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ARTFORUM - September 1998

Art Review

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,

Blue Painting
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.

Rex Butler Essay

Brisbane, Australia


By Rex Butler

In 1998, the great American art critic and historian Michael Fried returned to art criticism after a 25-year absence with a small piece in the September issue of Artforum. Indeed, in his piece Fried even hints at why he had returned to art criticism, or why he felt he was able to return to art criticism, after all of this time. It is a review of a retrospective survey of the American abstract painter Joseph Marioni, and at the end of his review Fried remarks that Marioni’s 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.”1 In other words, what Fried is suggesting is that after the long period of Minimalism he can now see an end to it; there is something that comes after it and is perhaps more inclusive than it. Fried remains modernist in the sense that it is not a matter of avoiding Minimalism or pretending that it did not take place. In truth, if one is going to make art today, one has to take Minimalism into account. This is undoubtedly why, as Fried intimates in the long autobiographical introduction he wrote to his 1998 collection Art and Objecthood, he could not keep on writing about Noland, Poons, Olitski and many of those other painters he had earlier championed: because the work they made no longer seemed alive, as though it was made after Minimalism (as, of course, it was not when it originally appeared in the late “50s and early “60s).2 It is only the work of Marioni that strikes Fried as being made after Minimalism, as being in effect post-Minimal painting. And it is for this reason that Marioni’s work allows Fried to return to art critical writing, to believe that the kinds of things he had argued for in the past are still relevant today.

This essay is really nothing more than an attempt to understand what Fried means by speaking of Marioni’s work as coming after the “Minimalist intervention,” and Marioni’s work, in turn, as responding to this intervention. As Fried writes in the concluding words of his review, at once summarizing the implications of Minimalism for painting and how Marioni’s work can be seen to be responding to them, incorporating them within a wider and more compelling artistic problematic:

Simply put, the Minimalist hypostasization of the object, 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 an affirmation of
the continued viability of painting that has something of the character of a
new beginning.(149)

But in order to try to explain what Fried is saying here, I am going to begin by comparing Marioni’s work to that of a painter who is very close to him, and to whom Marioni himself admits a certain affinity. For a lecture given during an exhibition of this artist’s work at the Phillips Collection in Washington in 2010, Marioni wrote: “I contacted Bob after I moved to New York in 1972 [after meeting him when Marioni was the gallery manager of the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. Ohio, in 1971], and I have maintained a dialogue with him ever since.” 3

In fact, I might begin my comparison between the two artists by starting at an even earlier moment in the history of abstraction. In another essay from Painting as Model, ‘Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation,” Bois looks at two Polish “Unist” artists of the 1920s and “30s, Wladyslaw Strzeminski and Katarzyna Kobro. Bois’ argument is that Strzeminski and Kobro and indeed the whole Unist group were a long way ahead of their time, insofar as in the first half of the twentieth century they were already asking questions later to be raised by the American Minimalists, such as how in properly abstract painting we can have valid reasons for deciding how to compose the picture. (It is this question that Fried is alluding to in the passage I quoted where he speaks of the Minimalists objecting to painting on the grounds of its “manifest relationality.”) That is to say, what haunted the Unists was precisely the problem of arbitrariness. When it is no longer a matter of any mimetic resemblance to the world or even of reflecting some geometrical order underlying it (both things the Unists were trying to do away with), then it becomes very difficult to justify or explain how a particular painting should be organized. And because there are no objective or external reasons for putting together a painting in any particular way, the artist needs to have internally compelling reasons for making their work the way it is. As Bois writes, summarising the Unist position:

The "law of organicity" stipulates that the work of art must be engendered from its
"primary given", according to its "first principles"... As far as painting is concerned,
these "first principles" belong to three different orders, all of which are indissolubly
linked to the fact that a picture is, or rather ought to be, a thing designed for
looking at, only: flatness, deduction of forms from the shape of the frame, abolition
of the figure/ground opposition.4

