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December 25, 1987|COLIN GARDNER

Critics have been puzzled by Brice Marden's career over the past couple of years. His attempt to imbue reductive abstraction with the spirituality of the Baroque masters has led to accusations of mannerism, of attempting to homogenize contradictory ideas through a signature, architectonic style. His graphic work belies such criticism, however, largely because Marden allows the dichotomy between the gestural and the formal, the intuitive and the systematic, to remain open-ended.

This is well illustrated by a selected survey of Marden's graphics from the early '70s to 1986, in which his familiar grid and post-and-lintel structures are offset by more calligraphic vocabularies. While the early Minimalist geometries are mitigated by a focus on surface texture and the depth of field possibilities of dense cross-hatching, a recent series of 25 small "Etchings to Rexroth" resemble ancient hieroglyphs. What at first appear to be random marks a la Cy Twombly, quickly coalesce into complex organisms, mysteriously cryptic yet strangely familiar.

In contrast, a sample of Ed Ruscha's drawings from the past 25 years largely reinforces the artist's work in painting and photography, exploring the vagueries of meaning through witty puns and language-play. An ink-on-paper piece from 1963 presents the word "Fun" as an Op-art exercise in retinal dazzle, while the recent "Despair and Disgust" transforms the title words into a floating halo. For Ruscha, linguistic meaning and aesthetic aura create a symbiotic relationship that is all the more powerful for its built-in contradictions. (Cirrus Gallery, 542 S. Alameda St.; Marden to Jan 9, Ruscha to Jan. 30.)

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