Like a rolling stone

Even for a veteran like painter Brice Marden, change is good

Art-scenester folklore has it that Brice Marden and Julian Schnabel came to blows in a New York bar back in the 1970s. The story pits the established abstract minimalist and the emerging young painter against each other at Max's Kansas City, the dark and smoke-choked stomping grounds of glam rockers, punks, and drag queens. It has something to do with the younger painter approaching Marden in an earnest attempt to talk to him about art; somewhere in the fog of one too many White Russians and one too many misguided concessions, opinions crossed and fists flew.

Who won? Who cares. I can't think of a sight more pathetic than two skinny white artistes trading in their affected narcissism for affected bravado. Must have played out with unexpected comic flair, like watching a pair of coked-up Siamese cats spraying the room.

Still, it's a grand addition to the slim annals of artist-scrapper myth--those over-educated painters would much rather hiss behind one another's backs than actually face off (eavesdrop at any art opening, and you can fairly hear the egos clashing and grating). But judging by Marden's appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art last week, it's not difficult to believe that this man is still capable of pounding a jaw or two if the inclination strikes. Marden, now 61, isn't so much a big toughie as a moody, aloof character. His career, a stellar one spanning more than 30 years, was the topic of a public "conversation" mediated by DMA curator Charles Wylie--the contemporary-art maestro in charge of the museum's current exhibition of Marden's 1990s works. The young Wylie, a big fan of Marden's, has been planning this for years.

Marden, looking more like a member of the Rolling Stones--circa today--than like a world-renowned painter, took the stage and slunk into a seat opposite Wylie. Sporting all-black clothes, with graying longish hair and a cavalier manner more suited to a rocker than to an oil slinger, he seemed about as thrilled to be caught in the headlights as a smug, thieving fox. After listening to a nervous Wylie deliver his first elongated question, involving nothing less than the state of painting today and the resurgence of abstraction, Marden simply leaned back in his chair and murmured, "I dunno."

Forget all those Yber-theory answers about the world being too literal and how we've lost our emotional lives in the tangle of technology and...Most other artists would have at least attempted to wax intellectual. But how about just I dunno? Charlie Watts would've been proud. Charlie Wylie was confounded.

Given his work of the past decade, Marden actually knows plenty. He may not always articulate it in words, but he speaks another language way better than most: one of color, line, shape, and movement, and he knows all about the visceral response he can pull from a viewer, from himself, when he mixes these elements just right. Marden toils, he frets, he meditates--and what do you know?--in the end his paintings absolutely sing.

The DMA's show of 50 large and small paintings, drawings, and prints, the only exhibit thus far to showcase comprehensively Marden's '90s work, is quietly stunning. For all those who associate Marden with his earlier claim to fame--heavy monolithic shapes on monochrome canvases--you're in for a surprise. The swirling calligraphic aesthetic he adopted in the mid-'80s after his visit to China is the touchstone of these paintings, though these works aren't to be confused with that phase. He moved through that and beyond by the early '90s, widening his inspiration base to include Greek and Asian landscape, architecture, nature, and literature. Seems like a lot from which to draw, though when you walk though the show, the visual cohesion is clear. From his abstract take on the Muses to the leaves of a tree to a whole mountain, Marden makes his thick, curving, interlocking lines move across the canvas in glorious rhythms and colors. And no matter how abstract, how personally poetic, you feel the gist of his source and the essence of his mind's eye all at once.

Marden's most praised recent works are here: The Muses and the Cold Mountain series. He paints oil across huge canvases of smooth linen, and the subtle coarseness of his lines--much like vines and limbs with muscular tension all their own--have a fluid, musical quality. The Muses, for all their definition in this linear, gestural manner, dance across the plane in airy, feminine waves; his Asian mountain looms in atmospheric swirls of dark, curling reeds slashed into the snowy white fabric. Calculation this joyously organic makes you wonder how Marden reaches such an uncommon state of grace and instinct. Like his hero Jackson Pollock, he's either ducking below the repressive mass of abstract-expressionist theory or flying over it. Probably both.

And it's the moodiness of those lines, much like that of the artist, that seeps out to make their impression. They shadow each other and themselves (Marden occasionally uses separate colors to redefine a particular stroke), they harmonize and parry and mock each other, and you sense that the artist lays not just his wrist but his whole body into these sweeping surges. In his smaller works, such as Little Red Painting, the lines may be modest, but they're no less expressive. Yellow tubes overlap a hefty crimson ellipse on a wash of lighter red, and you feel that you could wrap your hands around those shapes, those intestines, and pull on them--they would pull right back.

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