However, the problem for Unist painting in particular, and abstract painting in general, is that we could no sooner set out the criteria or parameters for a particular compositional decision – for example, that the internal shape of a painting should echo that of the frame around it – than elsewhere a certain arbitrariness or unjustifiability would creep back in. Again, as Bois writes, noting a qualification that allows a certain choice concerning the shape of a sculpture in one of the Unist manifestoes:

This kind of reintroduction in extremis of the “arbitrary,” of the
artist’s subjectivity, must have been problematic for Strzeminski (to
repeat: it is the impossibility of eradicating entirely
“arbitrariness,” except if one chooses the solution of the
monochrome – and maybe not even then – that is at the basis of our
current mourning of modernism). (143)

And, indeed, the Unists were troubled by this arbitrariness – and so is Bois on their behalf at the conclusion of his essay – because it contradicts the utopian ambitions they held for their work: their belief that in the work of art, if nowhere else, a principle of rational order could be manifested and maintained. This is why, in fact, they called their movement “Unism”: because they sought to pare their work down to its simplest elements – or even, ideally, one element – so that they could isolate and concentrate on just those. It would be as though – and this, of course, was an aspiration common to much twentieth-century abstraction, from Mondrian’s Purism to Malevich’s Suprematism – they would build up more and more complex forms from the most basic of building blocks, almost like putting together an artificial language piece by piece, so that perfect communication could be achieved.

Bois, as I say, begins his essay with a meditation on how it would ever be possible to restore the Unist artists to their rightful place in art history. This is an issue because, like so many other artists under Communism, their work was locked away for long periods of time (or even destroyed during the Nazi invasion of Poland before that). This had the result that, when their work finally did emerge at the end of the Cold War, it was seemingly preceded by and only able to be understood through Minimalism. But the work was also unable to be taken up for a more subtle reason, which is that when Unism was rediscovered in the 1960s its attitude was precisely not contemporary with or sympathetic to the prevailing artistic ethos of the time. If for the Unists it was a matter of seeking to overcome the inherent arbitrariness of motivation in abstraction, in order properly to compose or at least logically justify their work, the Minimalists on the other hand frankly admitted and even encouraged this arbitrariness. This was the point of Judd’s (and, following him, Andre’s) attack upon compositionality, and his argument that instead of trying to impose order the artist should just put “one thing after another.” 5 With Judd’s metal boxes running up the wall or Andre’s tiles and bricks, there is no real reason why they stop or start when they do, which is exactly what the artist seeks to make clear by creating different versions of the ‘same” work: to show that it always could be different.

This is where Bois’ Ryman comes in. For Bois, Ryman – like the Unists – is involved in the project of seeking to justify or motivate every element of the work. In Ryman’s case, this is achieved by rendering the process of the decision-making behind the creation of the work entirely transparent. The work is absolutely self-reflexive or, to put it another way, the end result of the work is nothing more than the accumulation of all of its various parts and procedures. Each part of the work justifies the others or each part is justified by all of the others. And if the work does not seek to pare itself down to just one element, like the original Unists, nevertheless the end result of Ryman’s work would be one single and indivisible effect, and nothing more than the logical outcome of everything that comes before. This is why Bois at the beginning of his essay is able to summarize Ryman’s work in terms of a mathematical formula, with the final result being nothing more than the sum of its parts, without excess or remainder:

That is, an aesthetic of causality is reintroduced [in Ryman’s work], a positivist
monologue that we thought modern art was supposed to have gotten rid of:
A (paintbrush) + B (paint) + C (support) + D (the manner in which these are
combined) give E (painting). There would be nothing left over in the equation.
Given E, ABCD could be deciphered, absolutely.(216)

