Brice Marden Discusses Cheap Shots

At 75 an American Master

By: - Sep 08, 2014

Brice Brice Brice Brice Brice Brice


To launch its new special exhibition space in a building designed by Tadao Ando as Clark Art Institute director, Michael Conforti, told me “For our first show we definitely wanted to do something that people assumed wasn’t a Clark subject.”

A former Clark scholar, Harry Copper, organized a stunning exhibition of works from his institution Make It New: Abstract Painting from the National Gallery of Art 1950-1975 an overview of mid 20th century abstraction from Abstract Expressionism through Color Field Painting and Minimalism.

To place the exhibition in context exploring how these artists influenced current abstract artists the museum organized a symposium Make It New Conversations on Mid- Century Abstraction. As Darby English, Starr Director, Research and Academic Program stated in opening remarks the decision was made to focus on dialogues with three pairs of artists followed by remarks from the art historian Yve-Alain Bois.

In a slight departure the first pairing combined Vincent Katz, a poet, critic and translator, with the renowned artist Brice Marden. They were followed by Glenn Ligon and Byron Kim with Amy Sillman and Thomas Eggerer as the final pairing.

Initially, Katz provided a discussion of the field in reference to a projected cover of a MoMA exhibition catalogue that illustrated the family tree of abstraction and its primary branches. These diverged through the gestural figuration of artists like Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell or a purely geometric geneaology through Barnett Newman and on to Ellsworth Kelly.

After a long pause and deliberation, waving the mike about like a baton, twisting and squirming in his seat, Marden began to respond in a poetic, eccentric, anecdotal manner.

Everything about his manner reflected a quirky, self assured, funky senior artist who spoke with the simplicity, finality and authority of an oracle. While the Clark can have an imposing, formal quality, like that pristine exhibition organized by Cooper, Marden was casually dressed as though he had taken a cab from the studio, with a wool cap pulled down to his brows. Brice reminded me of the pauses, the incredible non notes, in a piano solo by Thelonius Monk.

Speaking in a slurring manner with lots of body language one imagined this is how Pollock might speak or any other master of his generation who had endured decades of the art wars. His mannerisms reflected the knock down drag out dialogues of the old Cedar Tavern or the infamous panels of the Artists Club era of abstract expressionism in New York.

There was a devil may care, absolutely spot on conviction to his statements. This approach contrasted with the self conscious, art speak careerism of the pairings that followed. One sensed the honesty and conviction of Marden as we hung on ever richly inflected comment executed with expressive facial gestures and body language.

It was a dramatically different image of the artist than memories of him from the 1960s hanging out at Max’s Kansas City in Lower Manhattan, an artist’s bar run by Mickey Ruskin. The owner often swapped art for bar tabs and the works were hung in the restaurant.

Marden was showing the minimalist small, horizontal, grayish, encaustic paintings at the influential Bykert Gallery. At the time I found the works astonishing and daunting. There was something there but I didn’t quite know what. He was emerging as a handsome art star with rugged features.

It was at Max’s where he met Helen, initially a waitress, then his (second?) wife.

Bykert was a joint venture between Klaus Kertess and Jeff Byers. Decades later Kertess acted as curator of a Whitney Biennial which included works by both Brice and Helen.

At the Clark, asked about abstraction’s family tree and his position in it, Marden confirmed that he is committed to abstract art. He discussed the art wars of his student years in the 1950s and ideological combat between representational and abstract artists. The “enemy” which he commented that nobody really cares about any more (not exactly true particularly in the Berkshires) was illustrator Norman Rockwell.

In this perceived struggle for dominance Marden surprisingly observed that his team (abstraction) “lost” because “we couldn’t stop them from painting.”

During closing remarks Yve-Alain Bois suggested that now that this is all behind us it is possible to view the works in Make It New on their own terms. It implied a very pure, focused, formalist but academic approach. There were flavors of the authoritative pronouncements of the dominant critic of formalism, Clement Greenberg.

While the stunning quality of the works in the exhibition is beyond debate the era during which they were created was more like the combative one described by Marden. I asked Bois about that referring to the tone of classic studies like Irving Sandler’s Triumph of American Art, Serge Guibault’s How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art and the still debated MoMA exhibition New Images of Man. A return to the figure was debated among artists. Figuration, the seminal Women, was an important aspect of DeKooning’s work and even Pollock returned to figuration in his last works.

In this context I asked Bois what was lost through the “Triumph” of abstraction expressionism and its tributaries? The response was deflective as he stated that “It is difficult to describe works that I like.” So of no interest to him to deal with works he does not like. As I was leaving the symposium he stopped me to comment that I was right but that this kind of research is not his thing. He stated that there is very good work being done on this and asked if I was familiar with Michael Leja?

