Saturday, January 20, 2007

Brice Marden at MOMA

Writing this blog is nothing if not an incentive to get to art events that I might otherwise blow off. Or not. But let's say, nothing in the past couple of years has caused me to have an appetite to spend $20 for admission to the rebuilt Museum of Modern Art. I liked Picasso's Guernica on the old wall; I figured I'd like it on the new wall too, and didn't need to spend $20 to find that out. Nor would I necessarily have ponied up that sum to see the work of Brice Marden, who was no more than one more in a jumble of art-world names whose work I could at best vaguely characterize. But the "institutional theory of art", which says that art is whatever is canonized as such by the institutions of the art world, is at least right to this extent: art that will sell for a lot of money and be talked about by critics is that which has been canonized by the art world, in particular by MOMA. So why not take this opportunity to blow my $20 and see who's being canonized? (Note: although the MOMA show is over, you can familiarize yourself with hundreds of examples of Marden's work by using Google Images.)

First off, the new museum is more impressive than I expected. The rooms, for all their rectilinear design, have a much more spacious feeling than the old MOMA. Each work seems to have it's own space. The new architecture uses light in a way that reflects the nature of the museum contents, letting it pour through in unexpected, oblique but attractive ways, cutting it up in ways that never compete with the works but rather make the space itself a work in the modernist mode. Atriums and wide corridors seem to c
onnect the spaces in a way that lets you feel the museum as a whole, rather than a mere labyrinth of rooms and floors. Okay, I'm impressed. Doesn't mean I'm going to rush out and spend $20 for this very often (have I mentioned that admission to the museum is now $20?) but I might be inclined to recommend that everyone do it at least once.

The Brice Marden show was presented on two floors; the lower floor contained the drawings, and the paintings were on an upper floor. For what it's worth (now that the show is over) I think it was a mistake to tour the drawing exhibit first. Unless perhaps you are an artist or professional critic or curator, it is very hard to appreciate what is going on in the drawings without knowing the paintings. Many of them are not mu
ch more than charcoal-gray surfaces with a narrow line of light showing through at some point. Others were broken up into rectangular forms with the regularity of brickwork. It was not the lack of recognizable figures that made them inscrutable, but rather the lack of any variation between similar geometric parts other than minor tonal changes. There were also a few in which Marden used "found art" like postcards, and some in which the lines were freer and more sinuous. I cannot say I enjoyed any of this greatly; in fact, I felt a bit stupid for having come in with a decent amount of knowledge of art, art history and modernism, and still being unable to discern much more than gray rectangles and squiggles in these works.

When I got to the paintings I not only felt more in my element; I obtained a headset. (The headset, I'm happy to report, did not cost $20; it was free.) The recording consisted largely of
interviews in which Marden would talk about individual works, or his work as a whole. I will refer to it more in a bit; let me first say something about the paintings.

There were two major groups among the paintings. The first consisted of works with monochromatic blocks of color arranged in various ways, from two or three side by side panels to slightly more complex arrangements. When I say "monochromatic" I mean that they appeared at first sight to be monochromatic; but usually on closer inspection there was actually a lot of variation in tonal density and texture, albeit it within a fairly tight chromatic range and on a mostly smooth surface. The second group consisted of lines snaking around the canvas on a more or less monochromatic background. (Please note that the examples used here may not be the exact paintings displayed in the MOMA show; they are representative examples I found on the web.) The lines occasionally reminded one of Jackson Pollock in their intensity and freedom, but Marden attributes them to the influence of Chinese calligraphy. The paintings often had names denoting places, people, and events; but lest anyone think it a simple matter whether the notion of "representation" can be applied here, consider the fact that the only link between the title and the content was that the colors (and perhaps in some vague way the relationship among color blocks or lines) occurred to Marden in the course of experiencing or thinking about the subject. No one could ever tell from the three vertical blocks of paint in "Pearl" that it was "about" Janis Joplin.

As far as formal techniques, they were simple to the point of disappearance. There was an occasional symmetry, e.g., one painting consisted of two "T's" composed of various color blocks on either side of a larger "T". In the later works, one could say that the lines that weave through the painting generally fill the space in a fairly even way. That cannot be unintentional; there was certainly nothing preventing the artist from filling only a part of the canvas, or rather, of the background, since the canvases are pretty much always covered with a background color. There is, one could also say, a certain rhythm and intensity to the paintings: in the color block paintings the shades were clearly very carefully chosen, they complement or bounce off one another in a certain way. Great pains were taken to prepare the surfaces to a certain uniformity of texture, gloss, density, etc. The "calligraphy" paintings - which do not even remotely resemble actual calligraphy, as do some of the works of Franz Kline, for example, or occasionally (perhaps by mere chance) Robert Motherwell - can be variously described as sombre, joyful, frenetic, placid, and the like. The difference in emotional qualities suggests suggests both differences in content and in the formal techniques used to convey it. By analogy, an instrumental work of music has no visual content at all, but normally listeners would agree that it is either sad or happy, serious or playful, and the like. This is more or less an acknowledgment that the work, however inscrutable, has qualities that the artist (or composer) meant to convey and that he used some technical methods, not always obvious, to do so.

