“When philosophy paints its grey in grey,” Hegel wrote in his Philosophy of Right, “then has a shape of life grown old…. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” It is difficult not to think of Hegel’s elegiac reflection when one enters the first gallery of Brice Marden’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It is hung with the signature gray canvases that Marden himself came to call “Brice Marden paintings” when he finally decided to stop painting them. What is striking is that they are not just gray monochrome rectangles. They are exactly gray in gray, with shadowy markings of darker gray that had served other painters, like Jasper Johns and Alberto Giacometti, as backgrounds for the objects or figures that carried the primary interest of their works. Marden seems to have brought them forward to coincide with the surfaces of his paintings, making his surfaces his subjects. In some of the early works, Marden left about an inch of raw canvas to catch the drips, which serve as a symbolic reference to the Abstract Expressionist movement that had inspired him and many other young painters of his generation. In the mid-’60s, when Abstract Expressionism was perceived as a finished movement, the drip remained an emblem of painterly legitimacy, evoking the physicality of pigment and the gestural sweep of the painter’s arm. Even as cool an artist as Andy Warhol retained the drips on the silk-screened sides of his Brillo boxes, as a way of claiming descent from the founding fathers.
What “shape of life,” then, to return to Hegel, has grown old in Marden’s early work? Modernist painting, obviously, as understood by its deepest theorist, Clement Greenberg. As Greenberg argued in his 1954 essay “Abstract and Representational”:
From Giotto to Courbet, the painter’s first task had been to hollow out an illusion of three-dimensional space. This illusion was conceived of more or less as a stage animated by visual incident, and the surface of the picture as the window through which one looked at the stage. But Manet began to pull the backdrop of the stage forward, and those who came after him…kept pulling it forward, until today it has come smack up against the window, or surface, blocking it up and hiding the stage. All the painter has left to work with now is, so to speak, a more or less opaque window pane.
Why then think of it as a window any longer? In Johns and Giacometti, the visual incident took place in an illusory space. The task of “Modernist Painting,” as Greenberg titled his essay of 1960, was to arrive at an understanding of what the defining features of the medium were and, in the interests of purity, to purge it of everything else. For Greenberg, that “everything else” included illusion, despite its history. Painting, he believed, was in its essence two-dimensional and flat. Modernist painting, accordingly, was “flatter than anything in Western art since before Giotto and Cimabue–so flat indeed that it could hardly contain recognizable images.” Now that space and surface coincide, there is no place left for painting to go. As the ’60s ended, artists and critics could be heard stridently declaring that painting was dead. The first paintings in Marden’s show date from the mid-’60s. The question they ask is: Where do we go from here? What is left after Modernism is over? It ended with the discovery of flatness. Now what?
That Abstract Expressionism was dead was the common wisdom in the art world by the mid-’60s. Marden was almost unique in realizing the deeper truth that Modernism was dead. But all around him exciting new things were happening in art, Pop most particularly, but also Minimalism, which was closer to his own impulses. The one painting that I believe signals an awareness of Pop (and my favorite painting in the show) is the wonderful down-to-earth rectangle Nebraska (1966), which approximates the shape that the state of Nebraska is represented as having in maps of the United States. The down-to-earthness is symbolized by its particular tone of gray, a kind of greenish dirtiness. But mostly Marden tried to find his way forward by joining his gray or grayish rectangles into diptychs or triptychs, as in For Helen (1967) or Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns (1970), a tribute to one of the great pioneers who, along with Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly, led New York art away from Abstract Expressionism into unexplored territory. And Marden widened his range of grayish hues to include blues and reds. It was not until the early ’80s, however, that he felt compelled to change in a more radical way: “I got to a point where I could go on making ‘Brice Marden paintings’ and suffer that silent creative death…. You get to this point where you just have to make a decision to change things.”