On many levels Marden set the tone for the symposium. He discussed the challenge and commitment to making difficult abstract paintings. One got a visceral sense of the relentless concentration and energy of making the works. Like the initial encaustic paintings in which the material was repeatedly removed, modified, reheated and reapplied. He discussed the unforgiving nature of the fragile, shiny surfaces, which never harden and are impossible to restore. Cryptically, after a vandal has applied a “smiley face.”

He talked about being inspired to use long sticks dipped in ink which gave him a critical distance from the support. This led to comments on when a work is finished and avoiding ‘cheap shots’ which are superficial markings to more quickly resolve paintings and drawings.

Mostly this involved the problems of edges and corners in rectangular works. This shape has dominated art since the transition from elaborately shaped altar pieces during the late Gothic to the dominant rectangular panels then stretched canvases which emerged in the Renaissance.

In the 1435 treatice Alberti in De pictura laid down the schemes of linear perspective and described a painting as “"In questa superficia si representino le forme delle cose vedute." The rectangle of pictorial space is a “window” or a “view” of nature. How to resolve that space has troubled artists like Marden ever since.

His introduction of the notion of “cheap shots” which surprised the audience resonated through the pairings and remarks that followed. Bois promised a paper on the topic.

Essentially, in the stick drawings the issue was how to resolve the downward thrust of a line. Should the drawing, for lack of a better term float in the pictorial space? Or, through “cheap shots” be finished with a flourish, not being true to its intentionality, or be arbitrarily anchored to the edge of the frame? He described sharpening pencils and using a straight edge to create an uninflected (non cheap shot) line underneath the stick/ ink markings. This entailed laboring to avoid any gradation in value that would create a “cheap shot” by drawing attention and potential romantic meaning to the deadpan resolution.

Not that he has anything against “cheap shots” in the works of others, although their presence tends to spoil the experience for him. He speculated that it would be possible for an artist to create a work made up entirely of cheap shots.

It was difficult to get a head around this. Then, ironically, his point was precisely reflected when Byron Kim described the difficulty of resolving his troubling Night Sky series. These entail floating fields of color intended to reflect the exotic tonalities of the obscured smoggy sky over Manhattan. He was surprised to observe a range from grays to even deep purple hues. These floating fields were anchored by a blurred edge. He discussed the placement of these borders on one to three sides but never at the top.

Kim had blundered into discussing precisely what Marden had meant by cheap shots. In discussing his struggle to resolve the series over the past couple of years he conveyed misgivings and how to end the pictures. A mentor has urged him to terminate the series and move on to something else.

For such a well selected, one might argue “definitive” survey of American abstraction Cooper's exclusion of a work by deKooning is surprising. All of the artists remarked on the importance of deKooning in their thinking.

Marden described as a young artists going to deKooning’s shows and trying to figure out how he made the paintings. His friend Richard Serra with excitement conveyed that he had learned one of deKooning's tricks. In order to get that perfect splashy look the artist first dipped his brush in water then oil paint. This created an ersatz emulsion and more fluidity to the gestural paint.

As was true for most artists of Marden’s generation he stated how deKooning taught him how to paint but Pollock taught him how to be an artist. One of the first major exhibitions that influenced him was a Pollock show at MoMA. During that weekend in New York, while a student at Boston University, he also saw a Hans Hofmann show at the Whitney.

He was a speaker on a panel for the more recent Pollock retrospective at MoMA. He was disappointed and said that they “blew it” in the manner that the curators skimmed over his complex last works. For Marden it seemed that Pollock had worked his way back into figuration. In his comments one felt strongly how the work evolved as a threaded and connected process of answering a series of self imposed questions and decisions.

The theme of making difficult works that entailed endless hours in the studio while making thousands of decisions was amplified by the discussions of the other artists in the symposium.

When it came to questions I asked about Marden's training at Boston University which was headed by David Aronson, a Boston Expressionist, and star student of the German artist, Karl Zerbe at the Museum School. They advocated conservative training in traditional techniques as a means for young artists to have the requisite skills to find their own expression.

Zerbe was known for experimentation with encaustic (the noxious fumes led to a terminal illness). I asked if Marden had learned encaustic painting at BU and how did that conservative training lead to developing his personal expression?

He was surprised to hear the name Zerbe mentioned. Initially he shared an interest in the medium with Harvey Quaytman a friend studying at the Museum School. It seems he discussed his work with Jasper Johns who also used the ancient technique of painting with wax. Marden replied that he had studied encaustic technique in a technical painting class at BU with Reed Kay.

