With his austere purism and disciplined approach, Brice Marden has been described as a star of the Minimalist movement, but he views his role as an artist to be that of both journeyman and mystic. "You have this mixture in all the works of formal thinking," Marden has explained, adding, "and then also this very hazy kind of romantic thinking. This is about the sea between Italy and Corfu. Or this is about going from here to here. And you use colors that are constantly referring back to this memory of observed color and you are constantly observing color all the time when you are working" (B. Marden, transcript from film, Brice Marden, 1977, n.p.). Plane Image demonstrates Marden's classicist approach to color, material and form. Deliberately pushing himself within the constraints of a fundamental artistic vocabulary, Marden has discovered within these limitations endless diversity. His pictures are about the plane, the rectangle, the surface, the edge and the relationship of one distinct color working alongside another. Everything is an integral part of the painting itself, referring to its physical presence as an 'object.' So much seems to be reduced to logical formalism, and yet at the heart of Marden's practice is the power to create a strong emotional reverberation within the viewer through the juxtaposition of color.
Informed by his numerous journeys, Marden's paintings are imbued with a strong sense of place. Visiting Hydra, a Greek island on the Aegean Sea, in the early 1970s and eventually establishing studios in both Greece and Manhattan, Marden became increasingly sensitive not only to color, but also shape. "Living on islands leads you to think a certain way," he has maintained. "I identify very strongly with the landscape in both places. I am not sure if I wasn't living in a city there would not be so much concentration on verticals and horizontals--but then living in Greece, the whole life is a kind of clarity, plus it has pulled me much closer to older art. I have more feelings about a tradition of making paintings" (Ibid., n.p.). Yet, while the classical post-and-lintel structure of Plane Image is reminiscent of ancient Greek architecture, its multiple panel construction, and the bold infusion of color, grew out of Marden's interest in his New York School predecessors.
Having been exposed to the influential zips and unadulterated color fields of Barnett Newman in 1971 at the artist's major retrospective organized by Thomas Hess at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Marden became significantly impacted by Newman's great series of four large works titled Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Blue, executed between 1966 and 1970. Drawing similar influence from Piet Mondrian's classical red, blue and yellow grids, Marden would soon embark on his own series of works dealing with the three primary colors as well as variations thereof-where red can range from deep purple to the burnt orange as explored alongside the blue and chartreuse yellow of Plane Image.
And while the rigid, planar assemblies of stark, bold fields of pure color draw formal similarities to Newman, Marden's use of numerous planes finds precedent in the multiple paneled spectrums of Ellsworth Kelly, who started combining physically separate panes in the early 1950s. Again, while both shared roots in Mondrian, Kelly's preoccupation with shape and dimensionality contrasts to Marden's more painterly flatness. In fact, at the base of such boldly colored compositions as Plane Image is the seemingly unlikely Abstract Expressionist, Mark Rothko. Upon journeying to the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, in 1972, and experiencing the monochromes and triptychs of his predecessor, Marden began joining panels of pure color into composite units that allowed him to explore color relationships without compromising the singular identity, space and unified surface of each panel, nor imposing a figure-ground tension on them. "By limiting each color he employed to one canvas, Marden sought to avoid the overlaps of figure-ground relationship that might compromise the identity and space of that particular color," curator Klaus Kertess has explained. "The color becomes totally identified with the plane of its individual support and the physicality of its paintedness. The color of each plane makes its own light and space, at once independent of and dependent upon its other planar partners. The painting is resolved and dissolved in the dynamics of a shifting symbiosis of planar identities" (K. Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 23).
While he rejected the atmospheric pulsation of Rothko's rectangular clouds of paint, Marden found inspiration in Rothko's ability to make color that remained abstract but was deeply, emotionally evocative. Marden's austere restraint was incompatible with the brooding opulence of Rothko's palette; it was not Rothko's color, but his ability to make it resonate that Marden sought to emulate. The mystical resonance of the triptychs in the Rothko Chapel deeply impressed Marden. Whereas Minimalist artists, like Donald Judd, denied the spiritual content of their work, Marden embraced it. "The rectangle, the plane, the structure, the picture are but sounding boards for a spirit," Marden has stated. "The paintings are made in a highly subjective state within Spartan limitations. Within these strict confines, confines which I have painted myself into and intend to explore with no regrets, I try to give the viewer something to which he will react subjectively. I believe these are highly emotional paintings not to be admired for any technical or intellectual reason but to be felt" (B. Marden, "Statements, Notes, and Interviews (1963-81)," Brice Marden: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1975-80, p. 54).
Plane Image emerges as a direct derivation of the artist's contemporaneous group of paintings known as Elements that were similarly constructed of three vertical rectangular panels adjoined to a capping horizontal in a post-and-lintel configuration. These works embraced the elements of alchemy, and ushered in a new stage in the artist's career. Typically dominated by widely shifting variants of red, yellow, blue and green previously employed in the artist's oeuvre, Marden's paintings from the early 1980s decidedly drew meaning from the hues in medieval alchemy that represented the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. Marden became interested in the spiritual treatment of materials after being commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral in 1978. Although the project never materialized, it led to his study of alchemist recipes. "You put silver into the glass to get yellow. You did all these things which alchemists worked on" (B. Marden, quoted in E. Heller, "I Think Of Myself As A Romantic Artist," Brice Marden, Zurich, p. 21). Of the elements to which these paintings came to reference, Kertess wrote, "It was through these states that the primordial emanation (Telesma) was thought to pass from the sun to transform the material opposites into a new unity of the immaterial. Here employing colors more symbolically than referentially, Marden sought a unity that like alchemy would dissolve and resolve the material into immanence. The transmuting powers of liquid solutions that were so crucial to its practices made alchemy a viable metaphor for artists, long after its rejection from analytical science. Marden aligned himself with the tradition of this metaphor and revised the concerns of many an early Modernist when he turned to alchemical models in search of colors suitable for executing both his stained-glass proposal and his paintings" (K. Kertess, op. cit., p. 31). Indeed, these works reflect Marden's desire to transform a painted composition as more than a sum of its parts. He states, "Not that it becomes magical or anything like that, but it takes on meaning at the point that it gains its own kind of life" (cited in E. Heller, op. cit., p. 21). Seemingly archaic in its post-and-lintel structure, Plane Image channels classical antiquity, medieval alchemy and American Modernism. Frequently alluding to mythology and religion through abstraction, Marden drew from the prior efforts of Rothko and Barnett Newman to objectify the mystical.
Brice Marden (b. 1938)
Oil on canvas
Property of The Phillip Schrager Collection
Signed, titled and dated 'PLANE IMAGE 1981-82 B. Marden' (on the reverse)
Brice Marden , 20th Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
Amsterdam, Stedelijk Museum, '60-'80: Attitudes, Concepts, Images, September-November 1982, p. 164, no. 3.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
86¼ x 51¼ in. (219 x 130.1 cm.)
S. Millburg, "Omaha Collector Phil Schrager Knows...What's an Art Gallery Doing in This Factory?," Omaha World-Herald, 12 December 1982, pp. 7 and 11 (illustrated).
R.W. Shell and M. McEnaney, "The Art of Management: Pacesetter Corp.," Inc, May 1983, p. 148 (illustrated in color).
C. Ross, "Schrager's Masterpiece," One Magazine, October 2003, p. 22 (illustrated in color).
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner, 1982