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Brice Marden - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Brice Marden Photo
Movements and Styles: Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism

Born: October 15, 1938 - Bronxville, NY

Biography

Childhood and Education

Nicholas Brice Marden, Jr. grew up in a middle-class household in Briarcliff Manor, in Westchester County, New York, and his interest in art was influenced from an early age by a multitude of sources. His father, a mortgage servicer, would mount reproductions of paintings on both sides of Masonite panels so he could flip them over when he got tired of looking at them. In the seventh grade, Marden reports, he also experienced a revelation when he fell asleep in the woods near the old farm house where he lived, later waking up with a sense that his life had changed somehow and he knew he would become an artist. In high school, Marden's form of teenage rebellion consisted of cutting classes so he could hitchhike into Manhattan to visit the Museum of Modern Art. These visits were also sometimes facilitated by his best friend's mother, and her husband, a sometime painter who gave the young Brice a subscription to ARTNEWS magazine.

Early Training

After high school, Marden spent a year at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, intending to study hotel management. Just before Christmas break in 1956, his art teacher handed him a MoMA membership card with the advice to "Go see this guy [Jackson] Pollock," whose recent death in a car crash had precipitated a retrospective at MoMA at that very moment. Soon afterwards, Marden transferred to Boston University, where he earned his BFA in 1961 and lined up a teaching gig after graduation, but spent a few months that summer at the Yale Summer School of Music and Art. Impressed by his interest, Yale's faculty invited him to apply for graduate study and volunteered to cancel his teaching contract. Though classically trained, at Yale, Marden moved away from figural representation and developed an interest in Abstract Expressionism, particularly the work of Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Pollock. It was there that he also became classmates with Chuck Close, Richard Serra, Robert Mangold and Vija Celmins, and received his MFA in 1963.

In August 1960 he married Pauline Baez, sister of singer Joan Baez, and their son Nicholas was born in March 1961. Marden moved to New York City after graduating from Yale, taking a part-time job working as a security guard at The Jewish Museum, where he saw a retrospective of artist Jasper Johns in 1964. Marden still has a signed poster of Johns' work that the other guards persuaded the artist to sign since Marden was too embarrassed to ask Johns himself.

That same year Marden separated from his wife after his in-laws dragged the family to Paris for four months and his marriage "hit the skids." Pauline took Nicholas and moved to California, while Marden moved into a Lower East Side studio. There he became mixed up with the Greenwich Village music scene, especially at Gerde's Folk City. It was then that he met one of his musical heroes, Bob Dylan, and promised him that he would make him a painting in the hopes that it would help his career. Ironically, Dylan's career immediately took off after that, and by the time Marden finished The Dylan Painting in 1966, its purpose had become superfluous.

He began creating paintings with thicker, textured surfaces, in part inspired by Johns, which gave them a three-dimensional, sculptural quality. In 1966 he began incorporating beeswax into his paint and held his first solo exhibition in New York City, with the sale of a single painting at Klaus Kertess' gallery, which paid for a plane ticket to see his son in California. Broke, he got a job through Minimalist painter Dorothea Rockburne as Robert Rauschenberg's studio assistant for the next four years. In his spare time, Marden hung out at Max's Kansas City, a beer hall popular among artists and musicians, where he met a waitress and artist named Helen Harrington, whom he married in 1968. To help support them, Marden took a job teaching at New York's School of Visual Art, where he served on the faculty from 1969 through 1974.

Mature Period

Marden has frequently experimented with new creative approaches; for instance, he began moving from early monochromatic paintings to multi-paneled works that introduced a wide range of colors. Marden's travels have greatly influenced his development as an artist, particularly his time spent in Hydra, Greece, where he usually summered since his first visit in 1971. Marden has experimented with many media: in addition to works on canvas, he has produced drawings, etchings, and later paintings on marble, inspired by pieces of the rock he found while in Greece. In 1977 he received a commission in Basel to design a set of stained-glass windows for the cathedral, which ultimately came to naught after eight years of work. Back at home in New York, he got the idea to sharpen twigs he found on the street and in his backyard to use as drawing implements.

In the early '70s Marden separated from Helen, though eventually they reconciled and moved back in together, and in 1978 and 1980, his two daughters, Mirabelle and Melia, were born. However, Marden became well-known during the decade for his frequent marijuana use, though he has denied that the drug had the same creative influence on him as nature. Later in the decade Marden got into cocaine, eventually using it so heavily that his behavior became erratic, and in 1983 his wife (then oblivious to his coke habit) gave him an ultimatum to decide whether he wanted to separate again. Intensive therapy helped mend his marriage and kick the drug habit, though Marden himself has maintained in recent years that he ultimately distanced himself from drugs because he just felt tired all the time and was sick of constantly waking up on the studio floor.