In a follow up about BU and developing personal expression he replied “Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

During the break between sessions I found Marden in the hall and asked more questions.

Charles Giuliano I would like to know more about your training at Boston University.

(BU under Aronson and the relationship to Zerbe and the Museum School is discussed at length in the book Boston Modern by Judith Bookbinder)

Brice Marden My BU professors included Reed Kay, the sculptor Hugh Townley, and Arthur Hoener. Arthur Hoener won the lottery twice.

(Hoener’s work was discussed and illustrated in the summer 1963 issue of the Harvard Review. Richard Alpert, a Harvard professor, and Tim Leary were experimenting with LSD. Its influence on the artist’s work was a part of the seminal publication which was circulated among early acid heads.)

I don’t know what happened to him. I heard he died relatively young. At some point I thought I wanted to collect works by each of these teachers. But I can’t come up with most of them.

CG You talked about the late paintings of Pollock which were not well represented in the MoMA retrospective. Significantly, they evoked a return to figuration which you have stated as anathema from your point of view as a purist of abstraction.

BM When you look at a painting like “Scent” (1955) he’s not attacking that. He doesn’t have an image in mind. That image is emerging just from the activity of painting.

(During the discussion he debunked the notion of a procession of figures informing the composition of “Mural” a 1943 painting for the home of Peggy Guggenheim which she gave to the University of Iowa. It was included in the MoMA show.)

CG I’m thinking of the late black and white Pollocks with large heads.

BM I think they come up. They’re on the ground. (Demonstrating his stick technique stepping back from the wall.) You’re up here and something falls and comes up.

CG During the time that he was making those paintings in the 1950s there was discussion about a return to the figure. So I don’t see it, as you do, in terms of they won and we lost. Abstraction and figuration were occurring simultaneously in the work of advanced artists including Pollock.

BM I did.

CG What?

BM See it as we lost. They won. (both laugh)

CG It sounds like the Red Sox and the Yankees.

BM A little bit. They didn’t have enough of Pollock's black and white paintings in that show. I think one of the greatest paintings he ever did was “Search” (1955) which was the last one.

CG DeKooning never abandoned the figure. “Woman” was there all the time.

BM Yeah. Right. Yeah. (long pause) He was slipping in and out of it so was Pollock. You know. I’ve done painting that I think are figurative. If it’s as tall and as wide. (It’s a figure) Or it’s a landscape.

CG Your stick works entail the body and gesture. We think of Pollock as dancing around the canvas on the floor. A choreography. So your figuration may be similarly a choreography with the body as the key element. Extending from your body through a long stick into space and then in contact with the work.

BM Well, yeah, if you’re using a stick and instead of being here (moving close to the wall) you’re here (approximating the distance from the surface by stepping back) then every movement you make is magnified. So of course there’s a whole dancing.

When I paint I don’t use the sticks but I use a long brush. So, you get that. My main principle is to get up close then very far away. I go over every inch of my things with a palette knife. It’s scraped, reworked, redrawn.

CG In the early Bykert encaustics weren’t they removed, remelted and reapplied?

BM Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CG What about that dripped edge at the bottom?

BM That just happened and then I thought I’ll make a thing out of it. Measure it off. It will be like a history of the layers. When I see them now they don’t look that good. I thought they were more contrived. Some weird accumulation. I think it was more of a thing where I could not close off the bottom. It’s just like a gut thing. Byron (Kim) talked about it.

CG Were those Byron’s cheap shots?

BM No, no, no for him they are perfectly honest.

CG Thanks for your time.


The following material relates to his study at Boston Unversity. This text is edited and abridged from an oral history project of the Archives of American Art conducted with Paul Cummings on October 3, 1972. The interview is in the public domain and may be viewed in its entirety on line. In this posting, for the interest of brevity, the questions of Cummings have been eliminated.

(Marden started at Florida Southern College and transferred to Boston University)

Boston's a great town, you know, it's small; it's great for walking in, beautiful to walk in….Everything I did out of school had to do with art, like going to museums, going to galleries.

…My friend Fred Serginian and his wife had been giving me a subscription to Art News for years and I just thought the Abstract Expressionism was great; I loved it. But Boston University was very academically oriented; it was staffed mainly with people that had gone to Boston Museum School. I studied with Karl Zerbe, Kokoscha and Beckmann were like the big heroes. It was a big Expressionist school and it was a whole school of that kind of painting, you know, Hyman Bloom.

