Marden’s recent retrospective at MOMA New York threw up the usual questions about his abrupt transition from colour fields to linear ones, about the state of abstraction in painting and of painting in art. These go to the core of the city’s claims as a centre for art, remain a critical heritage, confirm Marden as a local favourite while now inviting impatience and affection in equal measure.
Marden’s big shift came in the early 80s, well after the heyday of Minimalism, with which he was firstly associated, in the wake of Pattern and Decoration, New Image Painting and Neo-Expressionism, after the great mandarins of abstraction had lost interest or influence. It was a convenient even shrewd point for a mid-career change, critical censure there tempered by indifference. But the change is not so much triggered by the work of others as his steady concessions to facture in ‘colour fields’.
A colour field is a large area filled by seemingly one colour, but where subtle modulations in application and intensity test or tease consistency. The field is often vague or unsteady at borders, pulsing in harmony or contrast with surrounding wall or neighbouring field. Metaphorically, the field expresses uncertainty or yearning, may be tragic or triumphant. For Marden, a field is arrived at by patient sweeps by palette knife or similar; facture that brings with it ridges or lines that in turn appeal to shape or edge. The Minimalist ideal of displaying colour relations at a certain point admits these extra factors, begins to lose some of its purity or priority. At a certain point Minimalism disperses anyway, begins to maximise pictorial options.
Marden began basically influenced by Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, adopting the gentle modulations that comprise an overall field of colour, division of colours mostly by a strict vertical. Marden forgoes Newman’s distinctive zips (radically narrow fields), favours equal proportions, separate panels abutted to form a single work and milder palette, given to tertiaries and pastels. Marden’s paint is often encaustic, a nod to the related strategy of Jasper Johns. But when line looms as an unlikely extension to colour, the question gradually becomes can line then occupy a picture in the same way, can line form fields? To do this line cannot simply subdivide the space; allot colour to parts of the picture. Line cannot be just outline. A linear field must avoid making room for more than just line.
Initially, Marden cautiously dismantles the sturdy vertical divisions to colour (see Twelve Views for Caroline Tatyana 1977-79) concentrates on graphics, then invests line with optimum variation, makes it as diverse and lively as his colour facture has been. Inevitably the work is drawn to calligraphy or notation in resisting outline, just as a generation earlier, the work of Tobey, Mathieu, Michaux, and others had (this to ignore the towering example of Pollock, of course). So line then forms discrete units, like oriental characters (see Etchings to Rexroth 1986) but soon greater continuity develops, distributes points or intersections more or less evenly across the picture, forming a loose mesh of mainly straight lines of various weights, that avoid a single, obvious or unitary subdivision, often maintain a discreet margin around the edges (a nod to earlier doctrine).
Later, curves increase, and in the early 90s culminate in the Cold Mountain series, the literary title adding to the cartographic or landscape sense. Subsequently, lines gain in width, uniformity, take on distinct hues, grow sparser, curvier (see Attendant 4 (Monk) 1996-9) return to old issues of colour harmonies, modulation (incidentally offer striking contrast here with 60s work of Bernard Cohen. By 2000 lines more frequently run around the edge of the picture (see cover of MOMA catalogue), returning to another old Minimalist axiom, here stress scale of line, before traversing the picture with languorous, heavy rhythm. Finally, they are often combined with abutting panels or the old vertical divisions, offering changes of ground, measured against density of line, range of curves and their colours (see The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version (2000-2006), glimpsed in the background to Charlie Finch’s Artnet review).
So Marden comes full circle, reincorporates colour and facture to line, arrives at something more diverse and articulated than a colour field, perhaps a colour fabric] or fibre captures the richer habitat. Greater articulation still, would be to vary width of lines, divide lines within lines and blur more line with ground, but one senses Marden has not the temperament or technique for greater complexity, for that one must look to Jonathan Lasker. As they are, line width and range of curves suggest the flexibility or tensile limits of cables, conduits, roads; man’s networks laid against incident and environment. Marden’s structures are never just the painter’s or picture’s; remain generalised, abstract reference to the world. Their easy meanderings, casually adjusted integrity, also standing for an artist in his sixty-ninth year or for much more around him.