But, in fact, Bois’ point is that there is always in Ryman’s work something that is in excess of this formula, that is not the foreseeable outcome of what comes before. For all of the attempt to systematize and rationalize the procedures that bring about the work, there is always something unexpected or unpredictable that arises in the making of it, which could not have been seen in advance. It is this that Bois says is the ultimate point of the work, and even we might say its art. And Ryman – and there is, of course, a kind of paradox or performative contradiction about this – even sets up the preceding factors exactly in order to produce this mistake, in effect for the work to fail. The example Bois gives of this is Ryman’s Stretched Painting (1963), in which Ryman unstretches and then restretches a canvas on which he has drawn, in order to produce something that is not reliably to be brought about by any normal procedure, that exceeds the artist’s control, and that might indeed be seen as something like a gesture or the outcome of the artist’s hand. (This might be the proper meaning of the “tact” that Bois sees at stake in Ryman’s work. Following the famous aphorism of Karl Kraus he cites at the beginning of his essay – “The more closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back” (215) – it would be to say that the closer we come to accounting for the work the more something resists or remains beyond this accounting. And it is this excess or remainder, Bois is suggesting, that is Ryman’s artistic signature: something strictly speaking unexpected or unreproducible that makes Ryman Ryman.6)

I should attempt to be more precise here: Ryman is obviously not like the Unists, insofar as he does not insist on controlling (or does not think he can control) all aspects of the work, nor is he like the Minimalists in simply letting go of all aspects of the work. Rather, what he seeks to show is that it is through – and perhaps only through – the attempt to control all aspects of the work that we can see what cannot be controlled. It is as though Ryman’s work is at once a critique of Unism, in that it shows that the artist cannot control all aspects of the work, and a critique of Minimalism, in that it shows that it is only through the attempt to control all aspects of the work that we can see what cannot be controlled. It is exactly for this reason that a critic like Suzanne Hudson in her Used Paint: Robert Ryman is able to speak of Ryman’s “pragmatism,” in the American sense that word takes from such thinkers as John Dewey and William James. Ryman’s work seeks to come to terms with, to predict, to demonstrate, what cannot be come to terms with, predicted or demonstrated. It sees itself in an empirical, almost experimental, relationship with something that it gradually attempts to master through trial and error. The work might always fail, but in this failure something positive is produced. The work seems forever to be starting off again on a better footing, having learnt a lesson from the mistakes of the past. It is for this reason – this is Bois’ point also in an essay like “Painting: The Task of Mourning” 7 – that Ryman’s work can never be finished, can never reach a conclusion or come to an end, despite the seemingly limited resources at its disposal. As Hudson writes:

What Ryman learns in one painting – whether success or failure [in fact,
always failure] – becomes a way to understand and deal effectively with what follows.
Dewey affirms:"The method of intelligence manifested in the experimental method
demands keeping track of ideas, activities and observed consequences… To
reflect is to look back over what has been done so as to extract the net meanings
which are the capital stock for intelligent dealing with further experiences." 8

It is at this point that we turn finally to the work of Marioni. We might begin by asking what Fried means by saying that Marioni’s work comes after the “Minimalist intervention.” Of course, this can be understood in a strictly historical sense as suggesting that Marioni is not a Minimalist, in that his career begins after Minimalism in the 1970s. But it can also be understood in a more specific sense as saying that Marioni places Minimalism within a wider and more inclusive artistic problematic: that he finds another “end” to Minimalism, even though he is not simply outside of it. How is this so? As is perhaps well known, Marioni makes his work by running a series of differently colored acrylic paints, applied by roller and thinned to various degrees by adding water, down the surface of the canvas, one on top of the other. The canvas is at once shaved to allow the paint more easily to run down its surface, slightly tapered from top to bottom to counteract the way the paint moves towards the centre as it does so, and rounded at its bottom edge so that the paint does not collect or pool after it has completed its journey. As the paint runs down, Marioni manipulates or redirects it subtly with either his fingers or a series of ordinary painting implements (brush, palette knife, roller), mostly in an attempt to ensure that the entire surface (or almost the entire surface) of the canvas is covered, and that the various layers as much as possible (but not entirely) cover each other.

