Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
“In the beginning there was the word … and the word was made real.” Its reality emanates from the act of creating the word. The making of this sign—that word articulated the act—differentiating it from all else.
God created the word—(Act of Creation)—by using the “32 Secret Paths of Wisdom,” acts of creation before the beginning of creation. Each of these paths corresponds to one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet or the ten elemental numbers. Each letter and number is a principle or a stage of the “Act of Creation.”
Brice Marden since the mid-’60s has been known for his single and multiple panel paintings of sensuous color. He has shown in the US and abroad regularly since 1966. His works are in most major private and museum collections of contemporary art. In 1975 his work was the subject of a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. In his most recent work he has expanded his vocabulary to include the gestural.
Saul Ostrow The first part of what I want to discuss with you is my memory of your history. Things that disappeared from the common reading of your history such as the post card drawings, and those early works that are referential, iconographic. The early grid drawings. And the possibility that your early work was misread in relation to minimalism. In rethinking your work it seems much more rooted in Newman, Rothko. Still and Reinhardt towards the sublime rather than Stella and Johns.
Brice Marden … I didn’t get Newman at all and Newman didn’t show much. I saw the big French & Company show, it was the first show that he’d had in a long time.
SO In ten years.
BM And then he had a Knoedler show and then he was in a show at the Jewish Museum. I just really didn’t get it. Also Reinhardt’s whole stance about painting was anti-abstract expressionist. It really just pissed me off. I didn’t like Reinhardt at all.
SO I’m talking about the evocative. Newman’s relationship to the sublime—the idea of a painting that’s here and now—the experiential, the sensuous end of it not necessarily the rhetoric they generated: painting in terms of the veiling, this skin that hides something. You’re early paintings were a skin, a veil, like a theater curtain where a thin band at the bottom is just that crack of light in the way that Newman takes his zip with a crack of light. You attempt to peek through to something else. Which has less to do with the reductive aspects of minimalism and objecthood … does that make sense?
BM It seems there are so many things, references. I didn’t feel at all aligned with the Stella logic. I felt much more in tune with abstract expressionism—much, much more. The actual act of painting, the physicality of the thing, became the substance of abstract expressionism. Paint worked as an actual plastic element. And you know, the paint wasn’t meant as a reductive thing. I would think to myself that this could be a detail of a Pollock line, it was spatial. Like my real early stuff, the first color paintings really came out of trying to paint grids, but I couldn’t work out a grid. There’s so many references. There’s one painting that’s like two squares, called Pair. I was thinking of those two Rauschenherg paintings, Factum I and II, because they started out to be two separate paintings and then by the time I finished them they were one painting. I was also thinking of Giacometti portraits—spatial exactness within the frame. I had also done a painting that was two squares on a canvas and it was divided down the middle with charcoal lines—that was the edge. It wasn’t about something coming through. The line was where things met as opposed to how you talk about the Newman zip.
SO Does the content of abstract expressionism interest you?
BM The cathartic?
SO Well, I was going to say there are three different streams that all ended up being called abstract expressionism. There’s the cathartic, there’s the transcendental and the surrealist, automatic writing, which influenced Pollock. This last idea includes veiling, the embedding of images and through repetition, dissolving them in space.
BM The surrealist thing didn’t interest me so much. Jasper Johns did. What interested me about Johns was the reality. I could paint one of the rectangles and think of it as a wall but it was also just a rectangle. When I was in Paris, DeGaulle was cleaning up the city and they were redoing a lot of walls. You could watch these guys plaster the walls, drips accumulating at the bottom, the physicality of it. And then you think, well, there’s a perfectly valid painting.
There is one aspect of my thoughts in the beginning that could be considered reductive. In school the teacher would come around saying this part is a cliché on Kline, this part is a cliché on de Kooning, and this is a cliché on so-and-so, and it was. We students would run into the city to find out how de Kooning splashed. These were our references. De Kooning was the reference, the model. Pollock was a man out of sight, dead. Wasn’t being shown. They’d had a retrospective but I had seen it only briefly. There wasn’t a lot of Pollock around.
