Gagosian’s new space in Athens opens with work by American artist Brice Marden. The show is focused primarily on paintings made since the 1980s on pieces of salvaged marble, found on the idyllic island of Hydra, where the artist has lived and worked since the 1970s.
Marble is a loaded material, speaking simultaneously of Classicism and history, Imperialism and decadence. Bearing the weight of its nationhood, in Greece it holds a particular and contradictory status, both the building blocks of the Parthenon and the average kitchen floor. For the reality is, in Greece, marble is everywhere, not just in the museums. These works exploit this ambiguity, calling the viewer to look again at the beauty of the world around us and assess how we impose on it.
The show was hung by the artist himself, who insisted that the pieces sit low on the walls, destabilising your perception of the work. Instead of looking in, you look down; this approach emphasises the works as objects and scraps found on the ground. The pieces are uneven and irregular – a world away from the lofty ideals and proportionality of Classical sculpture. On the surface of the marble the artist has sparsely painted lines and squares of colour, in soft tones and largely thin washes, allowing the contours and grains of the marble to show beneath. Great expanses of the marble are left bare, their marks and colours completing the image, a representation of nature, time and history.
The sparseness of the painting forces you to look really look at the work – eliciting a near-desperate urge to find something in them. The eye rakes every surface, searching for evidence of painting, balancing the perceived ‘real’ of the marble and the illusion of the painted mark. A particular example of this is ‘Helen’s Immediately’ (2011); what appears initially as a large, black, painterly splodge under scrutiny is revealed to be the grain of the marble. This mark hovers above a horizontal, painted line of green, inevitably conjuring an image of a black sun over the horizon in your mind. These themes are explored further in the upstairs galleries in drawings such as ‘Blotter I’ (1984), where abstract marks of ink are offset against the textures of heavy blotting paper.
Marden’s aim seems to be to draw attention to the process of looking, how our minds and eyes work in conjunction to read and understand an image. However, it often feels like you are forcing a sense of profundity from the work, rather than truly experiencing it. Sometimes you cannot help but think you are just looking at a few lines of paint on marble. These works are interesting experiments and have a quiet beauty, but they may only be remembered as a curious side project in the career of an important artist.