Brice Marden’s ‘new paintings’ – one series of compositions in oil and graphite on fragmented slabs of marble and another series of nine modestly sized monochrome canvases – are not so much paintings as exercises, the kind of thing (good) painters do when trying to shake out old habits and awaken some dormant muscles. In the case of the monochromes, Marden is doing memory work.Marden painted the nine canvases that make up the Ru Ware Project (2007–12), each one a subtly differentiated shade of grey or blue or beige, from his memory of the glazing on this rare Song Dynasty pottery, an exhibition of which he saw in Taipei in 2007. In the case of the marble works, Marden is testing his mettle against grounds that are already rich with incident.
Brice Marden, Years 2, 2011; Matthew Marks Gallery
But how can a painter compete with marble? Since antiquity at least, imitating it has been the challenge. The tromp l’oeil vistas that once dissolved the villa walls of Pompeii offer good examples of the way the spider-veined stone could be conjured from wet plaster and pigment. The latter was cheap compared to the former, hence the patron’s motivation and the painter’s challenge. Yes, the Ancient Greeks painted their marble statues and temples. But when the stone proved decorative enough on its own, they let it be, just as Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe would some 2,000 years later.
It was in the 1980s that Marden, then sojourning in Greece, first decided to substitute canvas for fragments of marble slab. With washes of thinned-out oil, and sometimes thicker linear applications, he turned his painting practice into a conversation with the history of carbonate flow and crystallisation that is revealed in any cross-sectioned bit of the rock. Think of it as painting jump-started by geology. It brings to mind what Gilles Deleuze once wrote about the painter’s task being one of excavation, of getting through the layers upon layers of historical precedent that exist in every so-called blank canvas. In other words, no canvas, just like no page, is ever truly blank.
Marden’s works from the 1980s, and now this new series, put one in mind of some idyllic art school, a class held in a sun-drenched courtyard with plaster casts and stone fragments laying about. There are the students, taking up their shards of marble for a session on learning to speak the language of liquid materials, the underlying lesson being that, at large enough time scales, stone is liquid too. The task of the day is to mix the two, stone and paint, with their respective times, in order to feel out their balance. And there is Marden, pacing the yard, watching the young time-travellers work. The camera pulls back now, through a window that looks out onto the courtyard, and inside we see a shaded room, where the teacher’s own few but successful mixtures line the walls.
From the summer 2012 issue of ArtReview.