Brice Marden’s notebooks.
On a page of his 1964–67 journal, underneath a small cutout of Manet’s 1862 painting of Victorine Meurent, Brice Marden wrote, “Cézanne tried to kill painting by denying forms for the sake of painting. He seems to have come closest to painting painting out … I think a painter should paint to end painting for himself and some others. With this in mind and man in mind it seems inevitable that painting will go on.”
Now two of Marden’s journals have been exquisitely printed by the New York–based publishing imprint Karma, in whose gallery space the drawings, the journals, and a monochrome painting—Portrait (1964–65)—are on display. With their daily ephemera and cogitations, the notebooks provide an instructive and often amusing counterpart to Marden’s most recent body of work, which opened at Matthew Marks Gallery last week. There is an inevitable link between Marden’s early work and now.
With the contemporary works, Marden has returned to monochrome painting, diverging from the calligraphic paintings that have dominated the past three decades. The work is demonstrative—Marden deploys an encaustic technique that borrows from Jasper Johns, who was an important early influence when Marden was studying at Yale and, later, when he was a security guard at the Jewish Museum. The surfaces show visible vectors of his movement; swabs of oil paint are spliced and smeared by a palette knife. The early notebooks show the consistency of Marden’s work until now: there is—and always was—a calligraphic, linear drawing technique translated into painting; now he has come full circle with a return to his first principles of color planes and relational panels.
As well as with Manet and Cézanne, Marden paid homage to painters such as Zurbarán and Goya with serious reflection on the dark, melancholic tradition in painting. The works on show at Matthew Marks Gallery use terre verte and come from a jewel-like, almost Renaissance palette. They also bear hallmarks of the “incomplete” painting, a calculated mode that avoids any sense of a painting achieving “finished” status, thus remaining anonymous.
In his monochrome paintings of the 1960’s, Marden uses the trope of Minimalism’s riposte to rhetorical painting—yet he employs a deeply sensuous treatment: slicked-up, paint-plastered canvases coated with beeswax, in earthy colors of grays and murk. Over the course of a few pages in the 1964–1967 notebook, one can find sporadic checklists of paints which read like a chemical lab of forbidden substances: “Mars black, lemon yellow, use muddy white … cobalt violet, cad. red light, perm. green to grey, white, cad. yellow pale and lamp black … cobalt blue … raw amber … chrome oxide opaque, Windsor green, viridian, burnt amber … ”
Throughout the notebooks, intensity of method combines with a mix of quotidian marginalia and endless detail of a life engaged with social and street activity. Addresses and lists creep across the pages; one scrap of paper has Richard Serra’s phone number on it; Carl Andre’s is on another. There are newspaper clippings; business cards; pulpy glamour photos; a vehicle removal ticket from the City of New York Police Department; ticket stubs from concerts such as Wilson Pickett at Village Theatre on October 7, 1967, and Johnny Cash at Carnegie Hall on October 23, 1968. The ticket stubs stand in, almost, as color swatches or samples for his paintings. On another page of his notebooks, Marden has repeatedly written—like a child practicing a cursive signature—the name Zurbarán, with a single word standing tall among the four attempts: “ART.”
Marden has remained consistently interrogative of precise material form and what value it contains. When a viewer approaches both his early and contemporary canvases, the weight of the paint layers is indicated by a special exposé in the lower region of the rectangular canvas. This unfinished strip constitutes a process of framing that at once alienates the viewer into understanding its plastic materiality and also invites them luxuriate in the painted color blocks. The 1964–1967 notebook contains meticulous details of this process: “When applying the paint with the brush drips accumulate on the marked off section of the canvas. I redraw the bottom edge using a straight edge and a pencil. I exercise little or no control over what happens below the drawn edge … ”
In Summer Square (2015) and Over Autumn (2015), at Matthew Marks Gallery, Marden revives this device. And below the earthy colors of the panels in Uphill 4 (2014), a rich accumulation of drips, a memorization of the layers that build the painting up. Marden has said in an interview that his time in Paris in the 1960’s, during De Gaulle’s urban “clean-up,” was a prevalent occurrence: “You could watch these guys plaster the walls, drips accumulating at the bottom, the physicality of it. And then you think, well, there’s a perfectly valid painting.”
Emmie Francis works at Faber & Faber in London and is a contributing editor at The White Review.