“The window is a real grid, a given grid, the panes like my lines across it. We were suspending these images in light, glass, air, atmosphere, these colors floating."
T he preeminent abstract painter working today, Brice Marden is celebrated for his mastery over the fundamental components of the medium; line and color are brought into harmonious concert in his works, culminating in absorptive compositions that are luminous and transcendental. Executed in 1985 after nearly a decade of conceptual development, Window Study No. 4 brings together cool and warm tones in ethereal washes, crafting the sensation of light and warmth emanating from within the canvas. An exemplar of Marden’s output, the present work captures the artist as he moved to address notions of spirituality as well as the relationship between nature and the individual, which endure as the primary painterly concerns of his practice.
In 1977, Brice Marden was commissioned to design the windows lining the apse of the Basel Cathedral, a project that he labored on continuously from 1978 to 1985. Influenced in part by the Rothko Chapel, which the artist visited in 1972, Marden painted the present work with the aim of fostering a heightened spiritual environment through abstraction. Occupying the space above the altar, these windows would be central to the ritual activity of the space, and the artist spent the next seven years honing his concept to address the spiritual weight of the installation context, culminating in a limited group of Window Study paintings in 1984-1985. While not religious himself, Marden sought to imbue his compositions with the gravity and aura befitting a revered, holy space, and the Basel commission saw the artist move away from the understated encaustic monochromes that dominated his output during the 1960s and 1970s to embrace a new, vibrant palette and set of linear compositional devices.
Outlining this stylistic and material transition, curator Brenda Richardson describes how Marden, an artist highly concerned with restrictions and set parameters, “turned to a brighter, purer palette than was his usual preference and settled on the primaries plus green for the Basel windows. In part influenced by his growing interest in alchemy, he decided to work with combinations of colors limited to three (the Trinity) for the linear components and four (the elements - earth, air, fire, water) for the monochrome panels” (Brenda Richardson, “Even a Stone Knows You,” in Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Plane Image: A Brice Marden Retrospective, 2006 p. 82).
A monochromatic panel with a crimson glow representing the primordial element of fire, the present work is both linked to Marden’s enduring interest in the expressive power of tonal variation, as well as a newfound intellectual interest in ancient religious and philosophical traditions. Highly structured, the linear framework of Window Study No. 4 recalls the architectonic elements of the cathedral, especially the masonry of the European Gothic structure and the lead pieces that bond the glass components in its windows. The rectangular forms also emulate a more diagrammatic and philosophical influence, mirroring the form of the Taoist Trigram for the element of fire, reflecting Marden’s interest in ancient philosophy and his predilection to sample from ranges of culture to craft novel spiritual experiences in art.
A record of the artist during a career defining breakthrough, Window Study No. 4 crystalizes a moment in which Marden incorporates the ethereal quality of light and symbols of the natural world as twin bases for his work. Trading the subtle tactility of encaustic for diluted oils, the present work pulses with elemental vitality; in addition to the overwhelming sensation of searing reds, rich ochres, mustards, and sunflower yellows collide with dusky purples and greys in thinned valences of pigment. Although the present work is purely abstract, Marden brings these tones together in attenuated layers of paint so that they “corresponded to the physical presence of the window, its transparent plane, and the light passing through it” (John Yau in Brice Marden: Recent Paintings & Drawings, exh. cat., Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London, 1988, n.p.).
"It’s light and it’s color—all that was euphoric. And in working out ways of depicting these for myself with the paintings—their physicality changed. Suddenly there is not thick and thin, there’s a different atmosphere. The matter was no longer the carrier of light.”
Gerhard Richter, Cologne Cathedral Windows, 2007
© Gerhard Richter 2020
Mark Rothko, Rothko Chapel, 1971
© 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Ellsworth Kelly, Austin, 2015
© Ellsworth Kelly Foundation, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Louise Nevelson, Nevelson Chapel, 1977
New York City, New York
© Estate of Louise Nevelson / 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Marc Chagall, Reims Cathedral Windows, 1974
Sigmar Polke, Windows for the Zürich Grossmünster, 2009
© 2020 Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Joaquín Torres-García, Constructivist Glass, 1948
Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
Beyond its mimetic quality, in Window Study No. 4 dark and light are in a rhythmic dance, one dominating the other in discrete passages on the surface of the canvas. Recalling the movement inherent to fire, and more abstractly the notion of change over time, the present work is both compositionally sophisticated and meditative in its overall effect. In distilling the element of fire to its most basic and allusive formal components, including the use of vibrant reds in the present work, Marden broke through to a new chapter in his oeuvre. While earlier works such as Coda, Thira, and the Elements paintings used the color, never before had the artist used red so generously in a composition, a change which not only recalled the fiery canvases of an earlier generation of Abstract Expressionists, including Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, but also symbolized his emergence into the mature phase of his career.
While the windows were never physically fabricated, Marden’s paintings for the Basel Cathedral endure as masterworks of his oeuvre because of their conceptual aims. Finding its basis in the elements, Window Study No. 4 is eternal, both cerebral in its allusions to philosophy and viscerally pleasurable in the abstract rhythms which move across the surface. Other works related to the Basel Cathedral commission can be found in prestigious European and American private collections, as well as the public collections of Glenstone in Maryland, the Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge and the revered Kunstmusueum Basel. Exemplifying the artist at his most skilled, the present work is a stage on which Marden deploys the full range of his craft to create a canvas befitting a revered sacred space.