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Michel Majerus at Matthew Marks

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Michel Majerus, o.T. (69), 1994

Anxiety is the emotion one might most associate with Michel Majerus’s work, both when thinking about the artist’s too-short career and when confronted with the array of works that Matthew Marks has mounted across three spaces, the largest-ever showing of Majerus’s art in the US.

Majerus, Luxembourg-born and Berlin-based, died in a plane crash in 2002 at the age of thirty-five. According to his biggest supporter, the Moderna Museet’s Daniel Birnbaum, by the mid-1990s Majerus was the most ‘contemporary’ artist he knew. That assessment comes in part from a familiarity with Majerus’s omnivorous approach to imagery and the apparent ease with which he was able to discard debates over painting that had consumed the previous decade and generation. Mournful or melancholic? Critical or complicit? Once the stuff of shouting matches in museum lecture halls, such questions about painting’s remit must have been hard to hear under the thump of techno beats in Berlin after 1989, when the wall fell, history ended and we all became contemporary.

Whether you take your end-times thinking in the original Hegelian or prefer the lighter, more easily readable neoliberal version that Francis Fukayama began to peddle at the dawn of the 1990s, the period between 1989 and 1995 was indeed anxiety ridden. The only two works in the Matthew Marks show that date from this period, SOMEBODY WANTS TO BUY ALL YOUR PAINTINGS! (1994) and o.T. (69) (1994) betray a cheeky paranoia, not just about the market (‘Who wants to buy my paintings?’) but about art history: both works appropriate pieces that Warhol made in between 1985 and 1986 – end-time works in themselves (Warhol died in 1987) – and o.T. (69) includes nods to Anselm Kiefer and “The World-Ash”; so, back to Hegel and the ‘end of history’ via Wagner. Is it any wonder that we needed raves the early 1990s?

But then it is easy to get stuck in the web of Majerus’s links: ‘Is that from Super Mario Bros.?’ ‘Is that late De Kooning or camouflage?’ ‘That looks like Ruscha’s OOF but in inverted colours and crappily done.’ ‘Whose face is that next to Tron?’ By the time of the browser wars of the mid-1990s, the tech business and the economy were beginning their boom, so no one was thinking too hard about the answers.

Given all the cribbing and quotation and the speed with which it all appeared (Majerus produced something like 1,500 works during his short career), what’s obvious to note, at least, as many have, in retrospect, is that Majerus brought the promiscuity of the Internet’s image culture to bear on his artistic work in a manner that few artists have. What’s also important to note, as few have, is that Majerus relied heavily on scale – going big, very big – to give his work weight. Many works’ dimensions go over two metres, the effect of which is to inflate their contents to foreign proportions. It’s a quintessential pop manoeuvre. Warhol introduced it. Rosenquist probably perfected it. In Majerus’s hands it’s symptomatic of a tenuous touch, a need to get across to and, perhaps, connect with, or touch, an audience that is being blown ever further away from painting, and itself.

Published in the May 2014 issue of ArtReview.

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

June 2nd, 2015 at 8:10 am

Brice Marden: New Paintings | Matthew Marks | ArtReview

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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.

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

May 16th, 2012 at 9:34 am