The surest way to spot a bullshitter in an art museum is to look for someone standing roughly three feet away from an art object, sliding their hands alternately back and forth, and using phrases like “give and take” or talking about how one part or another “pops.” Certainly, that has been my go-to shorthand when confronted by a work about which I have utterly nothing to say, and no desire to say it. So imagine my surprise when, while touring the Brice Marden retrospective at the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, entitled Plane Image (a truer homonym was never uttered), I came across a video in which Marden and curator Gary Garrels are standing roughly three feet away from one of Marden’s paintings at MoMA (the show arrived in Berlin from New York, via San Francisco); Marden is sliding his hands alternately back and forth, talking about the give and take between figure and ground, and how he wanted this particular section to pop (to which Garrels responds, “well, that really pops!”).
I have never liked Brice Marden. Although this retrospective didn’t exactly change my mind, it did foster a particular appreciation for what I’ve come to think of as his unique talent and contribution to painting: an elucidation of the poetics of boredom, or, to appropriate the title of the show, of plainness.
Let me be clear, as I’m talking about something very specific. I don’t, for instance, mean an intentional boredom. There is an entire super-genre of the intentionally boring that spans media and eras, into which I might group, to name a few at random, Yoko Ono, Ad Reinhardt or Robert Ryman. The intentionally boring is, in fact, a crude way of describing an ascetic attention to materiality, an exercise in meditation or a test of one’s patience and endurance; it is an active communication with the viewer’s mind and body. Brice Marden is never Intentionally Boring; he is merely boring. His work is passive, static, easily ignored, or worse, easily mistaken for home decor. He is what art teachers might call a solid C student; forever striving, forever attempting, forever coming short of the mark and landing solidly and comfortably in the mediocre, the okay, the alright. And this alrightness is just fine, for in this perfect pitch of boredom and mediocrity lies Marden’s unique accomplishment.
Marden was an art student in the first half of the 60s (a BFA from Boston University in 1961 was followed by an MFA from Yale in 1963), and so came of artistic age in the late 60s. The angsty metaphysical Abstract Expressionists were the dominant force in his school years, and Pop became the lingua franca of the American art world at the time he graduated. These influences hang like a pall over Marden’s paintings, and what’s more, he never managed to slough them off.
His early work reeks of attempts at chinese oil paintings, monotone canvases, fields of colour with a five-centimetre strip of exposed underpainting lining the bottom of the picture plane. But Marden doesn’t seem to have had the patience to produce strictly flat paintings, and so there’s the odd brush mark here, the odd spot there where his colour is slightly mismatched, not blended in. Not enough precision to rank them as hard-edged, painterliness to rank them as expressionist or subtlety to pass them off as Mark Rothko paintings. His colours are likewise fine-tuned to the dull: ochres, muddy greens, concrete greys–colours that never pop, and likewise are too highly keyed to register as brooding, menacing or emotive in any way.
His work next shifts into a derivation of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as he generally abandons colour: drippy lines that traverse the picture plane in a lackadaisical stab at urgency. None of these canvases are especially dense with marks, and the mannered overload of wishy-washy drips robs the lines of any expressive tension. Again, the middle-C of tedium: not pictorially dense enough to sustain compositional rhythm, too drippy to have any haptic strength.
Marden then emerges into the images we associate him with today, those jagged slashes smoothed out into overlapping curvy lines of uniform width and varying colour laid over a plain background. This mature style marries what is most boring about his previous phases in one brilliant masterstroke of efficiency: the flaccid linearity of his drippy paintings combined with the wan colour of his Minimalist days. And, like any good artist hitting his stride, he reaches the full expression of his boring powers. Marden makes the odd attempt at genuinely high-key colours, which makes his paintings bear remarkable resemblance to an Ikea rug. In further attempts to alter his formula, he explores notions of containment by having the edges of his canvas act as strict borders, but again, there’s too much open space within the picture, which militates against any feelings of tension or claustrophobia.
Marden’s work is never thrilling, jolting, or even exciting, nor is it ever particularly bad, much less awful. And if he were boring on purpose, I would be disappointed; it would suggest a spiteful cruelty that would taint the innocent folly of his paintings. Never mind by what bizarre mechanism he managed to achieve canonical art-stardom (or how he was declared “the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades” by none other than Peter Schjeldahl); there is no point brooding over spilt milk. Instead, I find the idea of the artist-as-naif–spending a lifetime trying, never achieving, but instead landing consistently, with mathematical precision, in this sweet spot of unremarkability–deeply romantic, tragically absurd, a narrative of Sisyphean scope.