Brice Marden, who drew from Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism in pathbreaking explorations of gesture, line, and color that put him in a category of one, died August 9 at his home in Tivoli, New York, after managing cancer for several years. He was eighty-four. Marden rose to fame in the early 1970s with his densely hued multipanel works, which he created just as painting had gone out of fashion, thus reviving the medium for a new generation. Subsequent decades saw him shift to using marble fragments as a substrate for both vibrantly colored and neutral-toned abstractions, inspired by his time on the Greek island of Hydra, where he lived part-time; in the 1980s, he began engaging with the calligraphic form, which he most notably explored in his widely lauded “Cold Mountain” works begun late in that decade. Critic Peter Schejdahl in a 2006 issue of the New Yorker named Marden “the most profound abstract painter of the past four decades.”
Nicholas Brice Marden Jr. was born on October 15, 1938, in Bronxville, New York, and grew up in neighboring Briarcliff Manor. He attended Florida Southern College briefly before returning north to obtain his BFA from the Boston University School of Fine and Applied Arts in 1961 and his MFA from the Yale School of Art two years later. Following a stint as a security guard at New York’s Jewish Museum, where the work of Jasper Johns had a tremendous effect on him, he took a job as an assistant to Robert Rauschenberg. “It was a steady part-time job—11 to 5, three days a week—doing some low-level sorting, cleaning windows, and arranging various storage spaces,” he told Artforum in 2008. “It evolved into making coffee, answering the phone, screening calls, and generally doing everything to make it so Bob could just work.” Marden took noted of Rauschenberg’s intense focus, but rarely saw the older artist bring it to bear in his work. “I never saw him draw and rarely saw him paint,” Marden recalled. “He did that mostly at night.”
In 1966, the same year he began working for Rauschenberg, Marden had his first solo show, at New York’s Bykert Gallery, where he showed the first of his soon-to-be-iconic monochromes, made from a blend of oil, beeswax, and turpentine that the artist applied to the canvas using a knife or spatula. Though ill-received at first, with critics complaining that his work was too much like that of Johns, these canvases would earn him wide and enduring acclaim not just for the deep sense of calm they evoked but for their inviting physicality (critic Douglas Crimp was reported to have expressed a desire to lick the surface of one of Marden’s paintings). Marden continued to work in this mode over the ensuing decade, producing single-panel monochromes as well as diptychs, triptychs, and four-panel works. Typical of these are his Red Yellow Blue paintings of the mid-1970s, which feature the titular primary hues presented as though filtered through a haze of gray.
In 1977, Marden was commissioned to design the stained-glass windows for the Basel Cathedral. Though the windows would never be realized, the process of designing them pushed him toward brighter colors, as evinced in his 1980s paintings on marble fragments, which were additionally inspired by visits to Rome and Pompeii. During this decade, Marden shifted his attention away from painting and toward drawing. “I would begin with this color, and this color, and this color,” he told Chris Ofili in a 2006 issue of Artforum, describing his earlier encaustic canvases. “But I had to keep working the colors up until I got them to really read the way I wanted them to. I’d make changes, but not very many. And then I just got tired of it. It seemed like I was just refining instead of discovering things as I went along. And I had been trying to get more drawing into the paintings.”
Inspired by various family trips to Asian countries and by a visit to the 1984–85 exhibition “Masters of Japanese Calligraphy, 8th–19th Century,” collaboratively organized by New York’s Japan House and Asia Society, Marden created his “Cold Mountain” works of 1989–91, a group of nine-by-twelve-foot paintings comprising delicate black calligraphic swoops on light grounds. Despite their enormous size, the canvases evoked an airiness that stood in contrast to the reserved, muted works that had brought him to prominence. The tangled lines presented here would mark later canvases, including those in his brightly colored 2000 series “The Propitious Garden of Plane Image,” which, at twenty-four feet long, were his largest to date.
Marden’s work is held in collections of institutions the world over and have become some of the most sought-after in the auction market, commanding prices similar to those of old masters like Rembrandt. At no point, however, did Marden rest on his laurels. “In the beginning they really didn’t want [my work],” he told Ofili. “But then it wasn’t long before they did. And I’m very happy that they do, but I’m also thinking, I’m going to do this show at the Modern, and then I’m going to move to the country and just start painting these rocks. And maybe they’re not going to want this stuff. Does it become like a brand? I don’t know.”
Marden continued to paint until the end of his life, though his mode of working changed slightly in the mid-aughts. “In the last few years, I find myself spending more time looking at the painting than painting it,” he told the Brooklyn Rail’s Jeffrey Weiss in 2009. Marden’s daughter Mirabelle in an Instagram post revealed that he had been painting in his studio until just a few days before his death. Though he remained in some ways uncertain about his success, he was confident about his process.
“I never have an idea that [a work is] going to end up a certain way,” he told Ofili. “It’s a dialogue with the thing itself. It forces you to do stuff, and then you’re not satisfied with certain things, so you force it to do something else. You keep going, and finally, there’s just no conversation anymore.”