Brice Marden's 40-year retrospective has just opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's an unprecedented gathering of his work, showcasing more than 50 paintings (including a pair of new, large-scale ones never before exhibited) and an equal number of drawings.
As it must be, this blockbuster of an exhibition is arranged chronologically. For Marden is an artist whose career is divided into two hugely distinct styles.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, Marden (b. 1938) was the maker of beautiful—though utterly plain—rectangular panels of single, luminous colors. He would then combine these differently colored panels into a single unit, in work closely allied to Minimalism.
Then, after a period of experimentation in the early 1980s, he arrived, in the middle of that decade, at the quite different, gestural style—heavily influenced by East Asian calligraphy—that he is best known for today: ribbons of colors twisting in and out of one another against a solid-color background.
Marden spoke to ARTINFO—about the factors leading to this stylistic shift, about the energy of artwork, about why people collect—in his West Village studio while he was making the final preparations for the MoMA opening.
Brice, how do you feel with this retrospective looming? Are you pleased with how it's shaping up?
Well, it covers my whole history. I've never had a show that did that. I had a mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim, but that was hardly mid-career, as it was in the mid-seventies . And since this one is at the Modern, you really stand a better chance of getting the loans you're going for. We got everything we wanted except one piece.
Since you haven't been treated to a survey since 1975, this is the first time that your two major styles—the earlier monochromes and the later calligraphic works—will be seen together. Do you find that people automatically associate you with both styles of painting?
No. The interesting thing about this show is it's going to be the first time a lot of people will see the earlier work. I tend to think, Oh, they know it, because I know it. But they don't. It isn't as though it was this big, popular [style] when I was showing it.
Lets talk about this startling transition from one style to the other. I know that your exposure to Asian calligraphy was very important in instigating the switch. But I believe another important factor in making this momentous stylistic change were some 1981 paintings on marble—the leftovers from a marble table that your wife had made.
Yes, there are three major [marble paintings] in the MoMA show. Doing those paintings was a big help in the transition because I was working from the shape of the piece of marble, a found shape, and as a result, I started using diagonals. Basically it got me out of the vertical-horizontal [mindset], which had almost been a rule for me.
Once that happened, it was much easier to figure out how to work with calligraphy. I hadn't been able to get it into the paintings the vertical-horizontal way I was working before. The only way I could get it in was by stopping what I was doing and starting doing something else.
That must have been a very difficult time for you. You're of a generation where there was a lot of pressure to stay with a signature style.
Yes. Someone for whom I have a great deal of respect said, "When artists really start making money is when they start imitating themselves." He cited Francis Bacon as an example. There's a certain point where it does become repetition, and you've got to figure something else out.
It seems to me an awful lot of artists don't bother to do that.
That's right. You don't have to. Or some probably feel they don't have to. It's not just the fact that it's a signature style and there's a market for it, but there's an attitude of, "Thats it, you've got it," and you just go with it.
Can we talk about your current way of working? As I understand it, you tend to alternate periods of frenetic activity with long periods of contemplation.
Yes. In terms of how I work, when I paint in the figure—I call [the calligraphic lines] a figure—it's like this [he waves his hands in the air]. It's like me being an Abstract Expressionist.
In terms of when I work, these paintings [he gestures to a group of three small panels leaning against his studio wall] were started years ago, and I haven't come back to work on them. But this is a start: three colors, and I'll probably keep it these colors, but I have to work it up. They'll get finished eventually.
Is it difficult coming back to paintings after such a long period?
One of my favorite quotes is, "A work of art is a constantly renewable source of energy." So you can put it away, bring it out, and the energy is still there.
What sort of energy do you mean?
As soon as a work of art is confronted by a human, it has energy, or there's the potential for energy.
Do you think that that's why people collect works of art?
Well, I've seen people just start collecting art because somebody told them to do it. But you get some of these guys, some businessman who's doing really well, and they come into the gallery and they're smart, and they think, "Well there's something going on here with this work—I've got to figure it out," and a lot of them get transformed.
You talked about being an Abstract Expressionist a minute ago. Is that the tradition you feel you belong to? Do you think of yourself as a specifically New York painter?
Well, if you go to Italy, the landscape looks like Italian painting; if you go to France, the landscape looks like French painting. And there's American painting, but there's also New York painting. Painters will tell you that New York has a certain kind of light, and it's because of the light reflected off the water.
You worked as an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg, and you met and befriended Jasper Johns when you were working as a security guard at the Jewish Museum, where he had an exhibition at the time. But you're a particular admirer of Pollock, aren't you?
Look at this. [He produces a dusty old aluminum paint pot, with sticks in it.] Its from Pollock's studio. I like to think that all that aluminum paint in Blue Poles  came out of here.