Marden typically begins with the glimmer of an idea, like the Nebraskan colors. But the result is never a logical working out of some predetermined plan. Like the Abstract Expressionists, he finds the picture in its making. Adjustment is all. Midway through his career, Marden abandoned monochromatic planes for a linear style in which loose ropings of line curl across the surface. The new pictures appeared different from his earlier work but, in fact, they shared much with what came before. The spontaneous and playful—once almost hidden in subtle texture—moved front and center. And the open space fell back. The new pictures were as smart as the earlier ones. They were steeped in classical allusions (Marden has a house on the Greek island of Hydra) and an appreciation of Chinese calligraphy. Like many in his milieu, Marden is fascinated by Buddhist Asia. One series honors the eighth-century poet Han Shan, who, Marden recounts, had a reputation for writing poems “on walls of caves, on bark of trees … ”
In the linear Mardens, there is typically a structural system: The differently colored lines may, for example, be interwoven onto the plane in a certain order. But an artist who enjoys the idea of composing poems on bark is obviously not a stickler for such things. (Marden often draws with sticks.) In the modernist way, his line can appear rough and awkward, but, this being Marden, it invariably looks elegant too. Some viewers find such effects precious or offensively tasteful, but I like the emphasis on form, and they are in any case natural in a painter who extends rather than upends a tradition. Marden’s line also evokes both Pollock and de Kooning but without their fire. There is instead a kind of fine afterglow—Pollock and de Kooning recollected in tranquillity.