Catalogue entry

[from] Etchings to Rexroth 1986 [P77208-P77232; complete]

Portfolio of 25 prints in etching and/or aquatint, various sizes; printed by Jennifer Melby, New York and published by Peter Blum Edition, New York in an edition of 45 with 10 artist's proofs
Each inscribed ‘B. Marden 86’ b.r. and ‘39/45’ b.l. and individually numbered ‘1’–‘25’ bottom centre
Purchased from Nigel Greenwood Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Lit: ‘Prints and Photographs Published’, Print Collector's Newsletter, vol.17, Jan.–Feb. 1987, p.216; Tu Fu, Thirty-Six Poems, with Twenty-Five Etchings by Brice Marden, trans. Kenneth Rexroth, New York 1987, repr.; John Yau, ‘Brice Marden: A Vision of the Unsayable’, in Brice Marden: Recent Paintings and Drawings, exh. cat., Anthony d'Offay Gallery 1988 [pp.14–15]; Susan Tallman, ‘The Other Biennale’, Arts Magazine, vol.64, Feb.1990, p.18; Jeremy Lewison, Brice Marden: Prints 1961–1991, exh.cat., Tate Gallery 1992, pp.47–50, 145–6 (repr. pp.146–58; no.18 repr. p.71 in col. and no.16 repr. on cover in col.). Also repr: Barry Walker, Projects and Portfolios: The 25th National Print Exhibition, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York 1989, no.53 (a different set)

P77216 9

Etching and sugarlift aquatint 203 × 175 (8 × 6 7/8) on Rives BFK paper 497 × 405 (19 5/8 × 16); plate-mark 203 × 175 (8 × 6 7/8)

This portfolio was executed between January and June 1986, during which time Marden attended Jennifer Melby's print workshop approximately twice per week. It consists of twenty-five etchings, each numbered consecutively, executed on copper plates, principally in sugarlift aquatint and hardground etching. The images are variations on triangular shapes, which might loosely be called ideographs. Unlike ideographs, however, they do not have specific connotations. In the first five prints the forms remain relatively separate but, from the sixth image onwards, Marden began to link them up. Although initially the shapes were arranged vertically in columns, by the end of the series he abandoned the notional columnar grid in favour of a more all-over composition.

Although he lived in New York, Marden had previously made etchings principally at Crown Point Press in California but, since 1979, following the birth of his second daughter, he had been unable to find the time to return there. He first worked with Melby on an etching he made for the Swiss art magazine Parkett in 1985 (Lewison 1992, no.39, repr.). His introduction to Melby was effected by Peter Blum, the Swiss print publisher and co-publisher of Parkett. Blum had already expressed an interest in publishing a print project with Marden and he asked Marden to consider the Parkett commission as something of a pilot. Blum suggested that if Marden felt that his collaboration with Melby was successful, then the larger project could be executed with her too. In the event, Marden was pleased with the outcome, and has continued to work with Melby to this day, her workshop being conveniently located five minutes walk further up the Bowery from Marden's own studio.

Blum's commission was open-ended and left the artist free to decide how many prints he would execute and what size they would be. Initially, he made prints similar in style and content to the Parkett etching but in a larger size. However, he was dissatisfied with the outcome, feeling that this imagery was substantially different from the images he had been drawing throughout the summer in notebooks in Greece. When Marden brought one of the notebooks to Melby's workshop, she suggested that he could make similar kinds of images to the pen and ink drawings by using sugarlift aquatint. Using a stick to apply the solution, just as he uses sticks to apply ink in his drawings, Marden began to draw on the copper plates, marking a light grid on the edges of the plates as a guide. He halved the size of the plates he had been working on and adopted this size for the whole set. He began each plate in the top right corner and worked vertically downwards, before moving horizontally along the plate to the next column. Being left-handed, working from right to left was the natural course to follow.

The first four plates were very experimental but Marden felt that the fifth plate ‘really clicked’. By the ninth he was familiar with both the medium and the approach and he drew a configuration which had a tightness that excited him. ‘This is the one where it started. I figured this is what I want to get in the drawings and in the paintings’. What particularly pleased him was the spiralling effect which communicated the energy and the layers of meaning of his Greek drawings.

