Born Nicholas Brice Marden Jr., October 15, 1938, in Bronxville, New York; son of Nicholas Brice (a mortgage servicer) and Kathryn Fox Marden; married Pauline Baez, 1960 (divorced, 1964); married Helen Harrington, 1968; children: Nicholas (from first marriage), Mirabelle, Melia (from second marriage). Education: Attended Florida Southern College, Lakeland, 1957–58; Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts, B.F.A., 1961; attended Yale Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art, Norfolk, Connecticut, 1961; Yale University School of Art and Architecture, M.F.A., 1963.
Addresses: Contact—Matthew Marks Gallery, 522 West 22nd St., New York, NY 10011. Office—131 Varick Street, Rm. 1003, New York, NY 10013-1417.
Began painting professionally in the 1960s; worked as security guard, Jewish Museum, New York, mid-1960s; had his first New York solo art show at the Bykert Gallery, 1966.
Known as one of the most prolific modern-day abstract painters, Brice Marden has been presenting his work at solo shows around the globe for more than 40 years. During this time, art aficionados have watched Marden transform his style over and over again. He first captured attention during the 1960s with a series of muted monochrome single-panel paintings featuring accidental drips. In the 1980s, his work was influenced by Asian culture and incorporated calligraphy. By the 2000s, Marden had evolved again, producing violently colorful paintings with spaghetti-like looping lines. Regarded as one of the most influential painters of his time, Marden's life work was featured in a 2006 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His drawings have fetched a half-million dollars at auction.
Marden's goal as a painter is to evoke both physical and emotional reactions from viewers. The book Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, published to accompany the exhibition of the same name, includes a passage from Marden where he described his artistic intentions. Marden said he hoped people would try to "see" his work and not merely "look" at it. "Well, I do everything I can in terms of what I put out for people to look at," Marden is quoted as saying. "I mean I supply them with all of the information I possibly can…. As in anything … the more responsive, the more open, the more imaginative you are … the much better experience it will be…. It's hard to look at paintings. It's really difficult, a very strenuous kind of activity…. You have to think a lot. You have to be able to bring all sorts of things together in your mind, your imagination, in your whole body."
A middle child, Marden was born Nicholas Brice Marden Jr. on October 15, 1938, in Bronxville, New York, to Nicholas and Kathryn Marden. His father worked for a mortgage company. Marden was just seven years old when he had his first memorable interaction with a piece of artwork. At the time, he was at the Museum of Modern Art looking at some abstract modernist sculptures created by Roman artist Constantin Brancusi. "I didn't know anything about it, but I had this feeling that there was much more to it than what I was seeing," he told Barbara Isenberg of the Los Angeles Times.
There were no artistic influences in Marden's immediate family, but he befriended a friend's father, Fred Serginian, who oversaw an ad agency art department and painted on the side. Throughout Marden's childhood, Serginian advised him to connect with his artist side. In the book Plane Image, Marden noted that Serginian was "always very encouraging, especially when I started out in art school. My parents were just totally perplexed, you know, coming from a town where everybody goes to college, a very Ivy League kind of place…. And I had come from this Princeton family, my grandfather taught there, and my father … and my brother went there and I always wanted to go there. But then I decided I didn't want to go."
Instead of heading off to an Ivy League school as his parents had expected, Marden chose to attend Florida Southern College with the idea that he would take some art courses for a year to see if he was truly interested in studying art as a profession. When Marden went away to college, Serginian gave him a subscription to Art News magazine, which featured the work of abstract expressionists and got Marden's mind reflecting on the genre. Marden lasted only one year in Florida. After that, he transferred to the Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts, earning his B.F.A. in 1961.
Marden loved being in Boston, a metropolitan area dotted with museums and galleries which was also within driving distance of New York. For Marden, a weekend consisted of going to New York, visiting a dozen galleries on Saturday and a couple of museums on Sunday before heading back to Boston. During this time, Marden focused his work on portraits and still lifes. Besides immersing himself in the area's art scene, Marden became involved with the Cambridge, Massachusetts, folk music scene. He met Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. In 1960, he married Pauline Baez, sister of the folk singer/songwriter Joan Baez.
