Brice Marden


Brice Marden, Attendant 5

Brice Marden, America’s greatest living painter, has what I believe is his first full retrospective of his work showing at MoMA right now through mid-January.

If you care anything about abstract art or American painting, or if you have a soul, I encourage you to see this show.

Yes, that’s right, when I’m not dissecting TV shows, writing movies about talking bugs or watching movies about futuristic utopias, I can often be found strolling about the world’s institutions of modern art, searching for dramatic collusions of lines and colors.

I was not always like this.  I used to think abstraction was a fraud.  I didn’t “get” it, I thought the artists were either delusional, working under an exaggerated or even fabricated sense of their own importance, or else laughing at us as we gazed in confusion at their messageless works.

Brice Marden changed all that.

I still remember quite clearly when it happened.  About 10 years ago I was in Cambridge with my bride-to-be and I stopped in at the local art joint to see a couple of Sargents they had on display.  I never got as far as the Sargents because there was a show of Brice Marden drawings on the first floor.  They were opaque and confounding, yet lyrical and intriguing at the same time.  They were, I found out, drawn with anything but a pen — Marden will use twigs or shells, dipped in ink and held at a distance, to keep his line naive and undisciplined — and utterly bewitching.  They looked like trees or vines or hedges or something, but they were both that and not that; they were both representative of things and also just marks on paper.  And suddenly I “got” abstraction.  In fact, I suddenly understood what the word “abstraction” means.

And the floodgates were opened.  Suddenly I “got” Pollock and DeKooning, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, Barnett Newman and Cy Twombly (O! Cy Twombly — for added value, there are also a half-dozen crucil, essential Cy Twomblys hanging in the Big Gallery space at MoMA).  And I went from being a guy who thought abstraction was a fraud to being a guy who now can barely tolerate representation — I keep thinking a representational artist is trying to sell me something.  And now I’m the kind of guy who drags reluctant friends and family to places like the Dia Center in Beacon NY to see Richard Serra’s Torqued Ellipses (I’m still cursing myself for not getting to Houston for the Twombly show a few years ago).  Now I’m the kind of guy who stops to look at a crack in the sidewalk or a badly-painted wall or a carelessly-whitewashed window.  For me, a painted surface is now filled with light, a line brings in drama and a whole bunch of lines, artfully arranged, can produce an almost unbearable tension.

You may hate the Marden show.  When I was there today there were plenty who did.  Galleries were dotted with confused middle-aged women and disgusted middle-aged men, wavering between not being sure if they were being conned and utterly sure they were being conned.  The men were particularly angry about it, sniggering to each other, voicing their moral superiority, muttering threats to the artist and, in one case, even wishing him a violent death.  I’m not sure what provokes a reaction like that, I don’t know what one is expecting when one comes to the Museum of Modern Art.  It seems to me that someone who sees a show as positive, life-affirming and glorious as this and reacts with a wish of violence upon the artist probably shouldn’t bother walking into an art museum in the first place.

UPDATE: Thanks everyone for writing in.  For the folks who hate this stuff, let me reiterate, I used to hate it too.  Now I don’t and this guy is the reason.  I’m not an art historian, I’m not a theoretician and I’m sure as shootin’ ain’t no elitist.  He opened up a whole new artistic world for me and I’ll never forget it.

And for those who like this stuff, here’s a few more.  Thanks again!

Brice Marden, Chinese Dancing, 1994%u201396. The UBS Art Collection, ProLitteris, Zurigo

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29 Responses to “Brice Marden”
  1. greyaenigma says:

    I still don’t get it. Fortunately, I’m only at the stage where I think other people are being conned. (Well, sort of — any art is subjective to a degree, so if it speaks to someone — be it a Marden masterpiece or a velvet Elvis — that’s art for them.)

  2. gdh says:

    I really don’t get it. I don’t bear any ill will to anyone who can make a living at abstract painting, especially if they’re sincere about it, but I just don’t understand it at all. To me, art isn’t good if it’s not interesting to look at. And most abstract painting bores me utterly. I don’t see any beauty in it. Not even if I turn my head sideways and squint.