Marden's problems with drugs coincided with a professional crisis that caused him to question whether he had reached the end of his creativity. He pushed his art in new directions by drawing from several alternate sources, one of which was the familiar ground tread by Jackson Pollock, whose alcoholism had caused his premature death at nearly the same age that Marden was during his period of heavy drug use. Helen dragged him on a trip to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India in 1983-4, and, once they returned, to an exhibition of Japanese calligraphy in New York, where he became fascinated with the energy of the bold strokes of the characters in concert with the gestural forms that Pollock had painted. At the same time, Marden's curiosity with Eastern cultures also developed into an interest in the work of Tang Dynasty poet Han Shan, on whose writings he based his Cold Mountain series, beginning in 1988, which also drew inspiration from Chinese mountain and nature paintings. Later, mythology provided inspiration for Marden's work The Muses (1991-93).

Later Period

In the late 1980s, Marden's demand on the art market began to take off. He was picked up by gallery owner Mary Boone on a $1 million advance against future sales of paintings. Soon other advances followed, including one from Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann and the then-young New York dealer Matthew Marks, with whom Marden has maintained a close professional relationship for now close to thirty years, and who currently represents him. Marden's paintings, as of 2016, have realized upwards of between $9 million and $11 million at auction. In 1988, Marden was named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 2000, Brown University awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

Between 1987 and 2000, Marden located his studio in the Bowery in lower Manhattan, before moving it to his current location, a tenth-floor duplex space on West Street with a view of the Hudson River.

In 2015, Marden's exhibition of twelve paintings and twenty-five drawings at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York featured new works that evoke the colors of nature through the use of pigments common during the Renaissance. It was the largest exhibition of Marden's work since a retrospective held at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006-07.

In addition, Marden has recently assumed the role of hotel manager. He and his wife run a hotel on Nevis, in the Caribbean, and have opened a country inn, Hotel Tivoli, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. There, Marden and his wife also maintain an estate called Rose Hill, which includes an 1843 house that also overlooks the Hudson, and a studio space in the converted carriage house. They also own a 400-acre property in Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania, which includes a large barn as studio space with, curiously, almost no natural light.

Legacy

In The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl described Marden as "the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades." Marden's demonstrated ability to translate autobiographical moments and memories into visual form, often while simultaneously revealing the process behind his work, has set him apart from his peers. It has also paved the way for a new generation of contemporary abstract artists. His juxtapositions of bold, rectilinear panels of color bear comparison with the efforts of Sean Scully from the 1960s and 1970s. More recently, Marden's early "Minimalist" attempts to reproduce the luminant colors from objects and people with strong personal resonance - ceramics, important mentors, for example - have inspired artists such as Byron Kim, while the influence of calligraphic forms on Marden's work parallels the graphic explorations in painting by artists like Jose Parla. Candacee White has publicly acknowledged her debt to Marden, particularly his working method, stating, "I often stare at one line for a long time before I put down the next one, considering how it will relate the past and future lines, how close to the edge of the canvas, and so on. I like to let the line change, to get light, dark, thicker, thinner, which appears more natural."

Most Important Art

Quotes

"Color is a way of arriving at light. The illusion of light is one of the things that a painter works with, I mean, that's how you get an image. Without light there is no visible image."
Brice Marden Signature
"To maintain any kind of life as an artist is to make change. Yet for most observers change in an artist's work is the most difficult thing to grasp."
Brice Marden Signature
"Working on a painting is very physical...the shapes of the paintings are so closely related to the human scale, you work with them, and after a while it gets to be a dance."
Brice Marden Signature
"I paint as I see and as I feel, and I have very strong feelings."
Brice Marden Signature
"My work comes out of observation and acceptance of nature. Man, part of nature, absorbs and digests and pushes it back out in the form of art."
Brice Marden Signature
"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 have to make a decision to change things."
Brice Marden Signature
"When the painting really lives...I consider it finished. When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop."
Brice Marden Signature
"Very early on, I became conscious of the fact that art is a societal threat because it's tied so explicitly to truth."
Brice Marden Signature
"One of the great things about art is it isn't worth anything. It's absolutely free. It's going to get made no matter what."
Brice Marden Signature

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