Friday, May 18, 2012

Cold Mountain

I was at Tate Modern on Monday for the inaugural talk in a new American Artist Lecture Series, organised by the US embassy.  The ambassador's wife Marjorie Susman provided one of the four introductions that preceded Brice Marden's talk and Q&A with Sir Nicholas Serota.  Later in the week she was interviewed with Marden on Radio 4's Front Row, at the ambassador's official residence in an ornate state banqueting room: mahogany table, gilt decorations and, thanks to the State Department's ART in the Embassies programme, a large painting from Marden's Cold Mountain series.  This had recently served as the backdrop to a dinner in which the Obamas met the Queen.  Marden acknowledges that financial and political power can negate the effect of an artwork but thinks that this painting is 'in a position where it's allowed to try to do its work'.  I'm always intrigued by the choice of art works in places of power (No. 10 Downing Street for example) and in this case the choice seems at odds with the inspiration for Marden's painting, that mysterious T'ang Dynasty poet-hermit Han-shan ('Cold Mountain'), an inspirational figure for later Zen poets and painters.  In a brief digression on Monday, Nick Serota recalled showing the Queen around Tate Modern: when she got to the Rothko room she asked, to his surprise, whether "this artist was into Zen".  I like to imagine her at that state banquet, sitting under Brice Marden's painting thinking of Han-shan.  'The Cold Mountain trail goes on and on/ ... Who can leap the world's ties / And sit with me among the clouds?'

Gary Snyder's translations of Cold Mountain, 
A Tokyo National Museum postcard showing a scroll painting of Han-shan and Shih-te,
A Serpentine Gallery postcard showing Brice Marden's Cold Mountain 2 (1989-91).

In addition to Cold Mountain, Brice Marden mentioned on Monday his admiration for Chinese calligraphy, the landscape painter Shitao's treatise on painting, and the tradition of scholar's rocks, several examples of which he now owns.  He has also been inspired by Chinese and Japanese gardens, with their capacity to distill "the energy of the landscape".  A recent canvas uses a shade of blue used in 11th century Chinese pottery, the "colour of sky after rain." It is a colour he may well glimpse here in wet and windy London: a bit of a shock after the Greek island of Hydra, where he has been spending time relaxing at his studio, sitting in the sun and reading Cavafy and Seferis.  He described to Serota another of his studios in upstate New York, at Tivoli, not far from Olana, the former home of Frederic Edwin Church.  Marden was unapologetic about his admiration for the Hudson River landscape, despite its familiar place in American art history: "going through Spring up there is so incredible you just have to make paintings of it."  He said "I love going out drawing in nature, although I don't draw trees and stuff".  Instead he uses trees and stuff: sticks dipped in ink which allow accidental marks and natural variations in the line.  Harder ones are best - it is, he said with a twinkle in the eye, a drag when your stick goes soft.

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