  3. craigjclark says:

    A few years back I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a friend to see a screening of the Spalding Gray film Monster in a Box. Before it started we had enough time to wander around the galleries and I must admit we sniggered our way through much of the modern art on display. Actually, my friend — who is an artist himself — did most of the sniggering; I just threw out the odd “Hey, look. They’ve got a _______!”

    I wish I had a better eye. I can appreciate beauty, but I have a hard time staring at some paintings long enough to get something out of the experience.

    • Todd says:

      Someone, a famous art critic, I forget who (he’s quoted in a couple of Vonnegut’s books), was asked once to explain how to tell a good painting from a bad painting. He said “Well, first look at a million paintings. Then you can never be mistaken.”

  4. mr_noy says:

    The assumption is that if something appears to have been made easily, it is of lesser quality. For good or bad, the ability to draw what the eye sees* and to do it well is the yardstick by which most people judge art. The more a work diverges from the figurative, the more likely the layman is to judge it as unworthy. The criticism I hear most often is “Well, *I* could do that” and usually by people who couldn’t even come close.

    As for figurative art, yes most of it is junk. Go to your local flea market or craft fair or airport gallery and you’ll be overwhelmed with naive portraits, bland still lifes, and pastoral scenes so impersonal they may as well have been painted by a committee of malfunctioning robots. Nevertheless, the figurative has always been intrinsically linked to the visual arts and probably always will be. Indeed, I respect an abstract artist more when I know they are perfectly capable of working figuratively and realistically, but choose to work in abstraction. At least that way I know they are not using abstraction as a means of masking their incompetence.

    “I keep thinking a representational artist is trying to sell me something.”

    Curiously, I’ve heard people make similar assertions about narrative. Couldn’t the argument be made that narrative art is analogous to figurative art? I always find it discouraging when I attend an avant garde theater production and hear people dismiss other, more traditional productions as being irrelevant, tired, and shackled by it’s need to conform to some kind of recognizable reality. Likewise, I’ll go see a traditional play and have to listen to people people criticize that avant garde piece as being arty for the sake of being arty and incomprehensibly weird.

    • yetra says:

      Ah, well, we’ll never have a lack of people who will find any excuse to complain about the inferiority of someone else’s creativity. There’s too much pleasure to be had from the jaded jolt of superiority. Heck, I’m no exception. I’m generally a lover of pretty much all art forms, high and low, and yet, in high school, I was part of the AHA (Anti-Huey Lewis-Association), and I consider myself a sworn enemy of all things Dave Matthews. But at least I hate my trashy art with a sense of humor! But yeah, some people need to get over themselves.

      In other news, I am mesmerized by the bottom painting. I could stare at that for years.

      • greyaenigma says:

        I also find the bottom (or far right) painting intriguing. I just don’t get it. To be fair (as I was trying to say above), there’s a lot about regular art that I don’t get — mostly, what makes regular art great or not.

        Your examples of Huey Lewis and DMB-hating remind me of this more global conflict between (broadly speaking, and at its most extreme) neophobia/traditionalism and neophilia/iconoclasm. On the one hand, you have stuff that manages to get popular just because it’s popular, and on the other, stuff gets hated just because it’s popular.

        In other news, that icon alternately makes me think of a displacer beast and a creature from The Thing.

        • yetra says:

          Ah, Spider Pug is definitely a popular little guy. I appear to be way too pleased by things that are simultaneously cute and horrifying. Best of both worlds!

          And to your point, despite growing up as a stereotypical counter-culture-obsessed bay area punk goth raver hippy chick, I’ve always thought it was much worse to decide to abandon something that you normally would really enjoy just because it was popular, than it was to blindly like whatever the latest popular thing in an attempt to fit in. In both cases, you’re putting more worth in the imaginary judgement of other people than you are in your own pleasure and enjoyment, which is sad to begin with. But the anti-popular culture snobs? The fact that they generally think they are enlightened just makes it more sad. Or rather, more entertaining for me! I love people and their wacky ways 🙂

          I’m gonna go put on some Journey now, if you’ll excuse me.

      • Todd says:

        Well, I’m with you on the Dave Matthews thing. My musical tastes developed in the late seventies, when it was easy to make distinctions — there was Donna Summer and there was Talking Heads; I know what choice I made.

