject of this essay, the notebook published in 2019 by Gagosian Gallery in New York City, we can see his persistence in using linear curves that owe a lot to Asian calligraphy–and these working sheets are extremely successful as art. The calligraphic drawings are noted interweavings of curved lines, creating a net of joined forms. Other works in the notebook consist of abstract marks arranged in rows, as if the arrangement were linked to some sort of index of spots, or unreadable symbols. Together, the kinds of art portrayed lean in the direction of illegible meaning meant to suggest something actually capable of being read.

This is a contradiction in terms, but it is one capable of generating works of real beauty, as happens in Marden’s notebook. Beauty has always been central to Marden’s outlook; even when painting his monochromatic works, he was able to invest the individual pieces with an unusual atmospheric aura, in which the depth of hue communicated an equal depth of feeling. It makes sense, then, that his efforts are seen as complicated in their effects, spanning a broad range of emotions and, equally, a wide span of influences. What is not so easy to determine is whether the artist’s borrowings are successful, reflecting an intuitive, genuine command of China’s brush culture, or if the work is merely a facile takeover of Asian art, even if it recognizes Chinese art history as possessing one of the greatest painting achievements, across cultures, across time, available to us.

Further comment must be made on the materials of brush and paper. This is a medium that is unforgiving, in the sense that it is easy to spot a mistake but hard to remove it. The supposed “errors” in Marden’s notebook stem from small idiosyncrasies that inevitably leave their mark on the final version of the drawing; and these mistakes provide us with a good deal of visual interest when we look closely at the drawings. It is interesting to contemplate the place of mistakes in drawings, which cannot be covered over in the same way a painter might do away with a problem in an oil painting. Somehow the drawings provide a space where the artist can transparently negotiate a problem. This allows the mistake to grow in stature and add presence and structural detail to an overall composition, especially if that composition is abstract. Also, sometimes what looks like a mistake is actually a deliberate aberration, feeding our assumption that creative mistakes build toward eccentric structures that support a broader spectrum of forms than if the problems had occurred as examples of a problematic hand. This is where Marden is very, very good; his works on paper exist as systems riddled with trouble, but of an excellent kind. The Chinese-style drawings are filled with minor difficulties, but these difficulties lead to expressiveness a more regular orientation could not sustain.

The drawings in the notebook are not given titles, which accentuates their objectivity rather than their thematic orientation. The calligraphic works created masses of captured curved lines, orienting the viewer toward an overall arched view, made up of linked strokes that remind us–but only vaguely–of the way Chinese calligraphy works. Rather, these imprecise Asian drawings can be seen as equally determined to present an all-over view, in which the eyes rest on the complete design before lingering over particular effects. The relation of the detail to the complete composition is a strength of the art of the New York School, which trades on just such an exchange. One thinks of a linked chain when looking over these drawings, which offer movement and energy if not a specifically Chinese imitation of form. And, at the same time, the drawings are spectacularly beautiful, coming from Marden’s willingness to address beauty as a inspired atttribute in its own right

But it is also true that awkwardness plays an important part in our reading of this group of dramatic drawings.The massed lines messily overlap, and stains of color are visible. The sense is that of a mesh randomly assembled. Marden’s innate sense of composition is finely tuned, so that the imagery doesn’t fall apart with extended looking. But the roughness of the connecting lines also indicates the artist’s preference for something improvised, in the New York manner. Maybe the larger question is whether, at this point in time, fine art can be ambitiously explored via nonobjective imagery alone. This is not an easy question to answer, and one senses that the drawings move toward repetition in ways that figurative works do not. So repetition plays a large part in our understanding of the pieces in this notebook.

Other drawings are minimalist marks done in rows, not unlike what we see in Agnes Martin, although in Marden’s case the marks are looser, more painterly. Sometimes, the smallish gestures can look like miniature Rohrschach marks. Like the Rorschach marks, they can mean anything you want them to mean. This indeterminacy of meaning is key to the works in the show. Marden operates within a major flux, preferring to indirectly activate the drawing’s meaning. So the art can mean almost anything you like, which is the secret to their remarkable beauty and multivalent expressiveness. This doesn’t mean anyone can say anything about the drawings–they belong to Asian calligraphy and the New York school. Somehow a middle ground runs through the experience of this show, even if the artist does suggest extremes.

The real question hidden just behind the notebook work is, How far can borrowing go in introducing an actual creativity, rather than the close-to-useless imitation of art outside the artist’s experiential intelligence and command. The advantages or disadvantages of eclecticism can be argued without end, but the truth is that visual borrowing is a working part, a permanent one, of our current imagination. Marden is no more to be questioned for his appropriations than the Asian artists who come to America and orientalize a Western-originated avant-garde, often returning to China or Korea with the influences closely affecting their creativity (a recent show by Chinese painter Zou Wou-Ki at Gagosian indicates the extent to which Chinese painting might call upon Western abstraction as an influence).

Marden is no different from any other painter trying to make sense of the vast array of imageries available to him, but the leap in painting from New York School abstraction to Chinese calligraphy is immense, requiring something close to hubris to attempt the merger, let alone the technical capability to successfully do so. When Marden paints in an Asian style, he often uses a slightly crooked, three-foot-long wooden twig to distance himself from the facility of his hand. It is a deliberate awkwardness, to be sure, but such an eccentricity, in this artist’s case sought–who can unconsciously beg, borrow, or steal from a culture outside one’s own?–may be a means to great authenticity in painting. And under those lights, Marden’s search for the work of a culture outside his own, to offset and even structure his own painterly impulses, may be the best way of evading repetition and mediocre design in a tradition that is his own and that he knows by heart.

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