Surface Appeal

Surface Appeal

Marden and Manet at MoMA.


“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.”

I don’t think it is widely enough appreciated how much courage this kind of change takes. There is an overwhelming tendency in America to brand artists, so that the well informed can identify an example of an artist’s work in a single, simple act of instant recognition: That is a Pollock, a Kline, a Nevelson, a Shapiro, a Ryman, a Rothko, a Marden. Warhol is a counter-example. Not only do his paintings vary profoundly over the years but also he worked in a variety of media, including film and television, reinvented cabaret, wrote books, evolved a style of aphorism and became his own most famous product. In this respect, Warhol was more like the German masters Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, who have experimented liberally with different styles, including, in Richter’s case, abstraction as well as photographic realism. (As it happens, Polke and Richter came to prominence as practitioners of an East German school of Pop Art coyly known as “Capitalist Realism,” and deeply indebted to Warhol.) Perhaps branding is uncharacteristic of younger artists today, who express themselves through performance, installation and video, as well as the more traditional genres. Marden’s change was not as radical as that of Philip Guston, who in 1970 abandoned abstraction in favor of a kind of loutish political comic figuration. Marden only went from one abstract style to another. Quite apart from taking a commercial chance, moving to an abruptly different style raises questions of sincerity that are never easy to deal with.

The change paid off, and opened up possibilities beyond gray in gray. It was like raising a window shade, revealing new realities.

Marden changed to a style of as-it-were Oriental calligraphy–in other words, he appropriated the look but not the reality of writing. Writing in its nature is on the surface of silk or paper. There is no impulse to postulate an illusory space for it to occupy, as in a drawing. So it is “modern” by default. Mixing writing with drawing, as in the Japanese or Chinese tradition, insured that there would never be in either culture the kind of history of art that defined Western painting, with its conquest of visual appearances and such devices as perspective or chiaroscuro. This is why until the emergence of Modernism, there was a tendency to treat Oriental art either as decorative or inferior. Part of the reason the Impressionists may have been so taken with Japanese print, for example, was that its flattening of forms made the surface into something one was aware of rather than a transparency through which one looked into space. So even if Marden thought of his calligraphies as drawings or even paintings, they remained, as it were, on the page.

He is most successful, in my view, in the drawings, where the white of the paper contributes a certain sparkle, and livens the rather deadish colors he carried with him into this phase of his work. Marden appears in these to have hit on something like the “grass” writing of Oriental calligraphy, loopy and lyrical, in which the brush rarely leaves the surface, and the artist improvises to the point that one needs special skills to read it. But the grass-writer inscribes an actual text, whose meaning invariably inflects the work’s feeling. Marden’s calligraphy is entirely abstract–gibberish, in effect–yet the strange thing is that it is evocative of language; it seems to communicate meaning while remaining entirely uncommunicative. Han Shan Goes to the Tropics (1991) is a beautiful example of this. “Han Shan” is Chinese for “Cold Mountain,” though it designates a possibly mythical poet who wrote about Cold Mountain in a body of poetry from Tang times. Han Shan has the attributes of a Taoist hobo who lives in close communion with nature and has risen above material needs. It was in fact an edition of Cold Mountain’s poems that inspired Marden. For my taste, however, the painted calligraphic canvases are too pasty for the lyricism he sometimes achieves on paper–too angular, awkward and almost clumsy for the spirit I suppose they mean to convey. There is a limit to a Westerner’s capacity to internalize and realize an Asian sensibility.

In the latest works, Marden finds a way of working flat-on-flat, with colored ribbons interlacing one another on the kind of gray-in-gray surface he in a way had made his own. These really seem uninterestingly empty to me, vastly too large for the minimal meaning that is their reward. But then, in Dragons, working in colored ink on paper, he achieves something glorious, as if de Kooning had painted a Pollock. Brenda Richardson has written that “Pollock is a very real presence in Marden’s Cold Mountain work.” According to the show’s curator, Gary Garrels, Pollock’s influence “was one not simply of look and style but also of spirit.” I am glad to see the term “spirit” making an appearance in contemporary discourse. “Spirit,” Kant writes, “in an aesthetical sense, is the name given to the animating principle of the mind.” Spirit puts the material to which the mind applies itself “into swing.” Whether the same spirit that animated Pollock fifty years earlier animates Marden is an issue on which critics will differ. But the only piece in which I sensed the presence of Pollock’s spirit is Dragons, where it almost looks out of place. Marden may not see it this way, but I think it is kind of a compliment to say that the artist, in the crowning exhibition of his career, shows promise.

