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Image of Third Figure

Brice Marden , b. Oct 15, 1938

Third Figure

1974
75 in. x 30 in. (190.5 cm x 76.2 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas (three joined panels)
Credit Line: Gift of Carl Andre (PA 1953)
Accession Number: 1987.11

Commentary

This is the third of a group of four Figure paintings executed between 1973 and 1974 that give a more literal form to Brice Marden's nonliteral figurativeness. Painting as figure and painting as figure of speech become one. Since 1965, when he created his first monochromatic painting, and through 1984, Marden sought to make figure and ground one—to make the actual shape and plane of the canvas surface the image ("Plane Image," he calls his studio). Marden wanted his monadic planes to transcend the seemingly immutable, neutral, and resistant objecthood that was so critical to the work of many of his Minimalist peers. By incorporating translucent beeswax into his oil medium and by leaving the scant traces of his hand, as layer upon layer of strokes was erased into conformity with the plane by a painting knife, as well as by employing a muted and provocatively ambiguous palette, Marden made his surfaces resonate with a luminous haze of spatiality and allusiveness. These paintings are alternately rich, Spartan; sensual, repressed; emotional, inscrutable. He wanted to make—and largely succeeded in making—his paintings hover between standing up to block off passage like a wall, and opening up into a field of deep feeling. Seldom has ambiguity been given such elegant and economic body.

Granted the allusiveness that Marden favors, not to mention the skinlike quality of his oil and wax medium, it seems inevitable that his planar erectness would sooner or later incline toward the shape of a standing figure. And so it did, in 1969, in his nine single-plane, monochrome Back series paintings, each of which measures 69 by 45 inches (the height was based on that of his wife, Helen; the width was purely intuited), and again in 1973-74 with the Figure paintings, each constructed out of three color planes. The Figure group was inspired by Marden's admiration for Goya's portrait of the marquesa de la Solana in the Louvre, to which he had painted a homage (D'après la marquise de la Solana) in 1969. Beyond Goya's acute painterliness and his sonorous scale of grays, Marden was struck by how compellingly the frontal figure of the marquesa held the ground.

However, the figure implied by the Figure shape (even the possibility of reading the three near-square planes that comprise it as head, torso, and limbs) becomes a figure of painterly speech, not representation. Indeed, First Figure (Homage to Courbet), 1973-74, is composed of three planes of wet and slippery color that allude to the memory of Courbet's verdant landscapes. And the final Fourth Figure (Red, Yellow, Blue), 1974, commences a series of dialogues in red, yellow, and blue with related paintings of Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman, and Jasper Johns. Third Figure is perhaps the most elusive of the group. The possibility of reading its three stacked planes as land, sea, and sky is simultaneously remote and possible. First and foremost, as always in a Marden painting, the colors create a climate specific only to the painting that they define and make figurative.

Klaus Kertess, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 428-29

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