So when you try to get rid of all the clichés, you end up with a wall and a rectangle. That’s reductive. Some people said it was nihilist. It wasn’t.
SO There’s also the aspect of the process, that accumulation, the building up of that surface.
BM It’s memento mori—you build up these veils of feelings. It seems as though, because the early paintings were just one color, one could say one color, no feelings—but instead of no feelings they were all this feeling. Each layer was a color, was a feeling, a feeling that related to the feeling, the color, the layer beneath it. A concentration of feelings in layers. The drips memorized the feelings, the layers, the colors. I always thought that was very expressionistic. And that’s what I felt with the Johns’s. The whole Johns thing … He took an absolute reality—a flag, a target—and made painting out of it. That really fascinated me.
My fascination with the Spaniards, say somebody like Zurbarán, is this concentration. Where you see him take subject matter and go beyond it in a mystical sense. Mystics get beyond themselves and you end up with this really strange … The way he would paint silk. I always imagined that he got so involved with painting the silk, he must have looked at it and painted it so carefully, so intensely, that he went beyond it and made it into something that was actually really felt or was being felt on different levels. So the silk robes always ended up looking like cast iron. I remember Edwin Dickenson coming to Yale and saying that, “I saw the great cast iron draperies of Zurbarán.” I barely know who Zurbarán was at the time. And then right after school, in Paris, I saw all the references. (I mean in terms of getting out of school, working through influences, coming to New York, being here a short period and then moving to Paris, which totally removed me from the whole American thing.) And then you’re in Paris and go to as many galleries as you can. You don’t have any idea what it’s all about. You see Fautrier and Giacometti drawings everywhere you go—all the stuff we didn’t have here—those references. I spent a lot of time in the Louvre. I couldn’t paint in Paris. I drew. The drawings evolved out of the paintings that I was working on in that interim period in New York, they were things like Ralph Humphrey’s last show at the Green Gallery. He was a big influence—Robert Morris, the grey sculpture show. Being in New York just out of school, being very involved with that milieu, everything was very upsetting. And then to suddenly pull away from it all, be off in some place where you’re looking at walls and it’s France.
SO How long were you there?
BM I was there for six months. And then to come back to a totally unstable situation, because I didn’t know anybody here and had split up with my wife there. So you’re in your studio fantasizing about Zurbarán paintings. That transference, like how you could paint something that was just one color and think it was everything.
SO Were those the paintings in the first Bykert show?
BM I’m talking about the paintings that preceded that show. I was reducing. By the time I left school I was doing four rectangles brought together, painting a lot along the meeting edges. By the time I came to New York, I did these paintings with two rectangles, two greys and a lot of paint, movement and paint.
SO I think I remember those at the Guggenheim.
BM I remember working on a grid painting, one half was a grid and one half was one color and then just painting the grid out. That was really the first one color painting. They were viewer resistant. They had lots of varnish and lots of oil, highly reflective surfaces. It was like a hedge. There was this definite thing there and I didn’t want them to see it. The paintings might have looked like they were trying to disappear but I saw they were trying to assert themselves. I wanted to make the color more interesting. One of the code readings of abstract expressionism was ambiguity. I saw you could make a color be ambiguous. A grey could turn itself into a green, et cetera.
SO The postcard drawings, even your announcements have European cultural references.
BM All the postcard drawings were postcards of things I really liked when I was in Paris: The Marchioness de la Solana; that Goya piece; the Venus de Milo. I picked the cards up later. The Marchioness de la Solonna was a real revelation, a coloristic and spatial revelation.
SO One of your announcements is you sitting on Cézanne’s tombstone.
BM That is the base for a Maillol sculpture to Cézanne.
SO There were a couple of others, the Godard reference. I was wondering how important those announcements were in terms of setting up one’s thinking.
BM Those were meant as additional reference for the audience—information. That’s one of the things about the postcard drawings too. Obviously, the postcard drawings were very expository. They were like little lectures on my attitudes about the plane and about images.
