Next to Jasper Johns, the living painter whose new work is most difficult to acquire is Brice Marden. If you don't have a relationship with the artist's dealer, Matthew Marks, you can forget about buying a Marden at a reasonable price. As a collector, unless you're very rich, you really don't want to buy one at auction.
Over the last two years, not only have Marden's early paintings begun to routinely bring over $1 million at auction, but his drawings have become quite expensive too. Last season, Cold Mountain Addendum -- the best late drawing to ever appear -- surprised all but the insiders by selling for a record $629,500 (Sotheby's Nov. 1999), against an estimate of $150,000-$200,000.
Even a relatively minor work on paper, Drawing for Venice, which measured only about 8 by 9 in., recently sold for $115,750 (Sotheby's May 2000). With results like this, it appears that Marden might make a mockery of the Wall Street adage, "Trees don't grow to the sky."
Why is Brice Marden's work considered so darn desirable? Most people are familiar with the history of his development. Art historians tend to group him with Robert Ryman, Robert Mangold and Agnes Martin as a "Minimalist" painter. Many critics say that Marden's early monochromatic panels, with their buttery encaustic surfaces, pushed abstract painting as far as it could go.
The key to those paintings was the way that Marden's command of color allowed him to create specific moods. For instance, he did a series of four paintings called "The Seasons," where each canvas was painted a distinctive color that accurately captured the feeling of each season. Had the green of Summer been a shade darker or lighter, the painting wouldn't have worked.
But in years to come, Marden proved he was more than a superior colorist. During the 1990s, he began a series of gestural paintings that derived their inspiration from ancient Chinese poetry. The first series, called the Cold Mountain paintings, were named after an anonymous Chinese poet who went by that same name.
The brushstrokes that covered these works resembled calligraphy and a number of critics immediately began comparing the work to Jackson Pollock's "Drip" paintings. But while Pollock's drips were for the most part controlled, an element of chance was part of their successful equation. In Marden's case, his "all-over" lines are highly disciplined.
These newer works brought Marden even more acclaim. Despite all of the accolades that Marden receives, he continues to take risks. The most recent paintings have opened up and appear more fluid. The drawings have begun to include small lines of bright color -- yellows and reds -- that play off their dominant black counterparts. In fact, in some ways, the new drawings are even better than the paintings.
Since Marden's work is the real deal, you would think that fact alone would be enough to secure a major reputation. However, that's only part of the story. A crucial aspect of his rise to the top is his good looks and charismatic personality. In this respect, the art world is no different from the rest of the world -- we all enjoy interacting with attractive people.
Suppose you own a gallery and are forced to choose between two artists of more or less equal merit. One is great looking, dresses hip, has a sense of humor and is in general a lot of fun to be around. The other is plain looking, a nondescript dresser and a bit morose. Guess which artist the gallery owner is going to want to work with?
This may seem overly simplistic, but it's not. Recently, the New York art world became briefly obsessed with a group of young artists who seemed incredibly marketable largely because they looked good in print -- not their work, but the artists themselves. Fashion and gossip magazines began falling all over themselves to photograph Damien Loeb, Inka Essenhigh, Tracey Emin and Cecily Brown.
Throughout the history of the art market, other such examples abound. The movie star looks and James Dean cool of Ed Ruscha have contributed more to his fame than you might think. Had the dealer, Mary Boone, not been so exotic looking and seductive, do you really think Leo Castelli would have agreed to give a joint show to Boone's Julian Schnabel (thus paving the way for his career breakthrough)? Obviously, none of this is news, but it is worth thinking about when considering all of the elements that contribute to an artist's market.
At this point in his career, Brice Marden is no longer painting merely for himself -- he's now in the rarefied position of painting for art history. Every time he goes into his studio, he's one of the few living artists capable of doing something that can change the course of abstract painting. While that's a lot of responsibility, you have to assume that Marden relishes the opportunity. At the age of 63, he's still young enough to invent yet a third new body of work that will potentially influence future generations of painters as well as art history.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.