On ViewCraig Starr
Newman: Notes — Marden: Suicide Notes
March 3 – April 16, 2022
At the root of all mark-making there is the line. Painting, drawing, writing, or etching—no matter the medium, when one picks up a tool to begin the endeavor a line is the foundation upon which all future marks will be built. Newman: Notes — Marden: Suicide Notes, now on view at Craig Starr, exhibits two series by twentieth-century icons, Barnett Newman and Brice Marden, that show each artist shifting from painting to a focused exploration of the primordial mark of the line.
In 1968, at the age of sixty-three, Newman tried his hand at etching for the first time, with his “Notes” being the initial results of this late-in-life experimentation. The complete series, now on view at the gallery, bears the imprint of the artist’s trials, and taken together the works tell the story of a master pushing through the unknown to resolution. Each black-inked work is uniform in size, impressed from a plate measuring approximately 3-by-6 inches. The result is a small rectangular print at the center of a white page, as if the viewer were peering through the gap separating two towering buildings onto the cityscape that lies beyond. The first seven numbered works are simultaneously tentative and playful, making Newman’s early freehand cuts into the copper plate clear. From the very outset, Note I (1968) displays his engagement with the novel medium. The rectangular print is subdivided into three sections, each of them bearing a separate experiment with line—a loose array of open verticals in the first third, a jagged crosshatch in the center, and a tightly woven grid in the last.
The first etching, curiously, almost seems to have a figurative component: a shadowy black mark near the bottom center resembles a human form. This hint of representation disappears in Note II (1968), and the progression of etchings becomes increasingly reminiscent of Newman’s renowned “zips,” the interjecting, vertical lines of opposing color that punctuate the visual plane of his paintings. As etchings made with ink, the “Notes” are restricted to black and white, but in Note VIII (1968) (the sole horizontally-oriented work), Newman rendered the print in two separate states, each a nearly white rectangle bisected with two black lines of ink. From there, he reverted again to a vertical format for the remainder of the series, retaining his signature upright line and also the inquisitive spirit of the project as a whole.
The “Notes” are likely so called because Newman made them in preparation for two much-larger etchings he would complete a year later, Untitled Etching #1 and Untitled Etching #2 (both 1969), and which Brice Marden, more than thirty years Newman’s junior, has identified as a profound influence. Though the medium of his “Suicide Notes” series differs—the works are small drawings in ink on paper, rather than prints—the symbiosis between the artists’ two series is plain: the parallel is the line itself. Similar in construction to Newman’s etchings, Marden made a contained abstract drawing at the center or near-center of the page, framed by the white space around it. Untitled (1973) is Newmanesque in its spare rectangle bisected by two thick ink lines, but it also gives the impression of gazing through a window. Another Untitled (1973) drawing could represent another window, this time smashed. Diagonal lines radiate from a central point, stopping only when they touch the edge of Marden’s rectangle, like the starburst pattern of shattered glass.
Marden’s drawings gradually increase in size and technical sophistication, so that by the last work in the show the “Suicide Notes” have gone from tentative sketches to assured compositions of robust lines. Another Untitled (1973) “Suicide Note” makes the case clearly. Here, Marden’s rectangle occupies nearly the entire page, vertical lines unequally filling the space so that some areas are nearly blackened, while others remain open and airy. Several horizontal bands divide the rectangle roughly into three sections, and darting throughout the drawing are a handful of diagonals, creating an intrinsic sense of exuberant movement. An attentive viewer will find moments of surprise like these throughout the show as they spend time among these diminutive works by Marden and Newman. Each series is a testament to its author’s receptiveness to new beginnings and new possibilities, emerging from points in time when each artist undertook an intimate investigation of line, the primitive ground zero of art.