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Brice Marden, ‘Bear Print’, 1997-98/2000, oil on linen

One of the most interesting parts of this show is the part that isn’t there: what happened to Brice Marden’s paintings between 1984—when he left off making the paintings built of juxtaposed monochrome panels, a body of work that had occupied him since the late 1960s, after having earlier concentrated on single gray panels—and 1986, when he started making the paintings based on linear webs of colour with which he is still involved? In fact, the exhibition makes the hiatus look even bigger, since it skips from 1981-82 ‘Elements I’ to 1987-87 ‘Diptych, Untitled #3’. A great sense of liberated energies emerged from this break or (as Brenda Richardson characterises it in her catalogue essay) crisis; Marden had gone from one understanding of how to negotiate the tension between the pictorial nature of a painting and its objectness—an understanding that had apparently become quite constraining, and had come to necessitate a combinatorial method that was starting to look mannered—to a different approach to the same perennial problem, this time one that keeps gently opening and closing the gap between image and object.

What went on for Marden around 1985? Was it a period of pure inactivity, of patient waiting? Or was it filled with unsatisfactory attempts, false starts? Neither the exhibition nor the otherwise admirably informative catalogue breathes a word. It’s a shame, because while Marden understands his art as all about the plane on which it occurs—thus the exhibition title, Plane Image —at another level it can be understood as being all about becoming. The plane is both a mental construct and a physical surface. How can they ever coincide? The gap between these two senses of ‘plane’ may be the source of the gap in Marden’s oeuvre. Between 1984 and 1986, Marden became Marden in a new way.

‘Become what you are,’ was Nietzsche’s daunting and paradoxical commandment; Marden had demanded of his paintings that they ‘become what they are’ by repeating as image what they are as objects. In his catalogue essay, Richard Shiff quotes extensively from Marden’s early writings, notes and interviews, among which one reads: ‘The paper is an integral part of the drawing. The wax… everything’s a real part of the drawing. It becomes very real. What is real must become real.’ And elsewhere: ‘Colour losing identities, becoming colour.’ Being must be becoming, and must become appearance: ‘If each panel is the same size, I want them all to look the same size.’ Somehow, after the crisis of the mid-1980s, Marden no longer had to strive for this sort of paradoxical tautology in which the real doubles back on itself. In his work of the past two decades, Marden simultaneously emphasises the plane (as a physical entity) by the way he moves his lines of colour across it and opens it out (as a mental entity) by the way the interactions of those lines create a continual expansion and contraction of space, no longer (whatever Marden thinks) reducible to a plane—a sort of breathing, its support must rather be thought of as a sort of body.

The newest paintings here, ‘The Propitious Garden of Plane Image’, ‘Second Version’ and ‘The Propitious Garden of Plane Image’, ‘Third Version’, both 2000-2006, are very long, frieze-like arrays of dancing lines and interlocking colours extended over six canvases. They’re extraordinary, yet they have something of the rather cold, overcomplicated quality I remember from Marden’s last show of concatenated monochromes at the Pace Gallery in 1984. Their handling of scale puts the viewer at a distance from their physicality. Could a new crisis be brewing?

Barry Schwabsky is London reviews editor of MAP