Painter Brice Marden died last night at his Tivoli home in Duchess County, New York. The 84-year-old artist dedicated his 60-year-long career to abstraction, reviving the artistic movement in the wake of the postwar Expressionists and pushing the style in new directions. Marden’s daughter, Mirabelle, announced her father’s passing on Instagram this morning, writing that he was painting in his studio just last Saturday. The artist had been battling cancer.
Marden emerged in the early 1960s with a body of monochromatic work created with paint and encaustic (melted wax). He had recently graduated with an MFA from Yale’s School of Art — where he studied under Alex Katz and Jon Schueler — and had taken a job as a security guard at New York’s Jewish Museum. Marden had his first solo show in 1966 at Bykert Gallery.
Artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella were deviating from the Abstract Expressionism movement that had dominated the art world a decade prior, but Marden ignored his contemporaries’ forays into Conceptualism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. His meticulously measured early paintings comprise single-color rectangles arranged to convey an almost meditative quality.
In the 1980s, Marden began incorporating curved lines into his canvases, which he now colored with a mixture of wax, paint, and turpentine brushed in thin layers. Critic Carter Ratcliff noted in a 2019 Hyperallergic article that the artist’s work is often formally perfect. Still, his work retains an emotive quality, and it often evoked his personal experiences. In 1972, he traveled to Hydra, Greece — the first of many trips to the area. He painted his canvases with the colors of the Mediterranean in a popular series titled Hydra (1972), which he continued in subsequent decades. Marden would often work and rework a painting for years.
Also in the ’80s, Marden became interested in Chinese calligraphy, creating the acclaimed Cold Mountain series. He titled the works after the English name of 9th-century Chinese poet Han Shan, whose poems about humankind’s relationship with nature were translated in the 1950s and subsequently embraced by US countercultures.
Marden painted throughout his long career, constantly adding new stylistic languages to his work. In 2021, he mounted a solo exhibition at Gagosian Gallery. In a Hyperallergic review titled “A Moving Meditation on Mortality in Brice Marden’s Late Paintings,” John Yau simplifies Marden’s career into what he sees as three phases: 1964 to the mid-1980s, a long middle period, and a final stage that started in 2016/2017.
“The Tao teaches the adept to let go of expectations and live in the here and now,” Yau writes, describing works where Marden’s ink ran low as he approached the edge of the canvas. “He does not replenish the ink but records himself fading from view. The signs he makes might not be decipherable, but they spoke straight to my heart. They are the diary of an aging man living in time, while conveying his love for certain places and sights. I think they are among the most open, deeply moving paintings and drawings that Marden has made in his already storied career.”
Marden was born in 1938 in the Westchester town of Bronxville, New York. He attended Florida Southern University and Boston University before earning his MFA. Marden married Pauline Baez (folk singer Joan Baez’s sister), with whom he had a son, Nicholas. After their divorce, he married Helen Harrington. Marden is survived by his wife, Harrington, their two daughters, Mirabelle and Melia, his son Nicholas, his two grandchildren, and his younger sister, Mary Carroll Marden.