By a happy coincidence of scheduling, visitors to MoMA have the opportunity not only to see the end of Modernism, in Marden’s exhibition, but its beginning, which Clement Greenberg attributed to Édouard Manet. For students of Modernism, this offers a singular opportunity to examine Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian for signs of the great movement Manet opened up. Certainly, Manet could have had no idea that his innovations would lead, in the course of a century, to the gray-in-gray monochrome. He would have said that he was infusing French painting with what he had discovered in Spanish art, particularly in the work of Velázquez and Goya, which he probably saw on a trip to Madrid in 1865. But we, visitors from the future, as it were, can see what it was about Manet’s work that led Greenberg to think of him as the first Modernist.

The execution was the result of an ill-advised imperial adventure in 1862 by Napoleon III, seeking to establish a French-backed monarchy in Mexico, which had become an independent republic in 1823. Together with some Mexican conservatives, he persuaded Maximilian, a Habsburg, to accept the throne, promising him military support. There was considerable resistance, and when the United States, emerging from the Civil War, supported the Mexican republicans, Napoleon cut and ran, as we say these days, leaving Maximilian unprotected. He was captured and shot by a firing squad in 1867, despite widespread appeals that he be spared. Napoleon was blamed for Maximilian’s death, and it was perhaps because of Manet’s antimonarchical politics that he decided to paint the event. He produced three large paintings of Maximilian’s execution, as well as a smaller study and a lithograph, and it can be argued that the beginnings of a distinctively Modernist sensibility emerged in the course of this effort, though there were already indications, as Greenberg noted, of a new vision in his work as early as 1863.

Greenberg drew particular attention to the graphic flatness of the pantaloons in The Piper, and Courbet is said to have remarked that Olympia appeared “flat…like the Queen of Hearts coming out of a bath.” (Olympia‘s flatness may explain why it appeared to Manet’s contemporaries almost comically inept, and wound up in the Salon des Refusés.) This flatness was, for Greenberg, distinctively Modernist. In classical Modernism, he wrote, “Design of layout is almost always clear and explicit, drawing sharp and clean, shape or area geometrically simplified or at least faired and trued, color flat and bright or at least undifferentiated in value and texture within a given hue.” He might as well have been describing the Japanese prints that made such an impression on Manet and the Impressionists. Could the flattening out of forms be the result of bringing into Western art the idiom of the Japanese woodcut?

Along with flatness of composition, Manet introduced a flattening of affect, a new form of cool detachment. The Execution of Maximilian, whose final version was completed in 1869, is a perfect example of this, particularly when set against Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814), which Manet presumably saw at the Prado. The Third of May also depicts an execution, an early event in the so-called Peninsular War between France and Spain. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain in 1808, capturing its royal family and replacing them with his brother, Joseph. The French were as unpopular in Spain as they later were in Mexico, and they encountered a fierce insurrection, which ultimately triumphed. The “Third of May” execution was an indiscriminate killing of civilians by French soldiers in reprisal for a guerrilla attack the previous day. Goya’s painting of the massacre, which shows terrified civilians facing a firing squad, was intended to arouse anger and hatred on the part of Spanish viewers. Goya’s is a highly romantic picture of a deeply emotional episode.

Manet’s painting, by contrast, could hardly be cooler. The three victims, holding hands, face the firing squad with fortitude. The officer standing apart loads his rifle dispassionately, in case any of the victims survives. We do not see the faces of the firing squad itself. The scene is treated dispassionately and journalistically. There was no photographic record of the event, since it was forbidden. Manet shows it the way a photograph would, which was not an option for Goya, since photography had not been invented in 1814.

Manet’s successive versions of Maximilian’s execution reflect an effort to visualize the story as it unfolded in dispatches by correspondents, which were eagerly read by Europeans, who had no clear picture of what Mexico or Mexican soldiers actually looked like. One wonders if what was to become a Modernist painting, according to Greenberg, was not initially an effort to emulate the camera and produce something like a photographic print. Manet showed it from the perspective of a near eyewitness–so everything was brought forward, and inevitably flattened, the way the camera lens of Manet’s time often flattened forms. It was as if photographs showed us with optical veracity how we actually see the world. In America, the photographs of Mathew Brady and Timothy O’Sullivan visually defined the Civil War for distant viewers. Goya, by contrast, drew on the conventions of academic historical painting, however romanticized.

One cannot but wonder whether Modernism was not the combined result of two modes of printing–the woodblock print and the photograph, each of which involved a kind of flattening. There would be a further question of whether Greenberg did not make a mistake in transferring to his analysis of the essence of painting what really defined the medium of the print. Maybe illusion is not that alien to painting after all, and those who feared that the invention of the camera meant the death of painting were barking up the wrong tree! If the progressive flattening of the surface has been the great journey of Modernist painting, abstraction, it turns out, was only one of its destinations, especially in an age of photography.

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