The effect Marioni seeks to bring about is almost that of a series of translucent glazes, with the spectator attempting to make sense of the relationship of the various layers of color to each other and of the contours of each layer to the overall shape of the canvas. But, in the critics” account of his career, it has been noted that Marioni has not always had this complexity of color relations and interpenetration of various layers. Early on, when he was in dialogue with such German “concrete” painters as Günter Umberg and Peter Tollens, he had simply a single-colored stained background down which he roughly rolled a stippled band of the same color. Indeed, it is only in Marioni’s mature style that we really have the interpenetration of different colors (particularly towards the top of the canvas where the paint is thinner), so that we can look through the layer above to the one below. As Marioni explains in a number of writings and interviews, it is only as he became more experienced that he was able to take into account in advance as he was making his paintings how a particular layer would eventually look, knowing what color it lay on top of and what color it would eventually lie beneath.9

But, as might be imagined, for all of Marioni’s talk of gaining experience in the making of his paintings, there is nevertheless a certain limit to him getting the paint to do what he wants. Not only is there a specific gravity to the paint, so that he has only a limited amount of time to effect his actions before it reaches the bottom of the canvas, but the paint has its own particular viscosity, which means that his attempts to channel or funnel it on its way down remain only more or less visible, more or less pertinent. There is also – as Fried makes clear in a second review he wrote on Marioni in 2006 10 – an absolute limit to the scale of the picture Marioni can undertake, insofar as there is a certain unsurpassable size that the individual drops of paint cannot get larger than. Too big a canvas, not only horizontally but perhaps even vertically, and the drops (one of the few ways Marioni has of imparting pictorial incident) would be simply too small to “hold” the canvas, to be visually or, better, compositionally pertinent. In many ways, indeed, Marioni’s work can appear to be classic process art, readable within a lineage that goes from a particular understanding of Pollock’s drip paintings., through Morris Louis” stains and on to Andre’s scatterpieces, Serra’s lead castings, Linda Benglis” latex pours, and so on. It would be as though Marioni is simply initiating a process and letting it proceed without interference – or, as is often remarked of Marioni’s work, as though the paintings paint themselves.

And yet this is not at all the experience of those who engage with Marioni’s art. They see the paintings not as disordered, random or self-generated, but as ordered, constructed and subject to a controlling intentionality. This, for example, is the evidence of Carl Belz, the curator of the exhibition that Fried originally reviewed:

I may liken [Marioni’s paintings] to nature because of their beauty
and objectivity, but I don’t mistake them for natural phenomena, for
they are not stones or sunsets, they are first and last paintings: if
natural at all, their nature is human, which is to say a person made
and intended them. 11

It is similarly the testimony of Fried, as expressed in his review of the show:

[The paintings] give rise to a sense of seamlessness, of aesthetic
harmony, that, again, is almost Eastern in its affective resonance…
Some of this can be seen in reproduction, but no illustration can
capture the absolute specificity, which in this case almost 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. 12

And Marioni himself, for all of the making of his works by running the paint down the canvas, and even his appearing to facilitate this by shaving the canvas, bringing in its sides and rounding off its bottom edge, also insists on his overall control of the process. In a text from 1994 entitled “Mistaken Identity/Double Solitaire,” he speaks of the meaning of his paintings lying not of any language-based difference or deferral but rather in a respect for the integrity and undividedness of our visual engagement with them:

We can distinguish between the strategy of “différance,” in which
we differ the identity of painting in our understanding of a ‘sign”
language, by deferring the integrity of the painting’s body, as a
concept of art, from the experiential value of our observance of
painting, ie, the recognition of being in a ritual of visual intimacy. 13