However, everything that can be said of the formal nature of Marden's work is highly metaphorical. And what can be said of their content is even more speculative. There is a definite point of disjunction here between the artist and the audience: there is what Brice Marden felt and thought of while creating the work, and there is what the viewer feels and thinks of while looking at it. Attempts to communicate across this gap are no more than reports by one side to the other; Marden's discussions of the works' titles and origins not only do not create meaning in the works themselves for the audience, they do not even have much impact on what the audience sees in the work. The block painting represented above is called Range. I suppose it could be about the prairie, and that the colors play off its dry, dusty palette, or the colors of horses or buffalo that roam there - the color range of the "range". But if someone told me it refers merely to a color range in the abstract or to the range in my kitchen I would feel neither more nor less guided. Such names and discussions express the artists thoughts and emotions across a gap over which at best the flimsiest bridge can exist.

This is not the case with all art. Figurative art often tells a story of sorts, and the meaning of the story is the meaning of the painting. The story may be that of The Execution of Maximillian, as in Manet's work which is the subject of another current show at MOMA; or it may be that the expression of this or that bourgeios patron refelcts her standing and certain social rules and constraints of her time. These thoughts are at least in some sense in the work itself. Given enough collateral information a sensitive viewer can make a reasonable guess as to what is expressed, or at least narrow down the range of reasonable interpretations to very few. Marden's work, like all abstract art, tells nothing like this. Or to put it another way, the collateral information needed to read into the work this meaning rather than that includes what was going on in the artist's mind at the time of creation: exactly the information that the interpreter is supposed to back out of the work in the other case.

Marden refers to this situation in one of his comments. He adopts the view that abstract painting contains greater expressive possibilities than figurative painting. Why? "When you look at it, you have nothing to go on but yourself. You're there, and it's there, and that's what you have to go on." This argument does not work for me. It says, essentially, that the great expressive possibilities of abstract art are the result of your feeling whatever it is you feel when you look at it. That is, abstract art is "expressive" in that it permits you to do some expressing. But this relegates abstract art to the value level of any found object that you can look at for a while and feel something - a brick wall, a torn poster, a cloud, a smudged apron, a dirty sidewalk. Who needs paint, canvas, or artists if this is the case? Let's just do abstract photography. I think Marden is a bit on the defensive here. Consider the monochromatic block paintings. You can read weightlessness or timelessness or spirituality or other subtle qualities into a Rothko, but that is partly due to their irregularity. The strict geometrics of Marden's monochromes makes
even this very difficult. You can admire the apparent planes and complexity of a Pollack, the frenetic activity of a late Kandinsky or Cy Twombly, the luminous motion of a Mondrian, the dreamlike quality of a Klee or Miro. With Marden's "calligraphy" paintings you can at least feel moved, in a sense, by the controlled unwinding of the form, like a spring that uncoiled within an enclosed space, an insect weaving a path or a particle tracing lines in a cloud chamber. All these are difficult calls, and the viewer who just does not get it cannot be called wrong or necessarily insensitive. But the viewer who claims to really get monochromatic color blocks must be "getting" in a way that is as self-contained as are Marden's thoughts when he creates the work.

If all Marden can say about the work is that it gives the viewer a platform for self-expression, I am not convinced that there is much inherent value in it. (Financial value's another matter; after this sort of canonization by MOMA, I suppose six figures would be a bargain price for one of his major works.) But I am not sure this is all he can say. He tells us to look at them from far away, then up close, then move back... which suggests that there is, for him, a particular way of viewing that should guide our expressive relationship to the work. (Rothko, who seems to be an obvious influence, allegedly suggested that people view his large, so-called "multiform" paintings from 18 inches away - a bit like sitting in the front row at the movie theatre.) He tends to leave paint marks along a narrow strip at the bottom of the canvas, or on the sides, and calls this a "history" of the creation of the work. So there is a narrative here, however obscure. Perhaps obscuring the history of creation is part of the meaning.

The most elaborate work in the show was also Marden's newest and largest work, one he suggests is not necessarily finished, entitled The Propitious Garden. This consists in two sets of six panels each, arranged on facing walls. The background in each of the panels in each of the sets represents one color of the rainbow, arranged in VIBGYOR order - except, hold the "I", Marden says he "didn't understand indigo" so that one was dropped. (I couldn't find any evidence that leaving out "I" was some sort of comment on personal identity or Wittgenstein's Tractatus, so I won't go there. What self-control...) On each of the backgrounds were painted the interlocking, snaking lines of Marden's recent work, each one a different color. Now here's the formal kicker: in each panel, the "top" line was the color of the background of the previous panel. And the difference between the two sets of panels is that they go in reverse order, or to put in another way, in the second set, the color of the top line becomes the color of the background in the next panel.

