In its grand scale, chromatic brilliance and profound rearticulation of the picture plane, Number Two exemplifies Marden’s unwavering commitment to and rigorous examination of the most fundamental elements of painting: color, shape and form. Evincing Marden’s singular capacity to endow a single hue with inimitable complexity and depth, each monochrome panel of Number Two is in fact built up of innumerable layers of paint which Marden would repeatedly brush on then scrape smooth with a palette knife, the culmination of which coalesces into washes of deep hues whose subtle imperfections and gestural irregularities endow the panels of color with a sculptural dimensionality that marvelously defies the flatness of the paint itself. Unlike his contemporary Ellsworth Kelly who privileged a purity of color, Marden perceived monochromatic colors as rich in allusions and expressiveness, foregoing the preciousness championed by the Minimalists, and instead embracing the gestural, physical capacity of color. This aligns Marden in a gestural tradition with respect to the intense physicality with which he approaches his paint; an impassioned approach to color akin to Rothko and his brand of Abstract Expressionism. The sculptural presence of Number Two is further intensified when the twelve architectonic panels of Number Two are conjoined together in their final construction; mounted upon the wall, Number Two becomes itself a sculptural relief, exuding and vibrating with the physical energy, purity and formal elegance of a monumental Richard Serra sculpture. In his The New York Times review of Marden’s critically acclaimed exhibition at Pace Gallery, art critic John Russel specifically praises the present Number Two, writing that: “It is in paintings like Number One and Number Two that Marden's ambition finds overtly spectacular expression. What makes us look and look at these paintings to see how they can possibly have been made is partly the fact that none of the colors are quite what they seem. These reds, blues, yellows and greens are compounds of color, mixed and re-mixed, layered and re-layered, until they have subsumed 'all of everything.' After that has been done, they still have to work together. There have to be color chords the like of which we have not experienced before. And those chords have to establish connections for us that we could not have established by ourselves. They will vary from person to person, but they have to do with the interaction between difference and propinquity.” (John Russel, Art: Brice Marden’s Building Blocks of Color, The New York Times, October 12, 1984) While remaining committed to pure abstraction, Marden subverts the cool detachment of Minimalism for the ethereal effect of painterly expression, imbuing the seemingly formalist concerns of color, shape, and form with a deeply personal and poetic resonance. Indeed, despite the refined subtractions and stringent compositional syntax of Marden’s painterly technique, Marden nonetheless retains in paintings like Number Two the capacity to elicit emotional response.
Constructed as a triptych in three vertical segments, Number Two furthers Marden’s investigation of the spectral progression of color - the separation of light, and therefore color, into its constituent parts. Within each segment, panels of complementary colors – red and green, purple and yellow, blue and orange – are arranged in a T-shaped structure. In working with panels of pure color which are then arranged into a composite unit, Marden allows himself to explore and experiment with color relationships without compromising the purity of the color itself and without the hindrance of imposing any sort of figure-ground tension on the composition, since each canvas remains a single hue. In 1981, Marden dispensed with the wax-based painting technique that had preoccupied him since the 1970s because it imparted a fragility to the painted surface; instead, he sought a medium that would most directly convey color without interference from reflective shine produced by varnish and oil paint. To this end, Marden developed a new technique of mixing terpineol with oil to produce a pigment that dries as flat to the surface as possible, which allowed the viewer to apprehend pure color with a physicality previously unseen in his paintings. By utilizing a sophisticated economy of means, Marden addresses the nature of the painted canvas as a structured object, not a field of painterly gesture, with isolated impactful colors entirely shifting our perceptions of space. Reconciling the stringent reductionism of Minimalism with the painterly impulses of Abstract Expressionism, Marden’s Number Two seamlessly integrates the dual movements, illuminating the artist’s unique ability to wed objective materiality and poetic subjectivity in a single composition. Dispensing entirely with considerations of figure and ground, Marden resolutely declares the preeminence of color, shape, and form; and yet, while abandoning any adherence to illusionistic depth or perspectival space in favor of pure abstraction, Marden retains the emotional facet of painting.
In the early 1970s, Marden traveled with his wife Helen to Greece where he visited Hydra, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Taken by the turquoise hues of the Aegean, the grand architectural remains of ancient Greek civilization, and the striking Mediterranean landscape, Marden decided to buy a small property there for a house and studio, and subsequently would return to the island almost every summer. The influence of Hydra on Marden’s work was immediately palpable as Marden’s compositions became grander in scale and more ambitious in construction than ever before. As one of Marden’s “post-and-lintel construction” paintings, Number Two demonstrates the influence of ancient Greek monuments and temples on Hydra, in which post-and-lintel construction predominates. Number Two illuminates the deep knowledge of ancient history, classical architecture, spirituality, and world religion which greatly informs Marden’s artistic practice.
Composed of twelve architectonic panels and rendered in six richly painted monochrome hues, Number Two also reflects Marden’s interest in numerology, revealing the centrality of the number six in his oeuvre. Fascinated by the deeply nuanced cross-cultural symbolism associated with the number six, Marden intentionally chose this number — and multiples of it — as an axis that would inform the construction and execution of his paintings; in Number Two, Marden uses six different hues and twelve panels. Associated with equilibrium and harmony, the number six holds a central position in world-religion: in Buddhism, the universe is associated with the number six; in Christianity and Judaism, the six days of creation.
Brice Marden’s paintings of the early 1980s capture the artist in a formative moment of transition and serve as a sort of artistic and personal awakening and turning point. While still firmly rooted in the monochrome panels which define his earliest body of mature paintings, with this group of works Marden began to challenge and rail against his prevailing mode. The title of Coda, Marden’s final post-and-lintel construction painting and also from 1983-84, signifies in Italian “a passage at the end of a movement or composition that brings it to a formal close.” (Exh. Cat., New York, Museum of Modern Art, Plane Image: a Brice Marden Retrospective, 2006, p. 83) Scholar Brenda Richardson emphasizes the importance of this moment in the artist’s career, describing Coda as “Marden’s latent manifesto” which “marked the end of the kind of art with which he had heretofore been identified.” (Ibid., p. 83-84)
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