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For Marden, seeing is creating

A lifetime of looking -- at Brancusis, calligraphy, shells -- has fueled the artist. A MoMA retrospective follows the twists and turns of his career.

October 15, 2006|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

New York — HIS first aesthetic experience, says artist Brice Marden, came when he was 7, at a museum looking at Constantin Brancusi's abstract sculptures. "I didn't know anything about it," the painter says, "but I had this feeling that there was much more to it than what I was seeing."

Sixty years later, Marden can himself look back on a lifetime of making art that rewards the viewer in much the same way. His lush, generally colorful abstract paintings can be seen simply as beautiful objects, or they can reveal far more.

A major retrospective opening Oct. 29 and continuing through Jan. 15 at the Museum of Modern Art gathers together more than 100 paintings and drawings from one of the most widely shown artists working today. Marden says he is ready for his close-up: "I'm a New York painter, and I like to show in New York. It's like a philosophical debate. You put out your ideas."

Marden, who turns 68 today, gathered those ideas like a peripatetic sponge, haunting galleries, museums and artist hangouts and traveling the world. In the '60s, he was immersed in the Cambridge, Mass., music scene before moving on to New York and such jobs as a museum guard and studio assistant to artist Robert Rauschenberg. He adapted Matisse's notion of drawing with twigs, and from Asian calligraphy and, later, the poetry of the Tang dynasty, came philosophy, images and ideas for decades of paintings.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Artist's daughter: An article last Sunday about artist Brice Marden misspelled the name of one of his daughters as Malia. Her name is Melia Marden.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Brice Marden: An article in the Calendar section on Oct. 15 about artist Brice Marden misspelled the name of one of his daughters as Malia. Her name is Melia Marden.

"Seeing is important to Brice," says Gary Garrels, curator of the MoMA retrospective and senior curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. "It's all about looking and about what happens when that looking gets transformed in the studio into something we call art."

Few studios seem more conducive to that alchemy than Marden's huge workplace at the western edge of Greenwich Village, near Chelsea and the meat-packing district. On the 10th floor of what appears to be a relatively new building, it has 20-foot-high ceilings and nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that offer unobstructed views of the Hudson River -- and incredible light.

The patrician-looking Marden seems reflective and reserved as he obligingly guides a visitor through his studio. One of four workplaces he keeps in the U.S. and abroad, it is quiet, orderly and spare. Paintings in process are on and against the walls, and shelves run floor to ceiling, filled with books on art, poetry and philosophy.

There are separate tables for painting and drawing, and a cut-off tree trunk holds twigs as well as brushes. Since the early '70s, Marden has used twigs to apply ink or sometimes paint to create the curved, almost dancing lines that appear in many of his drawings and paintings. The twigs came first from ailanthus trees that grew in his backyard on New York's Bond Street, and now from bamboo, hemlock or whatever else he might find in his travels.

"The twigs are really long when I start -- maybe 6 feet -- and when I narrow in on the images, I use shorter ones," he says. "Then the more you work the image up, the blunter and shorter the instrument becomes so you have more control. At the end, the twig is about 6 inches long.

"I like drawings because there is less material between you and what you're making, so you get a more direct, spontaneous image," he says. "Painting is much more constructed."

It certainly appears to be for Marden, who sometimes takes years to complete a work. On the wall of the studio, for instance, are paintings he has worked on for four years now, on and off.

Does he plan to finish them soon? He smiles. "I don't know. That's the nice thing about this job. You can do what you want."


Early success

THE way he tells it, Marden has been doing pretty much what he wants for much of his life. He was raised in Briarcliff Manor in New York's Westchester County and recalls no artistic influences at home. But neighbor Fred Serginian, the father of his best friend, was a painter-turned-advertising executive who encouraged his interest in art. "When I was a senior in high school and decided somewhat abruptly that I wanted to be a painter," says Marden, "he kept my parents relatively calm."

Serginian gave him a subscription to Art News magazine when he went to college and, he says, he was soon hooked. "I think I always wanted to be an abstract artist. Art News was the abstract expressionist trade rag, and I was primed."

Marden received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Boston University and, in 1963, an MFA from Yale School of Art and Architecture. At Yale, he "already had developed a style and way of painting and drawing that were distinctly his own," Garrels writes in the MoMA exhibition catalog.

As he studied art, he was also immersed in the Cambridge folk music world. His first wife, Pauline Baez, whom he married in 1960, is Joan Baez's sister. He met Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and lived for a while at Joan Baez's house in Carmel.

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