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MAM, MoCA exhibit masters of abstraction

Coral Gables Gazette, December 22, 1999

Brice Marden and Frank Stella, two of the most important living American artists, are currently being featured in solo exhibitions at the Miami Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, respectively. Miami, which typically neither produces nor attracts major museum shows, is closing the millennium with sure portents of increasing prominence in the art world.

Stella's and Marden's careers are somewhat parallel. Both artists share a long-standing commitment to abstraction. Both had successful early styles which were Spartan and geometric. Both moved beyond them by drawing on personal visual interests: for Stella, it was the curves of natural and man-made architecture; for Marden, it was Chinese calligraphy.

To contrast, Stella has established himself as abstraction's Rubens, voluminously productive and explosively Baroque. Marden reminds one more of Hokusai, who once wrote of his hopes that in old age he would finally understand the essence of things, so that every dot he drew would be alive. Stella invested his ambitions in scale and complexity; Marden pursued refinement. Both shows are triumphs, for opposite reasons.

Anyone with a taste for abstraction is going to find it hard not to gush at Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints, which has come to MAM from the Dallas Museum of Art via the Hirschorn in Washington D.C. The show includes a series of monochromal works based on stanzas of Chinese poetry, and subsequent paintings in which rounded colored lines snake through atmospheric fields.

These recent paintings want for nothing. Apart from their being flat-out beautiful, they marry Eastern and Western sensibilities in a completely convincing way. (Marden is a Grecophile as well as a Sinophile; Greek architecture informed his early work, and he maintains a summer home and studio on the island of Hydra.) They convey a profound spiritual presence reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting. His acknowledged debt to Jackson Pollock is essentially paid off here; he uses Pollock's famed all-over compositional strategy with total success, putting it into the service of a luscious color sense and reductive aesthetic.

Pollock layered and layered; Marden scrapes and scrapes. Lines which seem to have been sunk under strata of translucent paint have usually been given that appearance by being seven-eighths removed. Even the foreground lines are abraded down to the canvas. Thick paint has long served as the bazooka of the abstract expressionist arsenal, and Marden's decision not to use it recalls Degas' praise of seamless flatness in a painting. The scraping reduces the intensity of the colors, and displays Marden's ability to deliver the master-stroke of the colorist: no one color is bitingly strong, but the whole painting seems filled with color. One of the brighter jewels in the treasure-heap is Chinese Dancing, which is nine feet of glorious, luminous looping lines on an evocative field of foggy gray.

The Stella show at MOCA, by comparison, is a riot in a fun house. The main exhibition space is crammed full of large-scale works. While usually this is self-negating, the effect here is that of an over-the-top Baroque church: certain areas are lacking in depth, but the total statement is exhilarating.

Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules was organized by MOCA and is the first museum exhibition of Stella's work since his second retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987. Director Bonnie Clearwater has outdone herself; MOCA is filled past the breaking point with 18-foot long sculptures, 40-foot long paintings, architectural models for a bandshell which will be erected in the new arena downtown, and a number of smaller pieces. Stella, whose work in the early 1960s helped set the stage for Minimalism, has since developed a taste for extreme complexity. The paintings are a not-unpleasant cacophony of spirals, grids, and bright colors; the sculptures are like monochromal, poetically wrecked dump trucks.

One comes away from the show with an appreciation for Stella as a visual and cultural omnivore. The elegant commissioned bandshell is taken from the shape of a silly-looking foam visor from Brazil. Certain shapes derive from 3D computer model of a smoke ring blown by the cigar-loving artist. Titles of works reveal the depth of his reading: Ain Ghazal Variation D, Ein Mein Himmel' rief die Alte (Babekan). What it all means is left unexplained, unfortunately, but the erudition has long been proven real by innumerable lectures and writings over the course of the artist's career.

Large areas, bright colors, and numerous elements are all difficult to organize in an abstract painting. In Das Erbeben in Chile, a forty-foot wide painting is loaded with an uncountable number of patterns, colors, and swirling shapes, and that it works at all is a marvel. It's difficult to get far enough away from the painting for it to cohere, but it does, organized by a relatively inactive, receding border of colors.

Chatal Huyuk Level VII, which measures a little more than 8 x 18 x 10 feet, is a wall of crunched, welded steel put upright on a metal stand. It deliberately occupies an intermediate ground between painting and sculpture, which is an interest of Stella's. A haunting bulk of unpainted steel, it sports an appendage which looks disturbingly deprived of function.

The appearance of these two shows simultaneously signals significant forward movement of the cultural life of Miami. Our local institutions have raised the bar for themselves. If this level of energy, courage, and appreciation can be maintained, Miami is on course to becoming a good place for an art lover.

Brice Marden, Work of the 1990s: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints is on view through March 5, 2000 at the Miami Art Museum, 101 West Flagler Street; call (305) 375-3000 for more information. Frank Stella at 2000: Changing the Rules is on view through March 12, 2000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th Street; call (305) 893-6211 for more information.

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