Interview with Brice Marden, heir presumptive to Pollock

The artist speaks ahead of his upcoming Dallas exhibition on his varied historical influences


The search for an heir to Jackson Pollock is likely to focus on the Dallas Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Brice Marden: work of the 1990s; paintings, drawings and prints”. These days, Marden (b. 1938) brings together the qualities that collectors, critics and museums are seeking: a formal link with the Abstract Expressionists, harmonious compositions on a grand scale, and evolving work by a living artist who, unlike Jasper Johns, has not yet been officially canonised.

In the mid-1980s, Marden shifted from making monochromatic abstract panels with beeswax and oil paint to exploring Chinese calligraphy and integrating those forms into large paintings. He also incorporated themes from Greek myths and poetry. Some fifty drawings and paintings are on view at the Dallas Museum of Art until 25 April, after which the exhibition travels to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC (27 May-5 September), the Miami Art Museum (17 December-5 March 2000), and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (20 May-13 August, 2000). Marden is represented by the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, which helped organise the exhibition. Brice Marden spoke to The Art Newspaper about the foreign influences, Asian calligraphy in particular, on his art.

Much of your work since the mid-1980s seems influenced by Chinese calligraphy. What got you interested in that?

Brice Marden I had seen a show of one thousand years of Japanese calligraphy at the Japan House and at the Asia Society in New York, with a great catalogue. I loved the energy of the drawing in the show, so I started investigating, and I was led to Chinese calligraphy, which I found more interesting because it was less elegant than the Japanese. Then I became interested in the entire culture.

Is it the form of the calligraphy that struck you?

I like the idea that this form doesn’t exist in the West. You don’t have something that can be read that can also be purely aesthetic. It’s artwork that communicates in a different way than Western artwork. We just don’t have a form like that.

Don’t letters in Western medieval manuscripts function in that way?

That’s much more pictorial. Calligraphy is much more abstract. And I’m basically an abstract painter, so I was attracted to that whole form. One of the other things about Chinese calligraphy is this real closeness to the human body, and how the energy flows through the body and comes up and out onto the page.

So you would describe yourself as an abstract painter, even though the title of your paintings and drawings, and the forms and figures suggested by those titles refer to something that is not abstract?

Yes, a lot of that work is figurative. I suppose that is the reason for the show. I am using this as an opportunity to study what I’ve been up to. You can keep track by yourself, but you get a much different overview if you can look at a whole bunch of work over time.

Is there anything about the architecture of that Mayan site in the Yucatan that struck you?

The buildings were designed to communicate with the gods, with a repetitive imagery of rain and water. You can look at the façades of those buildings in Uxmal, and they read very similarly to the way that a piece of calligraphy would read. A lot of my use of the calligraphy is also a variation on the grid, which I had worked with back in the 1960s.

When did Greek influences work their way into your art?

Way back in the 1970s. It was the light, which is like nowhere else in the world. It was dazzling. Things take on a different kind of clarity.

Do you collect Greek art? Do you keep any of it around you when you work?

I always have a studio pin-up of Phydias’s Pelops Koure. To me, that piece of sculpture comes closest to the idea of transformation and transfiguration. You look at the sculpture and it almost becomes alive. My wife collects Southeast Asian objects and Tantric paintings. I also collect specifically Chinese objects: jade bees and neolithic blades and axe-heads. I have one piece of calligraphy that I bought at auction, but I don’t collect that.

In the past you have worked slowly. Has your pace of work changed in the last five or ten years?

It’s shockingly the same. I’ve just finished three “Muses” paintings, and they’ve basically taken ten years to make.

Do you feel any kinship with painters who describe their work as abstract these days?

I’m an American painter and I’m from the New York School. I really like to see it as a school. The painters there are affected the incredibly beautiful light in New York City. People there don’t talk about it. But I think it has a huge effect on the painting that’s done there. It’s a very clear and silvery light.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Heir presumptive to Pollock'