During the summer of 1961, Marden attended the Yale Summer School of Music and Art in Norfolk, Connecticut. Marden focused his attention on landscapes and abstracts, feeling like he had permission to paint whatever he wanted without limitations. At the end of the session, he was invited to enroll at Yale University's School of Art and Architecture. During this time, Marden stopped drawing figures and began to focus on abstract works. He also began to experiment with dividing his canvas into a four-part grid to help him organize elements within a piece.
Marden earned his M.F.A. in 1963, then moved to New York City, set up a studio and began to paint. In order to earn money and support his family, which now included a son, Marden took a part-time job as a guard at the Jewish Museum. The impressionable Marden was lucky enough to be employed at the museum in 1964 when it hosted a Jasper Johns retrospective. Johns was famous for his abstract work that incorporated concrete popular images and everyday objects. Johns' work paved the way for pop artists like Andy Warhol and had an immense effect on Marden. "I knew about this stuff, but it's one thing to know about it and another to be in a room with 30 Jasper Johns all day long," Marden told the Los Angeles Times' Isenberg. "You'd be there during the day, and at night in a bar discussing it. Then back the next day with questions buzzing in your mind. It was really incredible."
In 1964, Marden created his first monochromatic single-panel painting, which would become a trademark of his. Two years later, in 1966, Marden hosted his first New York City solo show at the Bykert Gallery and made an impression on the art world. Marden took a new approach for the paintings in this show, devising a new technique in which he mixed together paint, turpentine, and melted beeswax to reduce the shine of the oil. When applying this sticky concoction, he used spatulas, knives and brushes, causing oozy irregularities as the paint sagged a bit before hardening.
The paintings featured in this show were abstract in nature. The titles, however, were concrete and offered viewers a way to connect with the underpinnings of each work. One painting, "Nebraska," featured exquisite greens and was inspired by a drive through the state's prairies. After the show, he painted a standout piece titled "For Helen," made in honor of Helen Harrington, whom Marden later married. This piece featured two panels, each the height of Harrington's body and width of her shoulders.
By 1968, Marden's pieces featured multiple panels. He continued to work with grids, especially influenced by the grids of New York City. Everywhere he looked, Marden found grids—both vertical and horizontal—in the streets, the buildings, and the cracks in the concrete. Throughout his career, Marden's work has been directly influenced by where he paints. During the late 1960s, as he lived in the city, he was influenced by the grid. In 1971, however, Marden traveled to the Greek island of Hydra, located in the Aegean Sea. He fell so in love with the area that he later bought a house there and opened a studio. Marden travels there every summer to paint, and when he does, the colors in his work become more intense. The pieces are grander and more lush, a direct correlation to the vibrancy he feels there. Later in his career, Marden was painting from a studio in the dark, forested area of Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. The work he produced at this studio tended to be dim.
In 1974, a collection of Marden's drawings traveled to the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, the Fort Worth Art Museum in Texas and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In 1975, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York hosted a retrospective of Marden's paintings and drawings. In the late 1970s, Marden traveled to Rome and Pompeii, studying Greek and Roman architecture. The trip influenced his work for several years to come and is apparent in a piece titled "Thira," which he painted in 1979 and 1980. In "Thira," he joined 18 separate rectangles of different sizes and colors to make a piece 15 feet long and eight feet high. He joined the rectangles together to mimic the post-and-lintel—or post and beam—construction of ancient Greek architecture.
During the 1980s, Marden played around with broadening his signature style. He was sick of doing the same thing over and over again. Unsure of what to do, Marden stopped painting to re-examine his direction. He traveled extensively, trying to take in everything he saw. A trip to Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India changed the course of Marden's work. In Thailand, he became more in sync with nature. He sketched seashells, taking note of their markings and patterns. An interest in Asian culture led him to calligraphy and eventually, a study of the poems of Han Shan, an eighth-century Taoist/Zen Chinese poet whose name means "Cold Mountain."
As Marden began painting again, he moved away from his minimalist approach and began churning out expressive abstracts. The series of paintings he crafted between 1988 and 1991 are known as the Cold Mountain series and directly reflect the influence of Asian culture. These pieces are larger than his previous ones, with canvases measuring nine by 12 feet. The paintings feature rows of abstract symbols and the marks veer off in different weights and directions, as in calligraphy. By this time, Marden had given up the practice of mixing beeswax into his paints and was instead using terpineol, an oil that dries flat. Using the terpineol, Marden did not have to fight with the canvas as much. The terpineol was runnier than his wax-and-paint mixture, allowing him to paint with a looser arm and wrist. The terpineol allowed him to use long brushes he could swirl across the canvas. The colors, however, remained muted.