BM And I saw them as almost embarrassingly literal. It was like giving a lecture. And nobody seemed to get that point. I scraped away the paper so that the card was set in the paper on the same plane as the graphite image. The drawn image is a combination of a rectangle of black graphite and the postcard, which is a flat reproduction of a work of art. They are not layered against each other. They exist in the same spatial plane.
SO Given that, the announcement cards begin to carry a different weight. I remember them as a key to the paintings, it made the paintings referential.
BM Are you referring to a key, a code? Because I always used them that way.
SO The Godard one, from Alphaville, is an incredibly spatially complex film still.
BM He’s coming in the room and he’s light against dark and she’s in a room dark against light. He’s coming in.
SO But at the same time, it’s still the same plane, spread apart. Spatially you can’t read them.
BM I don’t know if it was Godard as much as the cinematographer. You have to credit him Raoul Coutard.
SO The break between the grids to The Suicide Notes where the drawing went from that density and compactness to the mark being stretched out across the paper—opening up.
BM The grids come out of the shape of the paper or the shape they define. There was always some sort of reference, very rarely arbitrary. But with the grids, I always thought drawing on the layers of graphite was the labor of the drawing. It’s possessing it, making it yours. To start out with this rectangle and make it yours by marking it over and over. And it’s still itself. But then of layers, say in the graphite drawings, we have to go back so many times over to get it black, so you can think of them as a spatial layering in the process of making it. So if you think about making it, the Suicide drawings become much more understandable in terms of layers of imagined spaces.
SO It’s almost like looking at them through a microscope where the spaces between are magnified.
BM They’re drawn very carefully, using this pen that could really get it accurate—how things ended, how things began, how things met.
SO They have the same precision as the mechanics in the grid drawings?
BM The mechanics in the grids were always really hand measured and a bit off, never quite accurate. It was never mechanical; mine were anything but that. I always thought the hand was about making something.
SO The Suicide Notes begin to open up to some invention in terms of the range of mark-making. The densities change. They became calligraphic. You couldn’t avoid reading in terms of that calligraphy and in terms of the collective title, Suicide Notes, the idea of notation—that thing that’s left behind, the explanation. Now, in hindsight, from 1987, looking back, The Suicide Notes begin to announce the demise of the plane, the planer construction of the paintings.
BM Yes. (pause) Well, how do you mean, planer construction of the paintings? The physicality can be very European, but spatially they’re very American because they aren’t so cubist. You look at Kline—American painters really come more out of nature, whereas cubist seems much more interior related, a tighter relating of planes. You look at Still—it’s landscape; you look at Kline—it’s American landscape. Pollock … I mean, mine aren’t interiors, they’re outside.
SO I recall a lot of discussion about The Suicide Notes because, at that time they seemed the antithesis to what you represented. You were doing the triptych paintings at that time.
BM There was a lot of drawing involved in putting on that color in the paintings. You didn’t just put down a color, you painted it. Then the paintings from that point —the drawings on of the paint became much less idiosyncratic. I made it more planer. There could be more readings. I would make the stroke which would go right from the top to the bottom, this freehand stroke. But I would try to make it as straight as possible. There were always little marks and scratches. And that happened around the time of The Suicide Notes. I never made too much of The Suicide Notes, but then, also right after the Notes I started doing these vertical/horizontal drawings. To me it was trying to feel out the plane.
SO Was it trying to begin to understand your own alphabet? Your own vocabulary?
BM Yes. And then I thought I could break down the plane more in the paint.
SO Like the Annunciation Painting?
BM I had these ideas about things moving through, moving across a plane—out, out, out. They were painted in such a way that the stroke on the right was echoed in the stroke on the left. They were really working across and reverberating back and forth, but it was the kind of thing you couldn’t see. It was there if you wanted to try and see it, but it wasn’t there enough. So I thought, well, I’d grow into it. I mean in a lot of ways you had to figure out how you wanted to deal with this stuff. In the end I think it was very evident in those last panel paintings. The strokes set up a vertical grid work that was actual drawn tension. That vertical grid work continued all the way through and reverberated in the paintings from panel to panel. In the Annunciations I put the paint on working from right to left, but the light moved from left to right.
