Over the past several years, as painting became my primary medium, I gradually lost touch with drawing. Although I periodically filled small sketchbooks with explorations of the grid, branch studies, and occasional studies from observation, I missed the feel of a gesture extending from my arm and hand. I missed the resistance of a stick of oil pastel against paper and being free of concerns about color. As I write this, I realize that this is a prelude to finding my way back to drawing.
Recently, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the artists whose work has stayed with me over the years (see my post about Old Friends). So in this post, I am bringing together my renewed interest in mark-making with my admiration for the work of Brice Marden.
When I first encountered Marden’s work in the early 1970s, I was largely indifferent to it. I had little interest in minimalism and didn’t take the time to notice the richly textured surfaces or the subtlety of his palette. Additionally, I wasn’t particularly drawn to the explorations of the grid that followed his large, single color paintings. I felt most at home with figurative painting and when I did spend time with non-objective work, it was the paintings of Diebenkorn that held my gaze.
However, when Marden moved into the calligraphic mark-making that followed (beginning in the 1980s and into the early 1990s) I took notice. It was those explorations that provided an entryway for me into all of the work that would follow, as well as a willingness to go back and consider the work that preceded it.
Marden and the grid
Marden had done extensive exploration of grids in his prints of the 1970s and would later make a connection between the grid and the structure of Asian calligraphy.
Developing an interest in Asian calligraphy
Marden’s interest in calligraphic mark-making coincided with his first visits to Asia in the early 1980s. He describes this in a 2009 interviewwith Harry Cooper, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art. In the interview, he speaks of trying to bring more drawing into his paintings at this time, as well as his growing interest in the structure of Chinese calligraphy. What was of particular interest to me is that his intention to add drawing into his paintings was not just about finding a fluid approach to mark-making, but that it was coupled with an abiding respect for the grid.
The etchings of the mid 1980s show the beginning influence of calligraphy as Marden moved away from the strong vertical and horizontal axis of the grid and began to connect the marks from top to bottom as well as across the image.
The Poetry of Han Shan (Cold Mountain)
Marden's interest in the structural elements of Asian calligraphy was also accompanied by an introduction to the poetry of Han Shan (translation: Cold Mountain), who is believed to have been a 9th century Chinese monk who spent several decades living in a remote mountainous area. Not only was Marden intrigued by the poetry, but he also saw a translation that included the Chinese characters on one page and the English translation on the facing page. For Marden, connecting the visual with the meaning would influence the development of his own calligraphic mark-making. (To read more about the life of Han Shan along with several poems, click here.)
Marden found out how the calligraphy was written on the page and meant to be read. From my own readings, I learned that traditional Chinese calligraphy is done in a series of vertical columns, starting on the right side of the page and read top to bottom. (Apparently it is now more popular for characters to be written in horizontal rows and read from left to right, mimicking western writing).
Marden developed his own calligraphic vocabulary by working with a variety of tools to make marks. For the works on paper he dipped twigs and branches in ink, and sometimes added gouache (applied with a brush). In exploring line and gesture in his paintings, Marden would use brushes with 2-3 foot long handles— to keep his distance from the work as well as to change the level of control he would have in making the gestures.
|Cold Mountain Study (Forms), 1990 Ink on paper|
Marden describes his process: first drawing columns of calligraphic glyphs, top to bottom, right to left (paralleling the traditional process). But, unlike traditional calligraphy, he followed that by going back into the grid of glyphs and starting to connect them within each column and ultimately across the columns.
|Han Shan goes to the tropics, 1991 Ink on paper|
|Cold Mountain (Song), 1991 Ink on paper|
At some point, he began to add gouache to the ink drawings, painting over (but in no way obliterating) some of the earlier gestures. And you can also see him begin to push against the edges of the sheet, which becomes an integral part of paintings that will follow a decade later.
|Bridge Study, 1991 Ink and gouache on paper|
|Untitled with Green, 1989 Ink and gouache on paper|
Bringing the gestures into painting
In 1989, Marden began a series of large scale paintings incorporating these calligraphic linear gestures. But along with the move to working with paint, Marden began drawing the lines with brushes, rather than twigs, stating "I do all of my drawing with sticks. But I don't paint with sticks because you can't get the paint off the stick onto a canvas." His painting process is complex, and includes painting the gestural marks with a brush, scraping them down, wiping down the surface with turpeniol, sanding and toning the surface, and repeating the process over and over again. Although the paint layers are thin, what results is a densely layered surface rich with networks of lines and ghost lines and a quiet, meditative luminosity.
In an interview with Pat Steir, Marden makes clear that he does not see his approach to mark-making as a form of writing. While he begins with structural elements of Chinese calligraphy, he lets the drawing take over, connecting the columns, going back in and scraping down, layering over some of the lines. In this same interview, you can read about the challenges of bringing the same fluidity into the painted lines.
|Cold Mountain 6 (Bridge), 1989-1991 Oil on linen 108 x 144||"|
|Cold Mountain 2, 1989 - 1991 Oil on linen 108 x 144"|
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If you wish to read more about this period in Marden's work: Brice Marden Cold Mountain, by Brenda Richardson, 1992 is an excellent place to start. The book includes essays about Han Shan and Chinese Calligraphy, Marden's thoughts about Pollock and extensive comments about his process.