Brice Marden, ‘Green Painting’, 1986, Sotheby's: Contemporary Art Day Auction

From the Catalogue

"A painting, you know...it's about transformation. Taking that earth, that heavy earthen kind of thing, turning it into air and light." — Brice Marden

Brice Marden’s Green Painting is an exemplary display of the artist’s sophisticated interplay between strict formal order and emotive gesture. While retaining hints of Marden’s early minimalist impulses, the present work is propelled forward with the introduction of a calligraphic foreground which allows the painter to develop an increasingly dynamic composition. This painting’s deep atmospheric background is rich with undulating brushstrokes and subtle variances in hue which create an irregular visual rhythm, guiding the viewer’s gaze deeply into and around the frame. Atop this lush background, Marden lays out a seemingly legible yet entirely fictitious sequence of “glyph” characters which comprise no literal meaning but display visual references to early Japanese calligraphy and abstract naturalistic forms all at once.

Marden’s sources of inspiration and influence are abundant and varied. In addition to drawing from many historical and natural references, Marden has always maintained a strong awareness of the broader fine arts landscape that stretches beyond his own studio walls and immediate surroundings. Marden visited an exhibition at New York’s Japan House Gallery and Asia Society entitled Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th – 19th Century in 1984 which had a intense and lasting impact on his artistic output as can be seen clearly within Green Painting. Following this visit, Marden was moved to study the formal qualities of eastern calligraphy and to adapt aspects of these characters into his own work. Green Panting is also a precursor to the Cold Mountain Series which is based on Chinese calligraphy. It should be noted that Marden made a conscious decision never to learn to read or translate these written languages as he did not want to lose the ability to freely appreciate their abstract formal qualities. Referring to his introduction to eastern calligraphic forms and how they found such a significant place within his paintings, Marden remarked “I wanted more drawing in the paintings…initially I was very interested in aspects of the line and just the strength and the gesture” (Brice Marden, “On Asian Art,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, video, 2009).

Along with Marden’s fascination with calligraphy, the work of Mark Rothko has also served as a profound influence on Marden’s own artistic practice. In addition to a shared interest embracing the spiritual or mystical aspects of painting, Marden also drew significant inspiration from Rothko’s poetic uses of light and minimalist form. In a 2008 interview, Marden described the areas of overlap between his practice and that of Mark Rothko stating, “In my case, and Rothko’s, with the scratches and scrapes and the colors coming through from below, it might look like a monochromatic surface, but it really never is. There are real evidences of drawing. I remember being very conscious of how you spread the paint on the surface of a canvas, of how it got to the edge and how it went around the corners. How do you draw your way vertically and horizontally around a corner? The issue of how you broach the outer edge of the painting was a big one for Rothko too” (Brice Marden and Simon Grant, “Landscapes of the Mind”, Tate Etc., issue 14, Autumn 2008).

Within his individual practice, Brice Marden simultaneously celebrates and rebels against orderly parameters and systematic processes. He enjoys working within a clear set of restrictions which can then be embraced, exaggerated, repeated and dispelled with a subtle play between the definite and the imagined. Though abstract and expressionistic in many ways, the composition of Green Painting maintains an orderly sense of a gridded composition and a clear acknowledgement of its rectangular frame. In 1978, Marden famously proclaimed that “the rectangle is a great human invention.” To acknowledge the rectangle as a significant man-made construct imbues this otherwise simple shape with a specific intentionality that can no longer be ignored. The shape of his canvas then becomes a deliberate form that provides a strict boundary and a set of restrictions that can be simultaneously embraced and challenged.

Marden directly engaged these rectangular borders of his frame with a defiant sort of refusal, allowing his lines and forms to often extend beyond the canvas edge. With this movement beyond the frame, the artist thrusts Green Painting into a part of something much larger the picture now can read as a cropped fragment from an implied and imagined “beyond”. Within Green Painting, we see a repeated visual acknowledgement of the frame with a subtle centerline running vertically through the composition to divide Marden’s painting into additional rectangular segments, appearing almost like the pages of an open book. Upon these “pages” Marden places an illustrative demonstration of his interest in melding aspects of his drawing practice into his painted works. Marden has organized a poetic display of his “glyph” forms which are displayed loosely in stacked rows, formally becoming further suggestive of calligraphic writing. It is this interplay of order and spontaneity that elevates the present work to a more deeply contemplative level. To Marden, the possibilities of what a painting can accomplish are limitless and profound. In the artist’s words, “I’ve always believed that art is a way towards an enlightened state and it’s also meditative and it can take you beyond what it actually seems to look like and that’s really one of my most important working methods” (Brice Marden, “On Asian Art,” Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, video, 2009).

Courtesy of Sotheby's

Signature: signed, titled and dated 1986 on the reverse

Kunsthalle Bern, Brice Marden Paintings 1985-1993, October 1993 - March 1994, cat. no. 17, n.p., illustrated in color

Exh. Cat., New York, Mary Boone and Michael Werner, Brice Marden New Paintings, March 1987, n.p., illustrated

Patrice and Elizabeth de Laage, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Joyce Nereaux Fine Art, New York
Private Collection, New York

About Brice Marden

Best known for his striking calligraphic abstractions and serene early monochromes, Brice Marden is among the most esteemed and influential artists working today. In his trademark lyrical works, Marden paints a network of serpentine lines flowing hypnotically throughout the picture plane; he sometimes replaces paintbrushes with sticks or other natural implements to effect a more gestural and organic appearance. Marden draws on a range of influences in his practice, including Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (for whom he worked) and Asian art and calligraphy, as well as the Old Masters, rejecting most of his contemporaries as overly clinical. In his early monochrome works, created amidst the Color Field Painting and Minimalism of 1960s New York, Marden used abstraction deliberately as a way to evoke an emotional and subjective response from his viewers. “You should just look at it and react to it on your own,” he says. “Just relax and let go.”

American, b. 1938, Bronxville, New York