It is exactly at this point that we might begin to draw a contrast between Marioni and Ryman. We would say that, although there is something in Marioni’s work that exceeds his ability to control it, he nevertheless takes total responsibility for all aspects of the work. There is no giving up on the end result in Marioni. There are no particular parts of the painting that he intends and others that he does not. He does not set the work up to fail or even for him not to know the final result. He always means for the whole to be controlled by him and, furthermore, for it to be seen to be controlled by him. But what could this mean when it is true that certain aspects of the work do go beyond him, when he does not in fact exercise control over all aspects of it? We get towards this difficulty when Marioni says that he is opposed to the “romantic” conception of the artist that sees them as having something to say outside of the work of art. It is for this reason, he adds, that he applies his paint by roller: because he does not want to leave any trace of the artist’s hand. Instead, in an attitude that is the very opposite of that which sees the artist imparting his intentionality by directly shaping the object, Marioni asserts that his favourite moment of the entire artistic process is watching the paint dry after it has completed its journey. Or, as he elsewhere puts it in a provocative formulation: “I control the painting with my mind.” 14

But, again, how are we to understand this? What are we to make of an artist who says that his favourite moment making the work is watching the paint dry and that he controls the painting with his mind? We might compare Marioni’s situation to that of a God who, instead of directly intervening in the world, allows events to take their own course, but with the very freedom and autonomy of the world henceforth able to be explained only because of Him. However, we would also have to say here that God’s will could not be seen outside of that which seems to go against it, that we would have evidence of God’s intention only at those moments at which it appears to be disobeyed. And it is, indeed, something like this ambivalence that Fried means when he speaks of the “double” relationship between the ‘seamlessness” and the ‘separation” of Marioni’s painting in his original review. It is not only that we see the attempt by Marioni to put together the layers of color into one harmonious unity, but we would not even have this ‘seamlessness” – it would not be pertinent to our experience of the painting – unless these layers were seen to be brought together, that is, to be ‘separate.” 15 And it is something like this that would be at stake in Fried’s historical contextualisation of Marioni in the chapter devoted to him in his most recent book Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon. There he speaks, in a way he has not admitted before, of how the literal (we might say the material) and the depicted (we might say the intended) are not able to be separated and, more than that, actually imply each other. That is, not only is the literal possible only because of the depicted, but the depicted in a way is only the literal. As Fried writes there of Frank Stella’s Moutenboro II (1966), updating the argument he originally made in his 1966 essay ‘shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons”:

Depicted shape found itself compelled to seek justification from the literal shape of
the support, not by wholly matching itself to the latter but by partly doing so, the idea
being that there would be a certain transfer of authority from one to the other and
back again. 16

We see the same reciprocality in Marioni’s evolving conception of color. At first, consistent with the rational and procedural aspects of “concrete” painting, Marioni speaks of color as mere paint or pigment, something that exists entirely within the bounds of his canvases and is subject to his technique: as Stefan Kraus puts it “The exact choices of color, medium, size, shape, proportion, are what alone determine the quality of the result, and these depend solely on inspiration or conception.” 17 But then in later theorisations from his mature practice, Marioni goes on to speak of color as that which is more than mere paint, that is not the color of something and is beyond his ability to shape or control it: “In painting [transcendence] is accomplished by the viewer through visual intimacy with the body Paint. It is how we see light, and for the painter light is God.” 18 It is what Marioni speaks of as the difference between paint in a jar and that same paint in a painting. But for all of the apparent distinction Marioni seems to be drawing between these two states or conditions, he does not ultimately oppose them or see them as separable. While the painter must try to turn their paint into a painted image, this image must be nothing other than the concrete expression of paint. As Marioni puts it: “The problem as I see it is for the color and the paint to come together as the image of a painting. Neither one should lose its specific identity to the other.” 19