SO And now I see a lot of Chinese calligraphy and seashells on your tables around the studio. It seems like the shift now is from formal concerns of process to another set of references.
BM All of this drawing going on is a continuation of The Suicide Notes. It was this real dichotomy. The paintings just got more and more formal where the atmosphere has much more to do with color. And then the color ideas become either very abstract or very naturalistic.
SO It sounds like the drawing takes on a life of its own and the painting continued its program in terms of the plane and the density of color. It’s real split, the drawing …
BM Yes, the drawings are really good.
SO The marble slabs where you painted strokes across the surface, the veins in the marble are almost functioning like the marks in your drawings. It’s like a forced marriage, a forced synthesis.
BM The marble paintings were done in Greece on rubble that I found lying around; taking a given shape and painting on it; taking an accident and turning it into a form. There was another set of drawings in the last show at Pace that were really done in nature—outside—no formal ideas. Then there were the studies for The Window Project. I was making a proposal for a whole group of windows in the apse of the Minster in Basel, so I already had panels to work with. I devised a program of images based on The Revelations. The drawings were related to my more formal ideas in painting except that I introduced diagonals. When I was working on the drawings for the windows—being glass—they had a whole different reference to light—to drawing in space. So I’d have formal painting based on post and lintel structures, and these seemingly very informal paintings on marble; and then the drawings done outside—mostly from looking at water. In Greece you have mountains that diagonally frame the water beyond. They become vessels. So when I started using the diagonal—it had the same shape. In a lot of the drawing I was taking a shape, an accident and turning it into a form. So you take something out of control and bring it into control.
SO Does this relationship, like Chinese calligraphy and the shells, represent that same sort of duality of nature and culture?
BM Yes, that is where the artist stands—the intermediary.
SO The shells are marked—it’s a sort of mark-making even if one doesn’t call it calligraphy.
BM They’re marked in a very specific way by nature. There are certain growth patterns, but I can’t explain every mark on a seashell.
SO The Chinese calligraphy, you can’t explain those marks either, or can you?
BM I can’t.
SO So I’m saying both the natural and the cultural here have the same sort of mystery. It almost becomes Kabbalist—the attempt to explain or reveal some sort of truth, or insight on the supposition that everything has meaning.
BM Yeah, I guess. That also comes out of making a painting. And to me a painting isn’t just some facts. A painting is more like, you know, it’s a lot of things, but it’s frozen for study and for feeling. I mean if there’s any working method, it’s just keeping it open so you can put in as much as you want to put in, or try to get it in, having it be an open-ended situation rather than a closed situation—in opposition to Formalism.
SO Frank Stella: “You get what you see.”
BM Yeah, the paint is what comes out of the can, what you see is what’s there …
SO And that there is no reading because at that point—the painting is an icon, is a location.
BM I think of my paintings as icons—but the icon is really open to all sorts of interpretations. It doesn’t just become some physical fact that you can’t read beyond. There are 14 icons that can’t be traced to human hands, acheiropoetos, meaning not made with the hand. Icons made by something other than human hands. I mean, that’s to me the kind of painting you strive for.
SO The ultimate authority doesn’t lie with the maker?
BM Well, it does—no, no. The ultimate authority does lie with the maker. Ultimately I’m using the painting as a sounding board for the spirit. A painting can be a record of that. And I still think of it that way. It’s something you can get off on. You can be painting and go into a place where thought stops—where you can just be and it just comes out. And you can get there by starting from a formal proposition or it also can be … I present it as an open situation rather than a closed situation. You don’t have to get it. I’m not giving you something you get.
SO Or something that will stay the same, remain fixed in thought.
BM I’m giving you something whereby you could get something.
SO It doesn’t stay the same every time you see it.
BM It does. That’s one of the great things about it. It stays the same but you change.
SO Actually, I was talking with someone just last night about how at least with the earlier paintings I always had a certain resentment. When they were present, I loved them. There was all this sensuality. But the minute I was removed from them there was a sense of loss, a diminishing. My memory of the image wasn’t enough of a carrier to reproduce the experience. The paintings really demanded their presence.
BM I like that. That’s what painting is about, it’s about looking at paintings. It’s got to be there to look at.
