Brice Marden - Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Thursday, May 14, 2015 | Phillips
  • Video

    Brice Marden 'Elements (Hydra)', 1999-2000/2001

    Brice Marden’s 'Elements (Hydra)', 1999–2001, is the culmination of his decades-long evolution as a pioneering artist whose influences range from the lyricism and structure of Chinese calligraphy and poetry to the undiluted and un-tempered expression of Jackson Pollock. The sinuous whorls of red, yellow and blue course across the green-grey picture plane, framing organic forms and creating an overall impression of fluidity and natural, gestural abstraction.

  • Provenance

    Private Collection, New York
    Matthew Marks Gallery, New York
    Acquired directly from the above by the present owner, 2010

  • Catalogue Essay

    “There are the rocks, Hydra rocks, the pines bending to the winds, echoing the bends the rocks have undergone for so many more years. Nature—forces…I am of the stuff to be of it but only through my work which, unfortunately (but I am young) is my life. Remember immersion—water—land—sky—the all.” Brice Marden, 1974

    Brice Marden’s Elements (Hydra), 1999-2001, is the culmination of his decades-long evolution as a pioneering artist whose influences range from the lyricism and structure of Chinese calligraphy and poetry to the undiluted and un-tempered expression of Jackson Pollock. The sinuous whorls of red, yellow and blue course across the green-grey picture plane, framing organic forms and creating an overall impression of fluidity and natural, gestural abstraction. Marden established himself alongside the likes of Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin as one of the artists who, in the midst of Minimalism and Pop, set about proving that painting still had much to offer in the way of lyrical and emotive power. The force of color, the application and treatment of the paint and other media such as beeswax, even the construction of his pictures into multi-paneled arrangements all served Marden’s aim of harnessing the latent power of the medium. His pictures are about the plane, the rectangle, the surface, the edge and the relationship of one distinct color working alongside another. Everything is an integral part of the painting itself, referring to its physical presence as an object. This formalism serves Marden’s underlying and ultimate aim of creating a strong emotional reverberation within the viewer through these various techniques. By the mid-1980s, the previous methods by which he had expressed these philosophical concerns seemed to lose their authority and his style, though not his overall artistic compunction, changed drastically. These developments would reach their apex in works such as Elements (Hydra) and continue to be the focus of the artist up to the present day.

    During the mid-1980s, Marden had reached an inflection point in his career when a range of influences and ideas converged and provided a new means of expression for the artist. Increasingly, he had been intrigued by the forms that Nature provided, be it in the shape of shells or trees or rocks. In particular, while travelling in the Far East, he had begun to draw objects and views from his surroundings superimposed upon one another, "One day I would draw a tree, the next day we would go to the same place and I would draw a sea shell on top of it... You are observing nature and yet you are just trying to respond to it. You are not trying to draw a picture of it... It deals with a certain kind of abstraction. You can accept that as energy coming through and going back out into painting." (B. Marden, quoted in J. Lewison, Brice Marden: Prints 1961-1991 A Catalogue Raisonné, exh. cat., London, 1992, p. 48) Marden was exploring the echoes, the curves and the lines that resonate and abound in so many different aspects of Nature. The swirling loops and wash of color in Elements (Hydra) recall those shells, trees and stones. However, in this instance, he is not referencing those Eastern influences as much as he is invoking the harsh beauty of his summer studio on the Greek island of Hydra.

    Informed by his numerous journeys, Marden's paintings are imbued with a strong sense of place. Visiting Hydra, a Greek island on the Aegean Sea, in the early 1970s and eventually establishing studios in Greece and New York (both upstate and Manhattan), Marden became increasingly sensitive not only to color, but also shape. "Living on islands leads you to think a certain way," he has maintained. "I identify very strongly with the landscape in both places. I am not sure if I wasn't living in a city there would not be so much concentration on verticals and horizontals – but then living in Greece, the whole life is a kind of clarity…" (B. Marden, transcript from film Brice Marden, 1977, n.p.) Among his various studios, the Natural, in all of its unadulterated and immediate power is distilled through the artist’s brush. He acts as a medium, as a diviner, and through him the forces of nature are related to the viewer. “You’re a painter. You have to be able to just look at things. You’re a philosopher you’re a mystic you’re a priest you’re a journeyman a craftsman.” (Ibid., n.p.) This focus on the Natural and the immediacy of drawing as a means by which to relay it, even abstractedly, would be clarified and heightened upon the artist’s discovery of Eastern calligraphy and poetry.