Marden's imagery had undergone considerable change in the previous months. At the beginning of the 1980s he had felt himself to be in crisis. Not only had he temporarily left his family but he also parted company with Pace Gallery who had been acting as his agents. Furthermore, he was advised to refrain from taking narcotics and alcohol, which had played a large part in his life hitherto. His dissatisfaction spread to his work, and he reached the point of having to decide whether to continue to make paintings in the manner for which he was now well known - on multiple panels of canvas, initially in muted tones and subsequently in rich, more intense colours - or whether to break away and adopt new forms and interests.

He had also been aware for some time that his drawings and his paintings differed in terms of imagery, the drawings being looser and more gestural than the paintings. He decided that the way forward would be to try to use the imagery of the drawings in the paintings. The results of this change of approach were first shown in his solo exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery, New York in March 1987.

While Marden had been making quite freely executed drawings since the early 1970s, his approach to mark-making now had a calligraphic feel. In autumn 1984 Marden had visited an exhibition held jointly at the Japan House Gallery and the Asia Society Galleries, New York, titled Masters of Japanese Calligraphy 8th–19th Century (Oct. 1984–Jan. 1985). He had previously rejected oriental culture as being irrelevant to his vision but now it acted as a catalyst. He visited the exhibition on repeated occasions and his interest in calligraphy and oriental culture was further enhanced by a visit he made with his family to Thailand that Christmas. Marden had the idea that he would train to be a calligrapher but was disappointed when he was told, erroneously as it turned out, that being left-handed would make this impossible. The ‘Etchings to Rexroth’ developed from this interest.

During his visit to Asia Marden made many drawings using sticks dipped in ink. A number of these were done before nature and often one drawing was made on top of another, producing layers of images which gradually merged and became interwoven. He continued this practice on his visit to the island of Hydra in Greece, where he has a house and studio. What particularly pleased Marden was the spiralling effect in the drawings. Rather than depicting motifs, Marden considers that he acts as a transmitter for the energy he senses before nature. As he stated to Lewison (1992, p.48):

One day I would draw a tree, the next day we would go to the same place and I would draw a sea shell on top of it, and then, the next day, we would go somewhere else and I would draw rocks, and I would layer it all on top of the same drawings ... You are observing nature and yet you are just trying to respond to it. You are not trying to draw a picture of it ... It deals with a certain kind of abstraction. You can accept that as energy coming through and going back out into [drawing and] painting.

There were three principal sources for the imagery of the Rexroth portfolio. A number of the prints were derived from the experience of drawing the landscape in Greece. Marden was interested in ‘the shape of the mountains and the sea beyond. I drew these spaces between the mountains and then just started to bring them together’ (quoted in Lewison 1992, p.49). The triangular motifs are partly derived from such observations but may also have been based on similarly shaped symbols printed in a table of correspondences (see ibid., p.56 n.66) which he consulted while working on a project to make stained glass windows for the cathedral in Basle (begun 1977 but never completed). A third source was the spiral markings of volutes. In Thailand Marden had visited a seashell museum and, since then, has been a keen collector of spiral shells.

When it came to printing the plates Marden experimented with a number of options. He tried printing three plates on one sheet, then two plates on the same sheet separated by a plate of pure colour, and he also tried printing the plates themselves in different colours. Chine collé, the imposition of a fine sheet of paper on top of the base sheet, was another option he tried and subsequently abandoned. Finally he decided to print the images in black.

When Marden embarked on the project he was reading Cathay by Ezra Pound (1875–1972), which included a large number of poems by the eighth-century Chinese poet Li Po. Some months later Peter Blum gave Marden a first edition of Cathay in recognition of the latter's enthusiasm for the book. Marden asserts that the prints had much more to do with Pound than with the Rexroth translations after which the portfolio was ultimately named.

The prints were called ‘Etchings to Rexroth’ as if to imply to the accompaniment of Rexroth. Halfway though the project Marden discovered Kenneth Rexroth's translations of poems by the eighth-century Chinese poet Tu Fu. Marden has always had a strong interest in poetry and his new-found regard for oriental life and art encouraged him to read oriental verse. Kenneth Rexroth (1905–82) was not only a translator of Chinese verse but also a poet in his own right.

One year after the publication of the prints Peter Blum published a book of Rexroth's translations of the poems of Tu Fu and, alongside them, Marden's images. However, Marden has stated that the prints are not to be regarded as illustrations to the poems.

This entry is based on conversations between the cataloguer and the artist on 1 November 1988 and 15–16 July 1991 and between the cataloguer and Jennifer Melby on 17 July 1991. It has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996