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A Moving Meditation on Mortality in Brice Marden’s Late Paintings

Brice Marden’s recent paintings and drawings are tentative, tender, heartbreaking, angry, vulnerable, and open. As his work requires him to engage the surface with gesture, pressure, and movement — which has been true since the beginning of his career — it is tied to what he can physically accomplish. Looking back at the career of this preeminent artist, I see three basic periods. In the first, which lasted from 1964 to the mid-1980s, he worked monochromatically and was known for the thoroughness of his attention to surface and the palpable yet elusive color he could attain with encaustic. There was an unmistakable physicality to his muted paintings, a tension between the expressive and the understated.  

In the second period he re-envisioned how he used line and how he painted, and traded the subtle tactility of encaustic for diluted oil and drawing in what he once described to me as “dirty turpentine.” This period was inspired by his window designs for the Basel Cathedral; his travels in North Africa, where he looked at Islamic architecture in Fez and Marrakesh; a trip to Thailand, where he started collecting seashells, particularly volutes, and made layered drawings loosely inspired by their markings; and by the exhibition Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th–19th Century, at the Japan House Gallery and Asia Society, New York (October 4, 1984–January 6, 1985). 

In his paintings from this time, he would go back into the looping lines and, using a razor blade, make sure the edges were straight and clean. The lines were flat and moved gracefully, evoking Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings without resembling them in any way. I never felt that Marden thought it was necessary to either jettison the past or to quote it. He thought it was possible to move forward without assenting to these well-known choices, and time has proven that he was right. 

Installation view of Brice Marden: These paintings are of themselves at Gagosian in New York (© 2021 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Rob McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian)

Whereas Marden’s meticulousness and definitive visual statements characterize the first two periods, the third, or what I see as his late period, reveals an artist who knows that change is inevitable, that mortality is hurrying closer, and that art is not a bulwark against time. This awareness of the clock running out has had a major effect on his work and, I would hazard, on his psyche.

I estimate that this late period started around 2016–17, when he made 10 paintings measuring 8 by 6 feet, using 10 different brands of terre verte oil paint; each painting was done in one of the brands, with the paint applied in successive layers. The process was incremental, restrained, and, as with his previous work, thoroughly thought through regarding its parameters. At the time, Marden was nearly 80. 

Marden applied a thin wash of one of the terre vertes over the entire surface. He then measured off a horizontal line, which resulted in a square on top, tightly filling the upper portion of the vertical format, while leaving a wide band running along the bottom. This compositional structure seems to have been inspired by the proportions of a vertical sketchbook that he was using at the time. Next, he filled the square with successive layers of wet, slow-drying paint, allowing thin rivulets of color to drip down from the square’s bottom edge into the band below, like ragged strings. By dividing the canvas into two unequal areas and covering the surface in strict monochrome, Marden limited his control over the painting’s imagery, as well as surrendered his ability to determine what happened in the wide band below. 

Marden chose terre verte (also known as…

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