RHINEBECK, NY — Once there were formalists: critics and artists who looked for the meaning of art in the forms of art. On the American scene, the word summons up Clement Greenberg and the Greenbergians, critics who liked to talk about the integrity of the picture plane and “purely optical space.” They were preceded by Roger Fry and Clive Bell, English critics even more passionately fixated on the idea of form unblemished by anything else. “Significant form,” Bell called it. For decades, art writers have touched on form only lightly and in passing, on the way to their reports on style and expression and detachable messages. Of course, no one denies that form in art is indispensable. You have to have it or there is nothing to see. But it may be that form is not just the underpinning of all that we really care about in art. Maybe form is primary, and the formalists, in their blinkered intensity, were on to something they never managed to articulate.
These thoughts coalesced some days after I heard the architect Steven Holl introduce an exhibition of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain studies — a series of ink drawings — at ‘T’ Space, a building in Rhinebeck, New York, that Holl designed in 2010. He started with a mention of the Golden Ratio, which has two definitions. In numbers, it is 1:1.618. To put it in words: two quantities are in the Golden Ratio if their ratio to one another is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger quantity. Neither definition is much of an aid to visualization, but Holl brought the subject to life when he mentioned that every wall at ‘T’ Space takes its dimensions from the Golden Ratio.
That, I realized, is why the building’s interior is so thoroughly resolved and at the same time so responsive to one’s presence. The elegance of its proportions welcomes you. These proportions have had this effect for millennia. The Golden Ratio appears in the architecture of ancient Greece and the Italian Renaissance — and in the patterns of leaves as they spiral around branches. All of this information was a prelude to Holl’s point: Marden hung his drawings at precisely the height that brought the upper edges of their frames into alignment with the Golden Ratio lines of the ‘T’ Space walls. In nine years, no other artist had done this. Holl’s remarks illuminated something I felt in the Marden installation, that the space seems to have been made for it. I immediately sensed a “rightness” to the interplay of art and architecture. Of course, to zoom in on Marden’s drawings, with their calligraphic verve, was to leave clear ratios and crisp geometry behind — a move he made first in painting, not drawing.
In the years that separate his monochromes of the 1960s from the gestural paintings he first made in the late 1980s, Marden assembled large, smooth rectangles of color in configurations rife with architectural allusions. Post-and-lintel construction was a frequent theme. Then, as he explained to the painter Pat Steir in a 1991 interview, he felt the need to paint in a way that registered who he is “physically” — a left-handed person of a certain height and weight. In place of brushes, he used long, limber sticks that distanced him from the canvas. What appeared were like read-outs from a self-aware seismograph. Drawing in ink, Marden works with the wrist and fingers, not shoulder and arm, and the instrument is, of course, much smaller. In the Cold Mountain Studies, he covers paper sheets with quick bursts of linear energy; some drawings are spare, some intricately tangled. Each is the trace of a transient intention, and their variety is potentially infinite. No consideration of style or meaning regulates these marks, yet they appear on the page in orderly rows; and even when the rows merge to produce an allover field, Marden maintains a serene relationship between empty and occupied portions of the surface. The two-dimensional architecture of these Studies is not only solid but off-handedly beautiful.
When Marden was starting out in the 1960s, one heard much talk about “activating the surface” — in other words, generating enough pictorial incident to turn the inert expanse of the canvas into a visually engaging picture plane. The surface activation in his monochromes was extremely subtle, limited to faint, almost imperceptible traces of his palette knife. The determination to activate the surface is conspicuous in The Cold Mountain Studies, but still subtle: every mark of Marden’s pen is shaped by a fresh and elusive nuance. Sometimes the torque moving through a line sends it twisting into depth, activating the space of the image — or bringing that space into being, for we tend to read these Studies as marks on depthless surfaces. The ancestors of Marden’s drawing papers are scrolls inscribed with the Cold Mountain poems that led him to Chinese calligraphy. He was attracted by not only the configurations of individual pictographs but also their organization into couplets, with five or ten characters in each couplet. This format appears, modified, in many of the Cold Mountain Studies and gives them their air of wide-open orderliness.
At the ‘T’ Space opening, Bill Porter/Red Pine recited fourteen Cold Mountain poems by Han Shan, a hermit poet who lived in the ninth century, if, in fact, he existed. He may be a legendary figure given imaginary life around that time, a prototype of the Chinese poets who even now reside in caves and subsist by foraging in their otherwise uninhabited mountainsides. This poet shares his name — Cold Mountain in English — with the place where he is said to have lived. Red Pine would recite, or sing, a Han Shan poem in Mandarin Chinese, then read his translation.
People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn’t melt
sunny days the fog is too dense
so how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here
These poems take us far from the world of Western form that defines the fictive space of Marden’s drawings and the real space of Holl’s architecture. Yet there is an oblique connection because the poems of Cold Mountain orient us spatially, not in an outward landscape but inwardly, in the mind’s space. As Red Pine says in a recent interview, these poems have a “purpose.” They “are meant to put people in a place where they can see things from a new perspective.” Cold Mountain’s fog and dark pines, moonlight and silence, persuade the ordinary world and its imperatives to fall away. Doing steps aside to let being — or, if you like, Being — manifest itself.
Aside from conceptual poetry that purports to investigate such things as language and concept itself, poetry in the West is a medium of personal expression or social and political comment. So is Western art in all its variety. Expression can be convincingly powerful and some of the messages that artists send are clear and necessary. Yet there is something prior to whatever we might take away from a work of art. This is the sense of being, the feeling for the flow and pulse of existence, that imbues the work and cannot be extracted. We intuit it from our response to form.
In Marden’s Cold Mountain Studies, a mark is striking on its own and as a response to its neighbors. The overall effect is of a universe created as it comments on itself — an actively contemplative universe. And the interior of Holl’s ‘T’ Space, with its white walls and large, perfectly placed windows, feels like a collaboration between light and matter: to be is to be luminous. Self-reflection, generative energy: these are the powers of form that the old-school formalists overlooked when they were obsessing about the “medium specific” features of painting and sculpture. When form works, it is not a purely aesthetic thing but the premise of all the meanings we find in art. It is through form that an artwork involves us in the first moment and afterward, as we track down the work’s detachable content: the emotion it expresses or the message it wants to transmit. Form is an attribute of all that is, and we are forms in our own right: physical bodies. Yet the forms of art engage us not in that literalist mode but in a much more generous embrace, as embodied minds, imaginations, spirits. Form engages being and, when form is strong, being is strengthened.
Brice Marden: Cold Mountain Studies continues at ‘T’ Space (137 Round Lake Road, Rhinebeck, New York) through August 11.