One of the things that I most admire about Stella is his absolute willingness to get rid of any kind of bullshit, to hold any kind of bullshit in disregard. “I paint my color as it comes out of the can. What you see is what you get.” All of my stuff is full of a kind of head in the clouds hedging, but it’s a perfectly viable stance.
There are possibilities to make paintings that people don’t pursue. The whole post-modernist thing is about closing down possibilities—that’s just bullshit. What about magic? Okay, magic. You look at all the religious paintings very formally, you look at them historically, but what about Zurbarán painting something and just going out of himself. To me it’s possible. It was a big thing with the abstract expressionists. How you could go and paint and work but there was only a small amount of time when you really painted. And that was when you were in another state. You’re coasting right along, you’re not even thinking. It’s just all coming out. You’re the medium, and to me that exists. This could be an aim.
SO I think Greenberg still has an incredible influence, albeit an unconscious one, on a whole generation of painters who have never read him. It’s as if Greenberg’s some boogie-man instilled in them via their teachers, producing this stifled, self-conscious … There’s a number of people called “postmodernists” who I would think would be Greenberg’s dream in that they totally fulfilled the menu: the frontality, the reinforcing of structure, the emphasis on color, right down the line.
BM Maybe. But now in an odd way, I see Greenberg as a romantic.
SO I’m probably going to agree with you.
BM What happens is he comes down to this belief that the painting is powerful, that you can reduce the most abstract element and have this really powerful thing there. He’s not into mysticism, but the real belief in that abstract image and the strength of it can be read as romantic. He thinks Olitski is the best painter. Olitski’s incredibly romantic looking.
SO There is within Greenberg this—be it metaphysical, a belief in the potential of the human being to constantly transcend the moment. There is in Greenberg, no end to history. He saw Noland and Olitski and so on as opening up that situation. Correct or incorrect in terms of his choices, the idea of that type of modernism interests me—sort of a self-critical practice that allows itself to say, that was that moment and this is now this one. Our audience would like to deny us that access, that ability to say, “We change.” I remember the debates over Philip Guston, people bemoaning the loss of Guston as an abstract painter, or any number of other people. It’s as if one’s not allowed to grow or change one’s mind, especially after having succeeded.
BM Oh yes. There’s so much that’s extra—I mean really coming from power shifts in the art world.
SO I’m actually talking more about the idea of denying the artist the right to be affected by one’s own work.
BM I think the audience has always denied that, right. I have always looked on the artist as this romantic character who, no matter what, is striving just to be true. Making art is a moral endeavor. They try to knock it out of you by ignoring you, or they try to knock it out of you by accepting it and turning it into a commercial endeavor, but they always sidestep the issue of art. But artists are stubborn. It’s personal, just making this stuff.
SO For the most part it’s a private thing then made public.
I’ll give you what my reading was of your new paintings, which was that having finally resolved the question of creating the tablet, it became a question of what does one inscribe on that tablet. It’s like Moses, not to get romantic, finally deciding that the shape of it should be this, and then it was like okay, what do I write?
BM That’s like my saying to Cy Twombly, “Well, my paintings are just ready for you to work on.” And he said, “No, mine are ready for you to work over.”
SO Some of the newer paintings in your show last spring had brush strokes which seemed like a tentative attempt to add inscription. Here were these irregular grids, beautiful browns as sensuous as the encaustic paintings with these inscriptions, which were to me, very much about the body, about one’s reach; whereas the others deny you any access to making, except for the band or the spatula mark. These reveal their making—down to being able to locate where you were standing to make it. There’s a game I play with Cézanne’s where I keep moving back and forth in front of them until I can locate the point of distortion, back into almost irrational space. Cézanne’s almost a rewrite of those Renaissance anamorphs—where you put the mirrored cone in the middle. They are paintings which are incredibly distorted.
BM Like the Holbeins.
SO Like the Holbeins. But that’s what a Cézanne’s like to me. And your paintings were very much about that. I could locate myself and see your relationship to some of the reaching and the point where the body shifts and that became the inscription. These are the tracings of your body in front of that plane.
