Ultimately I’m using the painting as a sounding board for the spirit. . . . You can be painting and go into a place where thought stops—where you can just be and it just comes out. . . . I present it as an open situation rather than a closed situation.
Brice Marden continuously refines and extends the traditions of lyrical abstraction. Experimenting with self-imposed rules, limits, and processes, and drawing inspiration from his extensive travels, Marden brings together the diagrammatic formulations of Minimalism, the immediacy of Abstract Expressionism, and the intuitive gesture of calligraphy in his exploration of gesture, line, and color.
In 1963 Marden received an MFA from Yale University’s School of Art and Architecture, where his teachers included the painters Alex Katz and Jon Schueler. After graduation he worked as a guard at the Jewish Museum in New York. There, during a 1964 Jasper Johns retrospective, Marden studied Johns’s early works extensively and considered them in relation to the Baroque masters he has long admired, such as Francisco de Zurbarán, Francisco Goya, and Diego Velázquez. Marden’s works from the 1960s include subtle, shimmering monochromes in gray tones, sometimes assembled canvases into multipanel works, in a manner similar to the black paintings and White Paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, who hired Marden as a studio assistant in 1966.
A trip to Greece in the early 1970s led Marden to create the Hydra paintings (1972), which capture the turquoise hues of the Mediterranean, and Thira (1979–80), a painting composed of eighteen interconnected panels inspired by the shadows and geometry of ancient temples. To heighten the effect of each color, plane, and brushstroke, Marden developed the unique process of adding beeswax and turpentine to oil paint and applying the mixture in many thin layers. Marden employed this technique for the Grove Group paintings (1972–76)—exhibited at Gagosian’s Madison Avenue gallery in New York in 1991, along with related works—and the Red Yellow Blue paintings (1973–74)—five permutations of the primary trio—which were united for the first time since their making at Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, New York in 2013.
In the 1980s Marden began to incorporate organic, intersecting lines, creating rhythmic patterns over fields of color. He has been exploring these winding lines ever since, experimenting with blank space, erasure, and references to the natural world. He seeks to create a mystical experience through the creation of elusive abstract spaces. As his many themes and techniques have overlapped, Marden has sought to bring them together in cohesive, often multipart works, which he has described as his “summation paintings.” Among them is The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version (2000–06), held in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he had his first comprehensive retrospective in 2006.
In recent years Marden has continued his exploration of the qualities of monochrome. This engagement with muted colors has informed new calligraphic drawings and works on canvas, such as the Nevis Stele paintings (2007–15), inspired by Chinese stone carvings from the late eighth century. In 2017 he turned his gaze to the expansive possibilities of terre verte (green earth), an iron silicate clay pigment, which he first used in the Grove Group. His new paintings incorporate many different brands of terre verte, each a variation on the indefinable hue. Marden thins his slow-drying paint and applies it gradually to the canvas in many successive layers, leaving a visible residue of the painting process at the lower edge of each canvas.