Painting of the Day

10 Apr


D’après la Marquise de la Solana

D’après la Marquise de la Solana. by Brice Marden (born 1938). Oil and wax on canvas, 1969. Currently on view at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC.

Notes from

In the increasingly theoretical New York art world of the 1960s and 1970s, painting was displaced in favor of sculpture in a new mode that privileged concept over material, idea over sensory quality. When painting did appear, the prevailing aesthetic called for pristine, monochromatic surfaces that appeared to have been untouched by the artist’s hand. Brice Marden departed from these stylistic strictures in search of something more emotionally charged and personal. His early single-color panels reconcile the stringent subtractions of Minimalism with his more expressive impulses as a painter. Upon close inspection, Marden’s matte canvases, layered with thick encaustic (his characteristic oil-and-wax technique), reveal the marks of the palette knife, the subtle ridges in the viscous material inflecting each panel’s uniform color and opacity with impressions of the painter’s working process. This evidence, along with the artist’s anachronistic tendency toward the lyrical, is what distinguishes his work from that of his Minimalist contemporaries who rely on a cool industrial quality.

Although Marden’s paintings are non-objective, he often draws upon specific people, places, or other works of art as sources. Inspired by the austere palette of the Spanish masters Goya and Zurbarán, his early paintings achieve a brooding gravity through subtle, low-key color combinations. D’après la Marquise de la Solana is a response to Goya’s portrait of the Marquise, which Marden saw in the Louvre. His translation of the 18th-century figure into the language of reductivist abstraction is a potent distillation of the color, light, and mood in Goya’s original. Delicately worked panels of olive-taupe, gray, and peach succinctly paraphrase the Marquise’s elusive expression and dainty poise amid a grand romantic landscape.

An unparalleled sensitivity to color as an expressive means is a defining characteristic of Marden’s art. The five paintings in the Grove Group series, begun in 1973, were inspired by an olive grove on the Greek Island of Hydra, where the artist has spent time. Marden, who sees art as a “trampoline into spirituality,” refers to these as “high-intensity paintings,” intending his use of light and color to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. Color associations are usually detectable only through Marden’s evocative titles; the two-toned composition of Grove IV is a response to the shimmering shift in color from the dark tops to lighter bottoms of the windblown leaves of olive trees.

Portrait of the Countess of Carpio, Marquesa de la solana. by Francisco de Goya (this is the painting mentioned in the notes above)

My comments:

Color field paintings, a genre to which Marden’s painting above belongs, is one that uniquely poses interesting questions about what makes Art “good” and special. Many people will look at the painting by Marden above and dismiss it, saying, “My kid could have painted that.” And that’s probably true. If one was patient, he could probably mix together the right colors, use a straight edge, and paint this same canvas with almost if not identical results. In Marden’s case, he did have a special technique that he used which involved encaustic, but this is not a secret recipe that he made up on his own, so a pedestrian in the artistic sense could probably learn how to use encaustic and still achieve something that looks very similar to Marden’s results. One counterargument that I’ve heard against the notion that because of its lack of requiring great skill is that “Well maybe your kid could make that painting, but the point is that he didn’t and the artist thought of the idea first,” implying that aesthetic value at least partly comes from an artwork’s ingenuity or originality. But this would imply that art has to present an idea that is completely new in some way, and how much art actually does this? Even in the case of Marden, he was inspired by Goya to paint his painting. Other modern artists who made supposedly radically inventive paintings also often express how they were inspired by past artists. And even for those artists who claim that they eschewed past artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, his art is only interesting in reference to past art; without it, it wouldn’t make sense and would actually fall quite flat. Furthermore, this counterargument seems to encourage valuing art based on its shock value, which in my opinion debases the value of art and makes it seem no better than reality television, whose specious but real cultural capital is based on pulling people in with shocking acts and intrigue. And not only do I not want art to have no more meaning than that; I also think it really does have infinitely more meaning.

So does color field painting really stand the test of time and have value as art that is independent of its originality or how much it surprises us? I’ve never seen this painting in person and it is obvious from this computer image that the real thing would look very different, since we know it was painted partly with encaustic and has a textural element to it. That would effect its expressive-ness. But going by my personal definition of what makes the best art (which is the art that is the most honest and true in its expression of whatever the artist was intending; the best art makes a clear expressive statement), I think this painting actually does have substantial merit because using just colors without drawing any figures or trying to create the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface, it still conveys the same mood as the Goya painting–that sort of calm mellowness, a demure understated quality that you sense in the woman depicted by Goya. It basically achieves the same level of expression as Goya but with deliberately less image elements.

This reminds me of a discussion we had in my studio art class today. We discussed what adding the human figure to a painting does, and many students agreed that it adds a whole narrative element to it. Even in paintings where there is not a human figure but merely the suggestion of one, such as a painting that had a single shoe in it for instance, still possess, some say, more narrative power than paintings which are wholly separated from any narrative. This would probably include abstract paintings such as Marden’s. Does Goya’s painting have more narrative than Marden’s? I guess so; it does make you wonder about what that woman was like. But I think that abstract paintings often make you think more than representational paintings do because you don’t have the recognizable visual cues that we use in real life to move through our world and which also help us understand a painting. Since abstract paintings don’t give us this “crutch” of sorts, we often as art appreciators have to work harder to see what the artist is saying between the lines-pun intended.



One Response to “Painting of the Day”

  1. tara April 10, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    s painting makes me wonder “where did she get those shoes? I love them”

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