BM I still think of them as using these numerical systems that are very similar to the other paintings, in columns which can read as figures, in columns of three or four, say four columns of three, three columns of four. I mean it’s one, two, three and it’s right on the grid. It’s coming out of calligraphy. Calligraphers wrote from left to right so they couldn’t smear the ink. When I paint, I go and I work and I go back into it. I put something on and then I go right back and take it off. I mean, I don’t take it off, I go back with a knife and redraw and take the paint off, trying to keep it as close as possible to the skin, trying to keep away from any kind of build-up. You put something on, you take it off. But, there’s a thing there.
There is a reference to the double helix. I make a point of not having diagrams of it around—but it seems to me that when you draw from a tree and in that time you draw you are getting the energy of it, and then you go back and draw it some more, or the next day you draw a seashell on top of it and then the next day you draw figures on top of that—a spiral begins to form. You’re working off of the drawing you did yesterday, that energy is informing the drawing you do on top of it today, but every time you go back, you’re different. It’s layers of time. What happens between the layers’?
SO The memory of that?
BM An energy that I’m romanticly linking with life. What I’d really like to make when I make a painting is to make life. I don’t work from memory. I want it.
SO But it comes from …
BM It’s not making a sign of it. I want it. I really want that experience. In the last panel paintings I thought I was trying to make life without chemicals, you know. In alchemy, “the primordial emanation, Telesma, leaves the sun and is carried by the wind to pass through the four material states of fire, air, water and earth.” I was trying to make paintings where if the colors were right—I was using color from medieval symbolism—Telesma would emanate from the resulting form. A formalist would say this is romantic bullshit, but the belief that this can be done is really my subject matter. And as totally off-the-wall as my whole thinking about it was, still there’s this vague belief that I could really do it, maybe really transform something. Those were the most abstract paintings that I’ve done.
SO Even the project of alchemy was to transform the maker. It was only through the transformation of the maker that they could transform lead to gold.
BM I never thought of it.
SO Transmutation, in the same way you had to purify the water. The alchemist would go through purification rites, meditations, baths and so on, so that the materials wouldn’t be contaminated by him.
BM I didn’t know that. One of the things about working the windows—we took the Window Project on to force this change. The window is a real grid, a given grid, the panes like my lines across it. We were suspending these images in light, glass, air, atmosphere, these colors floating. It’s light and it’s color—all that was euphoric. And in working out ways of depicting these for myself with the paintings—their physicality changed. Suddenly there is not thick and thin, there’s a different atmosphere. The matter was no longer the carrier of light.
SO It wasn’t by accident that I made the reference to Moses or tablets—and the idea of inscription.
BM It’s also the old idea in calligraphy. It really says something, it can be read. The best calligraphy often can’t be read. Every Japanese restaurant with scrolls on the wall that I go to, I ask, “What does that say?” And they don’t know. It’s like the Greek temples. There weren’t masses of people going to Greek temples and getting off on it. Say Athens is a population of 25,000, 500 people could go up and really get off on the Parthenon, the whole physical experience. It’s like painting.
SO Is there a conscious vocabulary or is it just …
BM In the last ones I had really no idea of what I was doing. I’m going in with the experiences of the last group of paintings, but I found the drawing I did over the summer became very confused. It had a very confused quality. I think that’s going to happen with these paintings. So I draw before I go back to work on them. Well, certain marks are happening over and over and I let it happen. Some drawings are just about those marks, this triangular thing. Just introducing the diagonal into the rectangle opens the space to more implications.
SO Do you think that painting can be euphoric? And that this euphoria can be experienced?
BM Yes. The actual aesthetic experience can be mystical. The Greek plays were supposed to do that. The Greek religious sites where the plays were performed, Delphi, etc. were chosen for the landscape’s configuration as an image of a religious idea. In this atmosphere, when an actor performed Zeus, he becomes Zeus. There is a suspension of belief. Revelation becomes possible.
Saul Ostrow is an artist, contractor, and curator living and working in New York.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Sign up for the BOMB Retrospective newsletter to receive curated selections from each decade of the archive.