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.