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Life Lines
The Major Brice Marden Show at Hamburger Bahnhof<
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He is friends with Bob Dylan and Patti Smith; he’s considered to be one of the most important abstract painters of his generation. Now, Hamburger Bahnhof is celebrating Brice Marden with a major retrospective sponsored by Deutsche Bank. Following the MoMA in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Berlin institution is the final station of this comprehensive exhibition. Achim Drucks on the creative revolutions in Marden’s work.


Brice Marden at the Hamburger Bahnhof
Photo: Achim Drucks


At some point in the late ’70s, the artist grew tired of producing typical Brice Marden paintings. He didn’t want, as he confided in an interview, to suffer a "silent creative death" and no longer intended to limit himself to monochrome canvases. His encounter with Far Eastern art helped him out of his artistic crisis. A journey of several months through Thailand and Sri Lanka and a visit to an exhibition of Japanese calligraphy in New York provided Brice Marden with the initial catalyst to radically change the style of his paintings. In the chronologically hung presentation in Berlin, it almost seems as though one were looking at the work of a different painter. It resembles an act of liberation from the artist’s self-imposed "Spartan limitations" when expressive webs of line suddenly replace the impenetrable color fields of the ’60s and ’70s – the very paintings that made him one of the most prominent proponents of abstraction.


Brice Marden: Couplet IV, 1988-89 The Museum of Modern Art, Fractional and promised gift of Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr.
© 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Back home in America, the 1938-born artist has long been regarded a classic. He’s far less known here, but that might soon change. For the first time in Europe, the retrospective, supported by Deutsche Bank, offers an opportunity to experience Brice Marden’s work in its full scope. The first two stations of the show at the MoMA in New York and in San Francisco met with praise among critics and public alike. Now, 43 primarily large-scale paintings and 11 drawings offer visitors to Hamburger Bahnhof a chance to experience Marden’s investigation into the interrelationships between light, color, and painted surface.



Exhibition View
Photo: Achim Drucks


The monochrome paintings exude a meditative quietude. The subdued grey in Return 1 (1964-65) is typical for the color scheme of Marden’s early works. Initially, he limited himself to black, grey, and matte hues of green. He eliminated the visible brush stroke, smoothing the surfaces of his canvases with knives and spatulas and leaving scratches, cracks, and spots where the ground layer peeks through. A thin strip of blank canvas often remains along the bottom edge of the paintings, while traces of dripped paint refer to the painting process. In the beginning, the artist still used conventional oil paints, whose gloss he quickly began to alter. Since 1966, he’s mixed turpentine and hot bee’s wax into the paint, making the paint matter and less transparent and lending the works a very particular presence. Marden also began combining several identically sized canvases, such as in Point (1969), a subtle composition of three green-grey fields whose hues vary in nuances. The triptych quotes the altar form; instead of depicting a saint, however, it is dedicated to the variations of a single color.



Brice Marden: Return I 1964-1965
The Museum of Modern Art, Fractional and promised gift of Kathy and Richard S. Fuld, Jr.
© 2006 Brice Marden/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


Despite all their formal reduction, Marden’s works are situated at a clear distance from the contemporaneous tendencies of Minimal Art. He countered the cool objectivity of the new avant-garde with his own subjectivity and spoke of "highly emotional paintings not to be admired for any technical or intellectual reason, but to be felt." Marden’s monochrome surfaces seem like the distilled results of his experiences and passions. Nebraska (1966) reflects his love for the "exquisite green" of the landscape there. The "blondness and light tan pantsuits" of the cool Velvet Underground singer inspired him to paint the varying beige tones of Nico (1966). The music scene of the ’60s played an important role for the New Yorker. Through his first wife Pauline, Joan Baez’ sister, he got to know Bob Dylan, who also inspired him to make a painting. Later, he counted among the regulars of the legendary bar Max’s Kansas City, where musicians and artists mixed with stars from Hollywood and the New York underground. Patti Smith was also one of the regulars there. Marden dedicated the painting Star (for Patti Smith), completed in 1974, to his friend. The coloration of the vertical format – two black panels flank a lighter middle part – seem to play on the singer’s pale complexion and jet-black hair.


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