They were really into drawing. We had to do a lot of drawing. The first year you didn't take any painting classes, you just took a lot of drawing classes and anatomy and perspective and design and lettering and color. And I can remember taking a color course and just not understanding anything, this was Albers' color course.A great teacher Arthur Hoener taught it and he was very good because he was the abstract painter on the faculty.

Then there was a sculptor named Hugh Townley who was abstract, but everybody else, you know . . . . These were the two new outsiders. So I really got a lot out of Townley and Hoener, more from a philosophical level, about art and what it's all about. But those other guys, I mean I was taking drawing with, oh who was it? Conger Metcalf was teaching the greatest first year drawing class. It was just fantastic, and a guy Murray Reich, who's in New York now and a good friend, he was a graduate student and he was teaching second year drawing. And I took two of his classes. You had transfers so I could double up on all those credits. So I was taking two drawing classes and two painting classes and Murray was a fantastic teacher. That was the first year he was teaching, just fantastic, just fantastic, and he was very helpful. And then around my second year in school, you know, it was like Murray kind of accepted me more as an artist or as a promising artist than as a student.

I had a lot of friends who were at Harvard. I would go to this club called the 47, you know, that's where Joe Barker started and all these people. It was very active. Also we would go over to the Harvard Square with Murray and a guy named Harvey Quaytman, who was at the Boston Museum School at the time, and we'd go over and Henry Geldzahler was at Harvard and we'd have coffee with him, you know. And it was great. We'd get involved with some discussion and we'd say like "Henry, tell us more about so and so," you know, and he was very big. It was just then that he started going to Provincetown and, you know, meeting people like Kline and stuff.

He was, you know, just kind of accepted as this little, brilliant but very nice guy. And he was like a teaching assistant or something at Harvard and people would go to listen to his lectures (I never did) and he would put up shows in the Fogg museum, nice little ones. He was just kind of a . . . he was interested, he was like really interested in a lot of the things that were going on.

I was doing work in school and then doing work at home. The work in school was like all the school work, you know, realistic, and at home I was working more on problems that had grown out of design classes and stuff like that, abstract problems, really trying to figure out how to paint, abstract, and what it was about.
There wasn't any of that in school, only in your design class and in your sculpture class. But in the sculpture class I eventually just ended up making heads, because I was painting a lot of heads in the painting class. The first year painting was still lifes; I painted still lifes all the time. And I got very much involved with Cezanne. I started beginning to understand a lot of the things about Cezanne and Matisse, you know, early Matisse. It was great being in Boston because you could go to museums and see these things if you were interested, and then you'd go down to the city (New York) and go around to museums. We used to go down on the weekend. We'd go to like fifteen galleries on Saturday and, you know, twenty museums on Sunday and then I'd go back to Boston.

(New York) was really exciting, really exciting, you know, going around and seeing those de Koonings and Klines. I used to love Klines, you know. After this damn Albers color course which I just didn't understand at all. I had no idea of what was going on. I just thought I didn't know anything about color, so I just worked in black and white all the time and then I really got into Kline and de Kooning, you know, all those guys. But it was really very exciting, you know.

Hoener was really pleased, and some were really receptive, because there was a lot of hostility among the faculty… One guy would give a lecture and another faculty person would start questioning things, you know, there'd be this great ideological split.

You just had contact with these abstract teachers when you were in your first year, but then when you went into the painting major you were in their hands. But I just kept doing all this other work outside.
(Comments on folk music scene. Marden married the sister of Joan Baez.)

…there was a co-op gallery there called the Nova Gallery and Murray Reich was in that and Harvey Quatytman and people like that and they'd get discussions going like The Club in New York, you know. It never would quite work, but I'd go there and just listen, you know, be very interested in . . . . it was always self-conscious, and, you know, trying to be like some sort of a Boston School or something. It wasn't panning out and . . . I mean it was like so provincial. A guy named Jack Wolf was a big shot painter and there were all these people who show in Boston, or New England artists… as a student a Baskin show was something that was eagerly looked forward to.

My first year painting class was a very good class, and then Reed Kay, who I had in second year painting . . . you started painting the figure. He was just fantastic, a great teacher, and he was in no way at all receptive to abstract art for the most part. But when it came to looking at something, you know, he was fantastic. (He) really helped in a very strong way to develop my ideas about color.