From October of 2006 to January of 2007, Marden's work was the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition featured 56 of his paintings and 50 of his drawings, organized in chronological order. Marden unveiled two new large-scale works for the exhibition, titled "The Propitious Garden of Plane Image." He used two editions of the painting for the show—the second and third. This work again shows an evolution in Marden's style. The paintings feature a heightened use of color, which has been a signature of the past few years. The "Propitious Garden" painting was inspired by the number six after a numerologist friend told Marden that was his number. Marden explained his reasoning this way to the Los Angeles Times' Iseberg: "I was born on the 15th; 1 plus 5 equals 6. I use six panels in these paintings, and each panel is 6 by 4 feet, which is 24, which also adds up to 6. There are six colors and six variations." While this might seem an odd way to begin a picture, Marden believes an artist has to start somewhere.
Another interesting trait of Marden's work is the use of twigs, instead of brushes, to paint with. This is something Matisse did as well. Marden first began using twigs from the ailanthus trees of his New York back yard. He has also used bamboo and hemlock, or whatever else he finds during his travels. When Marden starts a piece, he may use a branch several feet long. By the end of the piece, as Marden zooms in on his focus, he paints with shorter, blunter sticks.
Marden's other eccentricities include working on paintings even after he has released them for a show. For Marden, "finished" can be a temporary state. According to Garrels in Plane Image, Marden once said, "When the painting really lives, has a right to exist on its own strengths and weaknesses, I consider it finished. When I have put all I can into it and it really breathes, I stop. There are times when a work has pulled ahead of me and goes on to become something new to me, something that I have never seen before; that is finishing in an exhilarating way."
Selected solo exhibitions
The Wilcox Gallery, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, 1963–64.
Bykert Gallery, New York, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974.
Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris, 1969, 1973.
Galleria Francoise Lambert, Milan, Italy, 1970, 1973.
Gian Enzo Sperone, Turin, Italy, 1971.
Konrad Fischer, Dusseldorf, Germany, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1980.
Locksley Shea Gallery, Minneapolis, 1972, 1974.
Jack Glenn Gallery, Corona del Mar, California, 1973.
Cirrus Gallery, Los Angeles, 1974.
The Jared Sable Gallery, Toronto, 1974.
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1974.
Minneapolis Museum of Arts, 1974.
Fort Worth Art Museum, 1974.
D'Alessandro/Ferranti, Rome, 1975.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1975.
Sperone Westwater Fischer, New York, 1976.
Max Protech Gallery, Washington, 1977.
Jean & Karen Bernier, Athens, 1977.
Gian Enzo Sperone, Rome, 1977.
The Pace Gallery, New York, 1978, 1980.
InK, Zurich, 1980.
Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1981.
Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1981.
Selected Paintings and Works on Paper, Modernism, San Francisco, 1998.
Brice Marden: Work of the '90s, Dallas Museum of Art, 1999.
Brice Marden: Work of the '90s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C., 1999.
Brice Marden: Etchings, Margo Leavin Gallery, Los Angeles, 2000.
Brice Marden: Collection of New Etchings, Niagara Galleries, Richmond, Australia, 2001.
Brice Marden, John Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, 2001.
Brice Marden Prints, Alumni Gallery, Boston University, 2002.
Brice Marden at Daros, Daros, Zurich, Switzerland, 2004.
An Empty Space, Brice Marden, Akira Ikeda Gallery, New York, 2005.
Plane Image—A Brice Marden Retrospective, Paintings and Drawings, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island, 2006.
Brice Marden—A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2006–07.
Brice Marden—A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2007.
Brice Marden—A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Germany, 2007.
Brice Marden: Paintings, Drawings and Prints 1975–80, London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1981.
Garrels, Gary. Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006.
Kimmelman, Michael. Portraits: Talking with Artists at the Met, The Modern, The Louvre and Elsewhere, New York: Random House, 1998.
Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2006, p. E36.
Newsweek, October 30, 2006, p. 58.
New York Times, October 27, 2006, p. E29; October 29, 2006, sec. 2, p. 1.
"Biography," Guggenheim Museum, http://www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_bio_101.html (April 23, 2007).