        • yetra says:

          I actually only know about the first 15-20 seconds of the beginning of each of his songs. That’s about how it would take from when they would come on the radio, I’d realize what was happening, and make it go away. If ever I happened to turn on the radio in the middle of a song, I might go almost a minute before the horror sunk in!

          Ah, glad that phase of radio is mostly in the past.

          Mmmmm…. talking heads. Indeed.

    • ghostgecko says:

      The thing is, there’s really no such thing as totally abstract art. Human brains construct a coherent, consistent reality out of a barrage of sensory impressions. So you look at an abstract painting and feel or think something (even if it’s deducing the artist is out to cheat you) because you can’t help imposing a narrative onto it. Some people just like doing less work to construct their narratives and prefer narrative art, other people like making stuff up and prefer abstract art. It’s really interesting, there have been a lot of studies about what exactly the brain is doing when it constructs reality. That’s more interesting than the art itself.
      Personally, I like it about midway, surrealist stuff, where I know I’m looking at an identifiable object but it means something else.

      As for the avant garde/traditional complainers, they’re just showing off their hipness. Building themselves up by tearing someone else down.

      • mr_noy says:

        I like your take on this; art IS in the eye of the beholder and to a large extent we view art through the narrative we impose on it.

        It’s been years since I’ve read it but you reminded me of Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word. Wolfe argued that at some point art required a theory; a narrative, if you will, that allowed people to get a work of art. Before, you just looked at a painting and either you liked it or you didn’t. Then, according to Wolfe, art theorists devised elaborate pretentious theories that justified work that once would have been ridiculed as pointless and the product of no-talent hacks. Art became for the initiated, not for the everyday viewer.

        He’s pretty harsh towards the abstract expressionists and the theorists and collectors who made a lot of money by convincing people that their emperor was fully clothed. I think he went a little too far because his argument doesn’t seem to allow for genuinely talented artists working in the field of abstraction. Still, it’s a funny, thought provoking book and a quick read.

        • Todd says:

          I have great respect for Tom Wolfe, he’s a wonderful, wonderful writer, but he’s full of shit regarding abstract art. But that’s okay, Kurt Vonnegut feels pretty much the same way.

      • Todd says:

        there’s really no such thing as totally abstract art. Human brains construct a coherent, consistent reality out of a barrage of sensory impressions.

        There’s a similar thing that happens with narrative. String a bunch of sentences together and people will try to turn it into a story, give it meaning, even if it intentionally has none. You’re right, that’s the way the mind works. The thing that abstract painting does for me is make the work work on two levels, as an image that’s trying to “mean” something, but also as an object in and of itself with its own intrinsic beauty.

    • Todd says:

      I used to hate abstract art and love experimental theater. There actually exists somewhere videotape of me ranting about how abstract art is a big con, about how if you have to take some course or read some article or hang out with the right people before you can “get” a piece of art, then that piece of art is elitist bullshit.

      Then I saw Brice Marden and all of that changed.

      Strangely enough, at the same time I was hating abstract art I was also writing avant-garde plays, plays that threw structure out the window, confounded the audience’s expectations and substituted weirdness for narrative coherence. Then, I began to become interested in telling stories and I found that the only reason I was writing “avant-gardge” plays was because I didn’t know how to tell a story. The more I learned about telling a story, the more I realized that avant-garde theater (mine, anyway) was just bullshit.

      Plain and simple, for me the dramatic form exists to tell stories. It’s not good for anything else. You can do a vast number of things in the realm of “telling stories,” from Waiting For Godot to The Odd Couple, from L’Avventura to The Departed, but if you don’t know what a story is or think storytelling is for losers, you don’t know what you’re doing.

      As for whether Brice Marden passes the Picasso test, ie can he draw but chooses not to, that I do not know. What I do know is that his paintings transfix me, have led me to a whole new world of understanding and a gigantic reservoir of culture that had seemed unapproachable before.

      • gdh says:

        The big question I have isn’t “Yes, but can he draw?”, it’s “How do you tell good abstract art from bad/fake abstract art?”

        • Todd says:

          For me, it’s all about line quality. An artist can’t fake the quality of his or her line; if they’re insincere it will show, you’ll be able to tell if the artist is on the level or just pretending.

          This goes for brushstrokes as well, and texture.