    In 1984 Marden attended the Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th – 19th Century exhibition at the Asia Society in New York. Based originally on objects in nature and life, calligraphy, over the centuries, "went on to gather sophisticated aesthetic and pictographic complexity and refinement, [while] it retained the mesh of the traces of the kinesthetic movements of the hand with the patterns of the forces of nature." (K. Kertess, Brice Marden: Paintings and Drawings, New York, 1992, p. 41) Marden immersed himself in the study of calligraphy which he admired both as a graphic art and for the content it expressed. "It's not a technique or an ideology; it's a form of pure expression. Each time a calligrapher makes a mark, it will be distinctive because he has a particular physicality. Great artists exploit this; their thinking and their physicality become one. Paintings are physical. So is the act of creating them. This physicality should be emphasized. If you're not working with preconceived forms and thinking, then you can concentrate on expression. It is possible, I think, to make art on this instinctive level, out of deeply felt response. The longer I paint, the more I think this is true" (B. Marden quoted in L. Wei, “Talking Abstract, Part One,” Art in America, no. 7, July, 1987, p. 83)

    This interest in calligraphy, both for its inherent and self-contained aestheticism and for its use within the lyrical beauty of Chinese poets, led to the radical shift in Marden’s career thenceforth. As Charles Wylie noted in his essay for the catalogue of the Dallas Museum of Art's traveling exhibition of Marden's work of the 1990s, "Here was an art [calligraphy] that possessed an energy of line and motion, that appealed to Marden's pictorial sense but adhered to a set of rules that dictated the placement of intricate forms within rows and columns of austere measure. (C. Wylie, Brice Marden, Works of the 1990's: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, 1998, p. 28) This spark could not have come at a better time for Marden. Thus influenced by the lyrical gestures of elegant calligraphic poetry writing, he reveled in a return to gestural mark-making. This interest in mark-making was always a key focus of Marden’s as evidenced by his interest and focus on drawing throughout his career.

    The intricate and immediate forms that Marden was uncovering in the likes of Chinese calligraphy and in his nature drawings is also distinctly reflected in the work of one of his most obvious inspirations, Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s famous melding of “drawing into painting” is clearly as relevant to Elements (Hydra) as it is to the rest of the paintings that followed the burst of creative energy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Elements (Hydra), Marden is channeling nature; as such, in these deliberately spindly, colored lines he has explored an elegant, even ephemeral, parallel means of expression to Jackson Pollock. "I sort of came back to Pollock," Marden recalled of this period. "He doesn't apply the image; he lets the image evolve out of the activity. And for me, this is very important, and it's basically what I'm exploring in my own work." (B. Marden, quoted in G. Garrels (ed.), Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, exh. cat., New York, 2006, p. 296) This ability to permit the work to come into being while the artist takes a step back, becoming a medium or channel as well as the creator, allows organic forms to come into existence on the picture surface. These forms themselves convey not only some of the underlying character of nature, but also the artist's own quest for it. In works such as Convergence: Number 10, 1952 of 1952, Pollock’s all over painting style and immediacy of working is manifested throughout. There is no manner by which a viewer could discern which of the innumerable lines was laid down first, or rather, not laid down, but drawn up and out of the Natural through the whole body gesture of the painter’s body as it flung the red, yellow, blue, black and white across the picture plane. Indeed, Pollock’s reliance on primary colors, and Marden’s in Elements (Hydra), is a crucial component of the painterly power of each.

