Brice marden: high stakes


“It’s hard to look at paintings,” Brice Marden once said. “You have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body.” Good paintings make the exercise worth the trouble. Great paintings make it seem valuable in itself, as one of the more rewarding things that having minds, imaginations, and bodies lets us do. Marden’s current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art confirms him, at the age of sixty-eight, as the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades. There are fifty-six paintings in the show, dating from broody monochromes made in 1964-66, when Marden was fresh out of art school at Yale, to new, clamorous, six-panelled compositions, twenty-four feet long, of overlaid loopy bands in six colors. (His several styles of laconic form and smoldering emotion might be termed “passive-expressive.”) As selected and installed by Gary Garrels, the senior curator at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles, the ensemble affords an adventure in aesthetic experience—and, tacitly, in ethical, and even spiritual experience. There are also some fifty drawings: too few. Marden’s drawings (and etchings, which are entirely absent) constitute an immense achievement in their own right, and their resourcefulness and grace are best perceived in quantity.

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