And this fusion of the material and transcendent reaches its most perfect expression in an exhibition of Marioni’s paintings held at the KOLUMBA museum in Cologne, Germany 2010 entitled Noli me tangere! Of course, this famous Biblical injunction is uttered by the newly risen Christ to Mary, telling her not to touch him but to trust the evidence of her eyes that the miracle of resurrection has occurred. But, as Marioni seeks to make clear here, this injunction also applies to Marioni’s paintings, for as we have seen the true evidence or testimony they offer lies in something beyond touch or let us say the direct control of the artist. And to be clear here: if there is some higher design or purpose in Marioni’s paintings, it is to be found exactly despite the fact that that there is no proof for it. The paintings are only literal, material, produced by the unchecked playing out of a process. This is the meaning, again, of Marioni’s insistence that there be no sign of the artist’s hand in his canvases, that there be no evidence of their control. It would be a faith in the literal, or even a faith that makes possible the literal. And Marioni’s guiding intention would be seen only through our sense of its absence. In the words of the philosopher Henry Staten, who has written on Marioni’s work: “As has been said of Shakespeare, Marioni is ‘everywhere present, but nowhere visible’ in his work.” 20

We can perhaps find something of all of this in Fried’s reading of Caravaggio’s Incredulity of St Thomas (1601-2) in the book he wrote immediately before Four Honest Outlaws, The Moment of Caravaggio. The scene Caravaggio depicts in Incredulity, of course, is another great instance of “noli me tangere!”: that moment when the resurrected Christ invites Thomas the Apostle to touch the wound in his side so that Thomas can confirm that He is the man he previously saw crucified and Christ says: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In the usual reading of the parable, it is Thomas’ hand that comes later either to confirm or deny the original sight. In Fried’s interpretation of the painting, however, the order is subtly inverted. It is instead sight, we might say the non-literal, that is understood to come after touch, the literal. A first moment of contact or “immersion,” in which Thomas’ hand reaches towards the wound, is followed by a second moment of recoil or “withdrawal,” in which the hand is taken away. (And this, needless to say, could be read as the triumph of the depicted over the literal.) As Fried writes:

Thomas himself strains forward with wide-open eyes as if to look as closely as
possible at what he is himself doing and feeling, as if he cannot quite believe he is
witness of his sense of touch without the further confirmation of sight, a brilliant
trumping of the conventional understanding of the event [in which touch confirms
sight]. 21

In the end, however – and this is in fact Fried’s final position – the two senses or states cannot be separated. If there is a “moment” of Caravaggio, it is never single but double. At the same time as Thomas’ hand stretches towards Christ, it also draws back from Him. If touch has no meaning without a confirming sight, sight for its part is only the confirmation of an original touch. And this is brought out in the painting with the ambiguity of Christ’s own gesture, in which he can be seen at once halting and helping guide in Thomas” hand. That is, we look at Thomas” hand and ask whether it is going in or out of Christ’s wound, and are forced to conclude that in an endlessly drawn-out moment it is doing both.

The real intellectual mentor to Fried, although all-too-rarely mentioned in the context of his work, is the American “ordinary language” philosopher Stanley Cavell. It is in an early essay from 1967, “A Matter of Meaning It,” that Cavell first raises the question of ‘scepticism” in modern art, by which he means the ever-present possibility that, when tradition has been broken and there are no rules artists can simply follow, the work of art is fraudulent, deceptive or simply misconceived. Cavell’s solution to this threat of scepticism is that the artist must “mean” or “intend” the work of art. 22 But what could this mean? It is obviously not a matter of asking the artist whether they intend their work, insofar as not only might any answer they give be once again deceptive but the artist themselves might genuinely not know. Nor is there anything objective we can point to in the work, insofar as within modernism all artistic conventions are uncertain and constantly have to be renegotiated. Rather, we might say that for Cavell we seek meaning in a work of art because we feel it is intended, or even our attempts to seek such meaning are the proof that it is intended. It is not so much that we can actually know the intention of the work, or even that it is intended. But intention is precisely this problem of knowing the intention of a work. Its intention is what makes us ask whether or not the work is intended. As Cavell writes:

Intention is no more an efficient cause of art than it is of human
action; in both cases, it is a way of understanding the thing done,
of describing what happens… But it is exactly to find out what
someone has done, what he is responsible for, that one
investigates his intentions. (231)

It is precisely in this sense, to conclude, that we might understand Fried speaking of Marioni as coming after the “Minimalist intervention.” It is not, as we say, that Marioni simply comes after or from anywhere outside of Minimalism. It is not that Marioni engages Minimalism in something wider or more inclusive, in the sense that he augments it with another, more general series of positive qualities. It is not even that Marioni directly replays Minimalist strategies and techniques, but this time consciously or as though in complete control of them. Rather, Marioni simply repeats Minimalism, speaks of it as arbitrary or literal. We might see this in terms of Marioni’s relationship to the monochrome. In a way, all Marioni does, both in a painterly but also let us say an aesthetic sense, is remark the monochrome: not only does he internally vary its color and break its undivided surface, but he frames it, shows it coming about, and in this sense reveals what surrounds it, how it was produced, that somebody or something made it. And it is this remark or frame that at once constitutes what we see as a monochrome – it is certainly intriguing that Fried repeatedly refers to Marioni’s paintings as “monochromes” when they obviously are not 23 – and opens the monochrome up to something else. But, again, it is important to emphasise that it is not simply of something or from somewhere else that Marioni speaks. It is precisely this remarking of the monochrome that is this putting behind us of the “Minimalist intervention” that Fried speaks of. All “positive” qualities of Marioni’s painting – its seamlessness, its aesthetic power, its being painting in the fullest and most exalted sense of the word – first of all stand in for the space that allows this remarking of the literal as such. Marioni intends Minimalism, we might say, which also means that he intends it as something else, that it is always possible something else is behind it. Marioni doubles Minimalism, at once repeating it and revealing that it is possible only because of a reason entirely other than its own.

1 Michael Fried, Joseph Marioni, Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University,”
Artforum 37: 1 (1998): 149.
2 Fried does not admit this directly – this is not his style – but it seems the clear implication of the following passage: “Basically, though, I stopped writing about contemporary art, for several reasons. In the first place, I had pretty much said what I had to say… [And] no one with even the sketchiest awareness of recent history needs to be told that ‘theatricality,’ not just in the form of Minimalism, went on to flourish spectacularly while abstraction in my sense of the term became more and more beleaguered,” Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 14.
3 Joseph Marioni, “The Specific Performance of Robert Ryman,” Robert Ryman exhibition, Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, June 5-September 12 2010 (online).
4 Yve-Alain Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993): 137.
5 Donald Judd, ‘Specific Objects,” in Complete Writings 1959-75 (Halifax: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1975): 184.
6 Indeed, the signature is one of the privileged objects of Ryman’s painterly enquiry, with a series of works from the very beginning of his career (Untitled, 1958; To Gertrude Mellon, 1958) in which it is as much as anything the artist’s own signature that is the subject of the work. However, we might reverse this to say that it is Ryman’s work that is subject to a certain logic of the signature, for the signature too cannot entirely be predicted, but can be produced only inadvertently, by accident, as it were. Each signature is always different from how one expected it to turn out in advance – otherwise it is a forgery – but this is what a signature is, this is how a signature works in practice or pragmatically. We will come to contrast this with Marioni’s attitude to what necessarily goes beyond him in the artistic process in a moment.
7 Bois writes in “Painting: The Task of Mourning” of Ryman’s work “at once knowing of the end and also knowing the impossibility of arriving at it without working it through,” Painting as Model, 232.
8 Suzanne Hudson, Robert Ryman: Used Paint (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009): 20-1.
9See, for example, Marioni’s description of how blue works in Ingvild Goetz, “Written Interview with Joseph Marioni,” in Monochromie Geometrie (Munich: Sammlung Goetz, 1996): 68.
10 Michael Fried, “Joseph Marioni, Peter Blum, Chelsea,” Artforum 45: 1 (2006): 372.
11Carl Belz, “In the Studio,” Joseph Marioni: Paintings 1970-1998, A Survey (Brandeis University: Rose Art Museum, 1998): 18-19.
12 Fried, “Joseph Marioni, Rose Art Museum,” 149.
13 Joseph Marioni, “Mistaken Identity/Double Solitaire,” in Joseph Marioni: Painter (Mönchhengladbach: Städtisches Museum Abteiberg, 1994): 92.
14 Goetz, Monochromie, 66.
15 Fried writes: “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… 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,” 149.
16 Michael Fried, Four Honest Outlaws: Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011): 152. Our claim here is that Fried not merely paraphrasing his original argument, but significantly updating it, bringing the literal and the depicted into much closer alignment than they were before.
17 Cited in Stefan Kraus, “Body as Paint, Color of Light,” in Joseph Marioni: Triptych (Köln: Diözesanmuseum Köln, 1999): 52.
18 Kraus, Joseph Marioni, 60.
19 “Joseph Marioni/Hannelore Kersting: A Dialogue,” in Joseph Marioni: Painter, 17.
20 Henry Staten, “Painting Beyond Narrative,” Kunstforum International (1987): 84.
21 Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2010): 84. To be clear here, the previous description of a successive “immersion” and “recoil” is applied to Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard (1594) in Fried’s book, but the point is the same (40).
22 Cavell writes: “The artist is responsible for everything that happens in the work – and not just in the sense that it is done, but in the sense that it is meant,” Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976): 237-38.
23 Fried writes, for example: “I realised after a few minutes in their midst that the artist’s monochromes were paintings in the fullest and most exalted sense of the word” and “[For Marioni] the monochrome is precisely that, a painting of a single color, though to say this scarcely suggests the complexity of his process or the richness of his results,” “Joseph Marioni, Rose Art Museum,” 149.

