Brice Marden has been called a romantic and a minimalist. He himself traces his roots to abstract expressionism, and some of his imagery can be related to classical architecture, seascape, phases of the moon. If a visit to the retrospective of his prints at the Baltimore Museum of Art reveals that there's something in all of those assessments, it also reveals that there's more in some than in others.
At first glance the work of the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s certainly looks minimalist; there are grids that look like graph paper, there are squares or broad stripes of black and white.
The artist is right, however, to say that his work is "slow," that it needs time. Stay with it awhile and it becomes far less minimalist. For one thing, there is too much evidence of the hand. Marden the mark-maker is almost everywhere; those blacks and whites are not simple areas of unmodulated color, but are really more about the lines and shadings that gradually appear when you concentrate on the work.
Second, the lines and shadings, the deliberate marks that break up the smooth progress of these surfaces, bespeak a reserved but deep intensity of emotion. If Marden is too deliberate to be an expressionist in the sense of the way he makes his marks, surely he is something of an expressionist in terms of what the marks mean, and the closer you get to the work the more you see that.
Take, for instance, "Five Threes" and "12 Views for Caroline vTC Tatyana" from the late 1970s. At first glance these prints refer to architecture -- they're windows or doorways. But really they're about the myriad subtleties of relationships, the differences in likeness, the likenesses in difference. If we're speaking here of tone and texture, light and dark, we're also speaking of implications beyond the purely visual.
Marden shares much with Jasper Johns, including a combination of reserve and depth that makes the smallest gesture count for much, an elegance of touch that can be thrilling, and a sense of beauty that borders on the romantic. But in each, too, there's a strain of austere intellectuality that stops the work short of any sense of looseness.
In Marden's recent "Cold Mountain" prints, though, it seems to me that that austerity breaks down a little. The relationship to abstract expressionism becomes more obvious, and consequently less subtly informing. And while these works are certainly still abstract, the fact that they can be read as referring at some level to the figure does not strengthen but weakens them.
Marden is at his best when at his most abstract, for then the intensity and the emotional depth are at their purest. Seeing sea and sky in certain of his "Adriatics" prints, or Greek temples in the "Caroline Tatyana" series, or phases of the moon in the "Five Threes," does not add another level of meaning so much as it obscures their truth. In those works, however, you can get beyond such considerations, perhaps because the images are more geometric; with the more organic "Cold Mountain" prints, although the figure isn't immediately there, once it emerges it's more tenacious.
Which is not to say that these works are failures, only that they're not the most successful of Marden's prints. He is never less than an artist of truly formidable strengths, and we are fortunate to have this show, which has already been to London and Paris and in America will only be seen here.
It has been given a handsome and sensitive installation, with the addition of a few drawings and (in Baltimore only) a selection of paintings at strategic points. Since Marden develops his ideas through all these media, we have an opportunity to see him in rare depth. It shouldn't be missed.
'Brice Marden: Prints 1961-1991'
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 3. (Note: the museum is normally closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but will be open Tuesdays from Nov. 24 to Jan. 12.)
Admission: $5 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 4 to 18, members and children 3 and younger free; Thursdays free to everyone.
Call: (410) 396-7100.