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The Arts
March 21-27, 2007

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'Bear Print'

Collection Peter Morton, Los Angeles/©2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Circuit city: Brice Marden's oil on canvas, 'Bear Print.'

Lining Up

Brice Marden joins color fields and drawing in SFMOMA retrospective

By Michael S. Gant


LIKE ONE of his three-panel monochromes, abstract artist Brice Marden's career falls into three distinct periods. In the 1960s, Marden studiously—and sometimes laboriously—explored a severely limited range of whites, grays and blacks. Around 1970, he introduced large swathes of single colors, juxtaposing them in various architectural schemes. Then, in the early '80s, he started to populate his solid fields with sweeping, intertwining lines and serpentine bands of color. The artist downplays the last transition in a MOMA interview—"What seems like an abrupt break, at the time I didn't think was abrupt ... just one thing to another." But at the major retrospective now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the break looms enormous, like the persona transplant Bill Pullman's character gets halfway through Lost Highway.

Nothing is that simple of course. Marden's early works appear like almost monastic tasks; Marden would, as he puts it, "Take a white piece of paper and make it black." An untitled work from 1964-65 done in graphite and beeswax on paper consists of a 4-by-10 grid of black vertical rectangles separated by white lines; the individual tiles vary in subtle waves and show phantom traces of squiggles and other painterly gestures. Return I, a large oil from the mid-'60s, appears to be a flat expanse of undifferentiated light slate gray, but closer inspection reveals that the surface roils with marks and scratches and scrapings. Unlike the minimalists of the time, with whom Marden was easily grouped, he never wanted to erase all the evidence of a human hand at work; his surfaces don't aim for machinelike perfection.

Marden pushed so hard that the results can be stultifying. Point (1969) consists of three oil-on-canvas panels side by side in three tiring gradients of gray. Marden must have felt the sense of confinement, for about 1970, vertical panels of color stand beside the gray and black. Rodeo (1971) is a startling two-panel piece: a muted yellow top half abutting a solid black bottom panel—it's like the sun emerging from the void on the day of creation. Later, Marden started to assemble panels of the primary colors, achieving almost Op Art effects.

Everything changed in the early 1980s in the face of several events: Marden's long (but never finished) project for some church windows in Basel, in which he started working with rectilinear lines and diagonals, a crisis in his marriage and a trip to Asia that began a continuing immersion in Chinese art, especially calligraphy. In an untitled canvas from 1986, Marden abstracts calligraphy characters into three rows of vertically cascading yellow triangles loosely overlaid with washy white and black strokes on a dark-gray background.

Over and over, Marden starts to play with these infinitely malleable gestures. In 11 (To Léger), he deploys black and red lines on a nearly white field. The painting looks done in a rush, with rivulets of black dripping down the surface. In his drawings, Marden lays down jangly tangles of lines in black and white that vibrate with energy and hark back to Pollock, whom Marden deeply admires. The spectacular Cold Mountain paintings are filled to bursting with writhing lines, mostly in black with many blue and white echoes popping in and out of the background. The eye can exhaust itself trying to navigate these meanders, but the paintings never feel random.

After Cold Mountain, Marden has simplified some of his lines, turning them from quick brushlike movements to more careful, thicker ribbons of color. In Bear Print (1997-98), red, dark green and gray-blue lines encircle and cross a loose white background, like a jazzed-up circuit board. In the bottom left corner, the green lines push against the painting's edges, like snakes trying to escape a box. At last, line and solid color energize each other in a fruitful dialectic.


Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings runs through May 13 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco. Open daily except Wednesdays. (415.357.4000)


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