…Well, I couldn't understand what people were doing with color, like say an abstract painting. I just couldn't understand it and most of the explanations were pretty evasive. I mean like I couldn't figure out push pull to save me, and a lot of the color stuff. I mean I had seen all these Albers students who were showing on Newbury street in Boston, using these color ideas of Albers, but they just, to no end at all, you know, using these little tricks. You can spot a Yale painter a block away. But Reed Kay would talk more about old master paintings and color and you could discuss a Matisse color painting or something like that and just the whole idea of like seeing a dark against a dark, you know, what kind of color came that way. He was very good; he was a very good, very astute. We were just into learning, you know, learning how to look at things. That was a great thing about Boston University, boy, they really made you look at things.

…there was a lot of drawing, anyway I was doubling up in drawing classes. I had a lot of drawing. But there was a style, I mean definitely a style. It was all very painterly and drawing the planes, which really threw me when I went to Yale, because Yale had a completely different style of drawing and I just got so fucked up about it. So Reed Kay was really a tremendous influence. But I was still doing abstract paintings outside, you know, on my own. But the thing was that I brought them in for marking or something like that and he lowered my mark, you know, said I was wasting my time with this thing, you know, painting self portraits. I painted lots of self portraits at home. By this time I was living with two other guys and we had a big apartment which had a studio room. I started second year painting and then third year painting with Reed Kay so I had him for two years.

…And then my last year there the students organized this exhibition committee. The students would put up shows in the halls, stuff that they went around and got from the galleries and stuff like that. I started that thing just to make the place more controversial, you know… I went to the head of the department, David Aronson, and I said, "Can we put on a show?" and he said, "Sure." So the first show was of Harold Tovish drawings and I really like them. I picked the drawings…Yeah, and the faculty liked that, because they liked Tovish. They had gone to school with him, you know, they liked his work. Then we started throwing in stuff that was a little bit more controversial.

…I'd been trying to go to Skowhegan, that was the big summer thing. You got this scholarship to Skowhegan. So after I graduated, they said, "Do you want to go to Yale-Norfolk?" And by that time I was married and had a kid and the baby had just been born that March and so it was a painful thing. They decided that I should go to Yale-Norfolk; they offered me a scholarship. And it was really, you know, one of these political numbers between schools. Yale was being run by Bernard Chaet and B.U. was being run by David Aronson and they were students together at the Museum School (under Karl Zerbe) and they had shared a studio, right, and they kept doing these things to each other . . . .

… the Yale-Norfolk summer school was just like a farm system, you know; they get all the schools to send their best people going into their last year and then they pick them over. And I was all signed up to have a teaching assistantship at Bowling Green State University in Ohio because I just couldn't get accepted at any schools I wanted to go to, and I needed a teaching assistantship, you know, because of marriage. So I was going to go out there but then I went to Norfolk. And I know that Aronson had just sent me to sort of screw Chaet. I went there and that was a fantastic summer; I did a lot of painting and I painted a lot of landscapes and I painted a lot of abstract paintings…the summer of '61. That was really good because all this time I'd been hankering for this abstract experience and then when I got there and I saw what other people were doing, you know, from around the country at Norfolk, and they were all painting out of the art magazines, which is what I was trying to do, but they had it really slick, you know.

… I'd actually shown a couple of paintings in a gallery, Joan Peterson Gallery in Boston, which showed abstract painting. They had a couple of Tworkov drawings or something like that. The painting faculty was Bernard Chaet and Jon Schueler. Schueler was fantastic, really fantastic….He was very inspirational, in just the way he would talk. In Boston most of these guys were very dispassionate; the involvement was very kind of cold. They wouldn't discuss what it was like being an artist. I mean they never discussed that. I mean like Reed Kay would say things, but you know they weren't the kind of things -- they weren't very romantic. They'd say well, you're an artist, supposed to be strong, you should eat a good breakfast and blab, blab, blab, you know. Then you run into Schueler, you know, who just would go into ecstasy, just talking about the sky, and he told these incredible long stories, you know, that were so beautiful. He was really something. And Chaet would come around, he's a great teacher, because he would just like spot it and say it. He had this like a whole set of cliches, you know, you could walk around and give a Chaet crit very easily, you know, simple and direct. But I was still painting landscapes; it was a real challenge. Sometimes I'd paint one and then I'd do an abstract of the same thing.

…I figured Yale wouldn't even bother me. I still was very skeptical about Yale from my Boston experience. I did about 24 paintings and one of my nicest nature paintings, a little square treetop painting, really beautiful, I did in about fifteen minutes. Oh boy, I thought this is really roaring along and it was great. You know, you have all this experience and then getting a much more confident idea about what you're about. When I got there I could draw, you know, I couldn't make drawings that looked good, but I could draw. I was never anything like an ace draftsman that's for damn sure.