ARTFORUM - September 1998
Joseph Marioni: Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University
By Michael Fried
Joseph Marioni is an American painter in his midfifties who makes monochrome paintings. Until now I have never been attracted to the monochrome, which inevitably has struck me, in the many instances of it I have come across over the years, as artistically inert, or to use the language of "Art and Objecthood," as merely and depressingly literal. And in fact the monochrome fully emerged as a genre of artmaking in the wake of Minimalism, as a way of not severing the final tie with painting – of not quite moving "beyond" painting into the realm of objecthood as such – while nevertheless professing allegiance to the literalist aesthetic with its sweeping deprecation of the pictorial. So it was a shock when I visited "Joseph Marioni: Paintings 1970-1987, A Survey," organized by Carl Belz at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, and realized after a few minutes in their midst that the artist's monochromes were paintings in the fullest and most exalted sense of the word. How could that be? How could a type of work that I considered simply a vehicle for a hackneyed theoretical / ideological stance, a stance that at its freshest I regarded as mistaken, have been made to yield paintings of beauty and power?
Much of the answer lies in Marioni's color: for him the monochrome is precisely that, a painting of a single color, though to say this scarcely suggests the complexity of his procedures or the richness of his results. Take a recent work characteristically entitled Blue Painting,1998, which I saw in Marioni's New York studio while on a visit several weeks after my first encounter with his art at Brandeis. On a stretched canvas of modest dimensions (ca. 23 5/8" x 19 11/16"; all his paintings are vertical in format), Marioni, using a large roller, laid down four separate waves of acrylic paint: an indathrone ground, blue-black; a layer of ultramarine, a reddish blue, thin, completely transparent, virtually substanceless; a layer of thalo blue, a green-blue, relatively thick; and finally an extremely thin layer of cobalt blue, an opaque color but at that degree of dilution rendered translucent, almost but not quite a glaze. Throughout the process the canvas was upright so that the liquid pigment, once applied, flowed toward the bottom of the picture; indeed the colored field reveals itself, when we look closely,
Acrylic and Linen on Stretcher
23 5/8 x 19 11/16 - 1998 No. 12
as vertically striated, as though the sheer density – probably not the right word – of the paint layers led to a kind of internal curtaining. (When we look even more closely, the horizontal weave of the stretched linen is also in evidence.)
In all his works of the past two decades we find that same downward flow, not only within the painted fields but also at their limits, toward the edges of the canvas, particularly the bottom and the sides, where drips are allowed to form, lower layers are permitted to show through, and an impersonal but exquisite touch makes itself felt (the effect is not unlike that in certain Chinese and Japanese ceramics). Another feature of his paintings is that the rectangular canvases are ever so slightly narrowed toward the bottom, to match the tendency of the downward-flowing paint to draw in from the sides; in the same spirit, the bottoms of the stretchers are rounded so as to avoid a build-up of paint along the lower edge of the canvas. The result of this highly refined interplay between the physicality of the support and the materiality of the pigment is double: it gives rise to a sense of seamlessness, of aesthetic harmony, that, again, is almost Eastern in its affective resonance; at the same time, the interplay compels a recognition of the separateness of the elements or, say, of the composite nature of the painting as a whole (as in Robert Ryman's paintings but in a wholly different spirit). Some of this can be seen in reproduction, but no illustration can begin to capture the absolute specificity, which in this case also means the transfixing intensity, of the ultimate hue, or the tensile integrity of the paint surface, or the sheer rightness of the color in relation to the size and shape of the support, or the suggestion of depth within or behind the paint surface, an effect that has become increasingly important to his art. In Blue Painting that suggestion of depth is largely the work of the layer of transparent ultramarine, which functions as a kind of "spacer" within the material substance of the colored field.
The Rose Art exhibition – not quite a full retrospective but nevertheless a compelling account of the evolution of Marioni's art over almost thirty years – was masterfully chosen and mounted by Belz, who also contributed an acute and moving essay to the catalogue. On the strength of that exhibition, I consider Marioni to be one of the foremost painters at work anywhere at the present, and the great and thought-provoking surprise his art has given me is not only that it transcends the previous limitations of the monochrome but also that it is the first body of work I have seen that suggests that the Minimalist intervention may have had productive consequences for painting of the highest ambition. Simply put, the Minimalist hypostatization of objecthood, which called for and indeed presumed the surpassing of painting largely on the grounds of its manifest relationality, seems to have led in Marioni's art to a new, more deeply founded integration of color, amateriality, and support, which is to say to an affirmation of the continued vitality of painting that has something of the character of a new beginning.
Also by Michael Fried
Four Honest Outlaws
Sala Ray Marioni Gordon