    Marden has composed his Elements (Hydra) with swooping lines of red, yellow and blue all overlaid on a grey-green ground. These same four colors were used in prior Elements paintings such as Elements I, 1981-82. This earlier series embraced the elements of alchemy, and ushered in a new stage in the artist's career. Typically dominated by the widely shifting variants of red, yellow, blue and green previously employed in the artist's oeuvre, Marden's paintings from the early 1980s decidedly drew meaning from the hues in medieval alchemy that represented the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. Marden became interested in the spiritual treatment of materials after being commissioned to design new stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral in 1978. Although the project never came to fruition, it led to his study of alchemical recipes and his interest in the physical nature of his materials never waned.

    The philosophical underpinnings of alchemy were irresistible to Marden and Elements (Hydra) wonderfully plays off of this interest. Whereas in earlier paintings Marden gave each color its own planar individuality, here we see the influences of calligraphy and natural entropy affecting his painterly style. Each curling loop of color winds its way across the earthly hued ground. Marden’s respect for the picture plane itself though is never in question as he literally uses these bands of color to frame the composition. Each color is given its own power and gravitas, never becoming muddied or distorted. Marden maintains their strict individuality both in his treatment of their hue and in their interactions with one another as they twist across the picture plane.

    Just as he was looking toward Pollock for his treatment of the paint and canvas, Marden was also heavily affected by the work of others such as Willem de Kooning whose “ribbon paintings” were first exhibited at the Xavier Fourcade Gallery in 1984. We see in de Kooning’s work a fixation with the primary colors, which, as the basis for all other hues, are in their own way elemental. Works such as Untitled V, 1982, make powerful use of the flowing line and bold colors which would similarly appear in Marden’s work of the late 1980s onward. The expressive power of de Kooning's washes of color and unbounded structures are, however, transformed by Marden’s conceptual sensibilities. His belief in the planarity of painting is tantamount throughout his oeuvre. The work of de Kooning and Pollock gave rise to the art-theoretical trend toward flatness, and Marden graciously accepts this construct and utilizes it to powerful effect. The “flatness” of his paintings, Elements (Hydra) included, is not meant disparagingly but is an intended element of the work. Marden wishes that the whole picture be able to be understood and absorbed almost immediately by the viewer. The all-over compositional structure and equation of every element to each other is necessary to achieve this immediacy. In a way, it is inappropriate to refer to the varying components of the image as foreground and background. Marden’s intent is that they are all equally available on the surface of the work. The grey-green is not exactly overlaid by the whirls of color but is rather surrounded and accompanied by them. There are many philosophical and intellectual drivers of his style, but Marden’s aim is similarly always on the primacy of painting.

    Elements (Hydra) is a masterwork of Marden’s late corpus. The fluidity of line, the primacy of the plane, the equanimity of color to form, all mark this as Marden working at the height of his painterly prowess. The immediacy and graphic beauty of calligraphy as parsed through his appreciation for the work of earlier masters such as Pollock and de Kooning gave rise to the treatment of the surface while the influence of the Natural and the investigations of alchemy led him to this particular palette. The resulting work is one of ethereal beauty that is the embodiment of over four decades of painterly progression and evolution. Brice Marden has managed, up until the present day, to continue to challenge the notion that “painting is dead” and has consistently proven in works such Elements (Hydra) that not only is it not dead, but has still many more secrets left to be revealed.

  • Artist Biography

    Brice Marden

    American • 1938 - N/A

    Born in Bronxville and working between New York City, Tivoli, New York, and Hydra, Greece, Brice Marden developed a unique style that departs from his Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist contemporaries. Drawing from his personal experiences and global travels, Marden’s works demonstrate a gestural and organic emotion channeled through the power of color. By the late 1960s, Marden received international recognition as the master of the monochrome panel and, in the late 1970s, began exploring the relationship between horizontal and vertical planes. His practice is deeply informed by his knowledge of classical architecture, world religion, ancient history, and spirituality. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998, Marden is represented in notable institutional collections including the Whitney Museum of Art, New York, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

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Elements (Hydra)

oil on linen
75 x 53 1/2 in. (190.5 x 135.9 cm)
Signed, titled and dated "Elements (Hydra) B. Marden 99 00 01" on the reverse.

$8,000,000 - 12,000,000 

Sold for $9,237,000

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Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Evening Sale 14 May 2015 7pm