Kendall Walton points out in Mimesis As Make-Believe that all art is "representational" in at least the sense that this line or shape or color is represented as being "in front of" or "to the left of" that other one. If a blue line crosses any other line without breaking but no line crosses blue without breaking then blue is represented as being the "top" line. The Propitious Garden demonstrates this succinctly: not only is there a "top" line/color, but it is "generated" in some sense by the previous panel, and the line crossings are carefully controlled while giving a sense of freedom as in his other later paintings. That formal technique made me feel some connection with this piece that I did not feel with the monochromes, and made the other later works more approachable, as if they were somehow leading to something like this. Moreover I felt a certain sympathy for the desire to motivate lines and colors in this way. Perhaps this shows how little it really takes to go from hermetic work, where the artist's face is completely hidden, to work that genuinely expresses something across the gap I referred to earlier. I wanted to linger and be with this work, whereas the earlier rectangles made me want to move along until there was something to hold on to. Of course, not everyone would feel as I did: some might find the formal means artificial and harmful to the freedom expressed in the earlier paintings. To which I say, absolute freedom is no freedom at all; freedom without constraint is a barrier to creativity. IMHO. And I doubt that the apparent Pollock-like freedom in the other later works is really free in this sense. Marden even mentions self-imposed constraints drawn from the art of calligraphy. There may be many others as well. The space, as I said, is surely not filled randomly.

Finally, let's talk about one of Marden's lengthier and more interesting comments. He says that "the history of modern art is tightening the relationship of the image to the plane." According to Marden, they become united in Cezanne. In abstract art, "you try to keep the plane and the image locked together". He invokes the following analogy: "If you imagine a sheet of glass that's invisible, you put that over the surface of the painting, you reduce it down to nothing, that becomes the plane. The image in a painting is projected from that plane." The ideas of the image being "locked together" with the plane and being "projected" from it tend to clash a bit. But at any rate the concept seems to be that the linear perspective of the Renaissance, with it's vanishing points and chiaroscuro, is slowly compressed until it disappears in Cezanne. At that point art is free to use the surface itself, rather than hide the fact that there is a surface. This thought does go a long way toward helping us understand some developments in the 20th century, like Jackson Pollack, who laid his canvases flat and squeezed paint onto them, and Morris Louis, who held them at an angle and dripped paint down them. These artists really used the surface without apology! Yet I wonder if this really characterizes all abstract art. The art of Yves Tanguy is abstract but maximally perspectival. Luc Sonnet, whose work I mentioned in a previous post, employs abstraction within the context of a kind of galactic depth of field. I don't know that I think Cezanne's work is exactly locked into the plane. I agree that perspective diminishes in importance, but if Cezanne folds everything into the plane, what to make of Picasso's Three Musicians? It seems even closer to the plane than Cezanne, but yet does not lack perspective entirely. In Marden's later work, one has to imagine depth and perspective, but he seems to be willing to license us to find what expression we can in the painting, so it's hard to see how plane and picture are "locked together". But if this is the way Marden wants us to imagine things in his work, that is a clue that can help one appreciate it in the absence of identifiable references.

Here are some analogies to think about. First: several years ago I saw a video work (can't remember the artist or where I saw it) which consisted in a man washing a facade of floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows. The windows would be all covered with (soapy?) water and he would squeegee the water off with a rubber blade attached to a long pole. I can't recall the details exactly (was the washer inside or outside? which side was the camera on? was it projected from opposite perspectives on either side of the screen?) but the important point is this: as he cleared the water from the window the window washer slowly revealed the content behind it. In this work you could easily think of the window itself as the plane of the canvas and the window washer as the artist creating content. Second: I have used the following analogy for certain philosophical theories of photography (from which I demur) in which the photograph is said to be "transparent". Imagine that you are looking through a plate glass window, say, in some country house, and that you have the ability at any point to freeze the scene behind the window, then remove the window, image intact, frame it and hang it in a gallery in New York. This is how some philosophers conceive of photographs. In this sense I guess photography would be the perfect realization of Marden's unity of plane and picture. (And it is well known that photography had a significant impact on the art world in the 19th century, so his location of the collapse of picture into plane in Cezanne would be roughly compatible with this.)

Third, and most interesting, I thinK: immediately after completing my tour of the Marden show I found myself in a room dominated by one of Monet's magnificent water lily panoramas. I was still thinking about Marden's remarks, and looking at the painting it suddenly struck me that in this painting, the water is the surface of the canvas itself. The water plays the primary role here, not the lilies or the footbridge or the fantastic wash of colors, all of which have tremendous visual power. What counts is the water: it is that which produces the form and generates the content of the image. The bridge, the foliage, everything else is reproduced in the water, and without this reproduction there is no scene here. And it is just because the water lilies share the plane of the water, and do not require this reproduction, and do not attempt to constitute a separate reality from the surface, that the painting is in some sense "about" them. They are, in a sense, the unity of image and plane. Here is a painting, then, which utilizes water as a metaphor for the canvas itself, and once you realize this a sort of furious drama unfolds between the real and virtual surface as they compete to constitute the plane of the image.

I still don't know if I am ready to accept Marden's view of the merging of plane and image as the key to understanding abstract art. But I know that I would never have had so deep an appreciation of Monet's water lilies if he had not put that thought in my head.

1 comment:

Nous Letters said...

I love the new museum, but I still can't believe it's $20.00. Good thing I still have my CUNY ID. Since this was your first visit to the new location, that means you didn't see the Thomas Demand show. Tragic!