An Old-School Radical

At 68, Brice Marden is still a trim, handsome man with knowing eyes. Which must be why--since abstract painters aren't usually celebrities--he's recently appeared in a Gap ad. Even while installing a show in black jeans, long-sleeved T shirt and stocking cap, there's an elegance to the man, and a boxer's looseness in the way he moves.

But today he's nervous. This "show" is "Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings"--in the august Mu-seum of Modern Art, where it will be on view Oct. 29 through Jan. 15. True, he's long been represented by such top-o'-the-heap galleries as Pace, Mary Boone and Matthew Marks, and a drawing of his once fetched half a million dollars at auction. But he's never seen many of these 56 canvases and 50 drawings together before. Something might go wrong. Like what? "Someone will prick the bubble," he says, "and say it all looks like bulls--t."

With this show, however, there's more than just an artist's reputation at stake. In an art world increasingly given over to carnivals of video and installation art, Marden is the consensus champion of straight-ahead painting. That is, he works in oil on flat, rectangular canvases: adding no assemblages, appropriated photos or anything else peculiar. For more than 40 years--through his early monochrome abstractions to his recent paintings that resemble intricate Hot Wheels setups--he's taken the esthetic high road. If the fruits of his subtle sensibility and deft touch can't convince people that painting isn't passé, it's hard to imagine what could.

Marden grew up in pleasant Bronx-ville, N.Y., where his adolescence was graced by his father's best friend, an advertising executive turned artist, who gave him tickets to MoMA's first Jackson Pollock retrospective in 1956 and a subscription to Art News magazine. Heading to college, Marden (who readily admits "I wasn't a great student") went to Flori-da to study the reliable backup trade of hotel administration. Then he transferred to Boston University's somewhat conservative art school. "If you worked at home and did abstract paintings," he says, "you were a lot better off showing them to the color and design teacher than to the painting professor." While still in school, he got married--to Joan Baez's sister Pauline. After graduate school at the Harvard Law of the art world--Yale--Marden spent several months in Paris with his wife and in-laws. (Her father worked there for UNESCO.) After 50 or so applications for teaching jobs yielded nothing, Marden decided to return to New York and simply be an artist. It meant a divorce.

He got a job as a part-time guard at the Jewish Museum during its 1964 Jasper Johns retrospective, and had his epiphany: the way to keep abstract painting vital in the face of the Pop art pandemic would be to combine somehow the openness and improvisation of Pollock with Johns's density and attention to detail. At the time, sculptor Donald Judd and painter Frank Stella were (in Marden's words) "the two big battling intellects" who were also trying to save abstraction from becoming academic. They had theories and arguments, Marden says, "but I just wanted to paint. So I dumbed out. I went romantic."

Marden began adding melted beeswax to his oil paint, to reduce the fancy gloss and make his abstractions more matter-of-fact. And he kept the monochrome pictures from turning into position papers on how cool it was to use just one color. He'd leave a narrow unfinished band running across the bottom of his pictures--an index of all the underpainting. Enlarging his formats to triptychs and diptychs, he lavished inordinate care on the seams where the panels abutted. The results--which influenced a younger generation of abstract painters--made Marden an art star known for a conservative form of radicalism.

After a while, though, he tired of "knowing exactly how to paint a 'Brice Marden'." He moved to the daringly calligraphic "Cold Mountain" series of the 1980s; then, in the late '90s, he morphed that style into tougher, more rigid configurations of wider lines. Recently, he's given himself a color challenge with brighter backgrounds. (He won.) Naturally there's a rumbling of resentment against Marden's success: he paints in studios he owns in Manhattan, upstate New York, rural Pennsylvania and the Greek island of Hydra.

More serious detractors think--with hindsight, of course--that the monochromes go down too smoothly to be historically significant, that the calligraphy is too resolved and balanced, and that Marden's new work doesn't push his oeuvre forward. Has he really seized abstract painting and made of it something totally his own, or is he the world's most dutiful disciple of his predecessors?

Marden, though, is happy not to have played the rebel. "Because the abstract expressionists had done it, I didn't have to." Such honesty is a relief from those gallery-hot artists now posturing as if their cartoonish takes on the easy target of commercial popular culture had reinvented art itself. Marden simply keeps looking in his own way to the great painters of the past, from Manet to de Kooning. "I believe in the lineage," he says. Does the lineage believe in him? It'll take time for posterity to get here and make up its mind. We say yes.