          One of the things that convinced me about Jackson Pollock was seeing his stuff in person; the rap on him was that he was just screwing around and dumping paint on a canvas. But seeing just one in person you can instantly see how hard he worked, how much time he spent working and re-working his paintings, over and over, before he got just the desired effect. Also, seeing a Pollock in person made me realize that all the Pollock imitators didn’t have a clue as to how he worked or what he was trying to do; you can tell a fake Pollock from miles away.

  5. r_sikoryak says:

    Here’s one thing I often respond to in abstract art: I like to see the struggle.

    Often in hotels you’ll see bad (very bad) abstract paintings where it looks like the painter has entirely mapped out the canvas before he’s begun working. There’s no life, there’s no sense of the human hand– it’s just colored shapes filled in according to a preset plan. Those paintings look entirely calculated, dead, and misguided.

    But if you look at the Mardens here, you can see (among other things) the over-painting, the lines “whited out” and redrawn. There’s an attempt to discover the composition, to work out an ideal balance of color and line quality and patterns. It’s not as easy to do as it may look.

    Of course, it’s different in comics, where I spend most of my time, and the pictures are supposed to be easy to read (usually). But I also love to see original comic strips for the same reason as great abstract art– I want to see the human hand.

    Can you tell I started teaching last year? But I don’t teach abstract painters– I teach illustration students, who are after a whole different kind of communication. Many of whom are literally trying to sell you something.

  6. mikeyed says:

    Just a curious patron linked over from Urbaniak….

    What are your thoughts on Graffiti Art?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Bourne is an amnesiac, but because he’s an assassin he’s able to think fast, kill like lightning and get out of any trap, regardless of the odds. But because he’s an assassin, the people he doesn’t know he knows (including some other assassins from the same super-secret super-assassin program) want to kill him.

    This was an excellent write up of Bourne, I was a big fan of the movie, but this really focused on what was so great about the movie, in a way I had not seen expressed before. Kudos.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >>After he leads the bad guys through a hair-raising chase and inevitably crashes his car, he always just walks away from it. Isn’t that tantamount to blowing his cover? When the local police come to get the wrecked vehicle, aren’t they going to notice the rocket-launchers in the roof?<<

    There’s an idea for a spin-off: A team low-ranking intelligence agents who’s job it is to follow James Bond around and clean up his messes. Sort of like those guys in the van who picked up Batman’s discarded parachutes in the Adam West series.

  9. Anonymous says:

    It’s tomorrow! Surely someone who reads this blog still lives within the 5 boroughs!

    Besides me, that is.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I am late to the party, but yes, yes, yes! I agree! It actually poisoned me against most other television for a few months. But then Heroes taught me to stop worrying and love cheese.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I can tell you that in a recent episode of House Wilson reminded House that he has had the same guitar since he was in 8th Grade so that might give you some indication as to when he started being a “rocker” probably around 13 or 14. I don’t think the Massive Attack song Teardrop would be his cup of tea as that kind of electronica is aimed more at a younger hipster crowd. Interesting side note the video for the song is about a baby inutero and has the same sort of rusty red color as the graphics of the opening to House.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Sam is awesome.

    You kinda look like Spock.

  13. Anonymous says:

    As Kananga, he is the upstanding leader of a small island nation; as Mr. Big, he is the most powerful black criminal in the US. He plans to use his presidential power as a front to make a move to taking over the totality of American organized crime, by introducing two tons of pure heroin into the American marketplace, for free, causing chaos in the street, certain death to thousands, disaster for the currently reigning Mafia, and eventual dominance for both Mr. Big’s sydicate and Kananga’s island nation (where the poppies are grown). Whew!

    I had a BIG problem with this. Why on earth would three MI6 agents be investigating the actions of a Caribbean island prime minister? Especially if that Caribbean island obviously used to be French controlled?

    As for Solitaire – she did not do anything for me. I found her moaning and weeping rather annoying.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have always enjoyed LIVE AND LET DIE. But I have a low opinion of its plot and leading female character.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I like your wit, it reminds me that there’s still sanity somewhere.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Re: He’s good enough, he’s smart enough, and dog-gone it, people like him.

    The only thing I can think of is that McCartney hates Help! Either that or there’s a rights issue, although I’m pretty sure the producers and studio are the same on both Help! and Hard Day’s Night.