The New Criterion - December 2011

Art Review

Marioni's liquid light at the Phillips

By Karen Wilkin

On “Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips” The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC.

A remarkable exhibition can be seen at the Phillips Collection, organized as part of the museum’s ninetieth anniversary celebrations: a group of canvases by the tough-minded painter Joseph Marioni, made between 1981 and 2011. They are accompanied by a selection of paintings from the museum’s own holdings, chosen, partly by the artist himself, as historical background and counterpoint to his rigorous, passionate investigations of color and radiance—or as he puts it, “liquid light.” In addition to its considerable aesthetic pleasures, “Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips” is specially welcome because, in this country, there are fewer opportunities to see substantial gatherings of the painter’s work than his admirers would wish.

Marioni, born in Cincinnati in 1943, educated at the Cincinnati Art Academy and the San Francisco Art Institute, and resident in New York and rural Pennsylvania, is represented in the collections of many important American private collections and institutions, including the Phillips, the Fogg, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Yet his radiant monochrome paintings, notable for their conflation of sensuousness and severity, luxuriousness and discipline, are more assiduously collected and exhibited, both privately and publicly, in Europe than in his native United States. An opportunity on this side of the Atlantic to see thirteen carefully selected Marionis spanning three decades of his life as a painter is reason to rejoice.

But for a practicing critic, even one extremely enthusiastic about the artist’s efforts, “Eye to Eye” is also a reason for some perplexity and trepidation. Writing about the work of “Joseph Marioni, painter,” as he styles himself, is not only difficult, but might even be pointless. His mysterious canvases, while they can provoke countless associations in the viewer, embody abstraction at its most extreme. Devoid of narrative or allusion, they are about pure visual experience. Marioni deals with the intangible, the ephemeral, and the ineffable, given tenuous reality in the material of paint. His implacable cascades of saturated but tonally various color—nuanced expanses at once fluid and preternaturally still—resist description as stubbornly as they resist reproduction. They demand to be considered directly, face to face, and over an extended period of time, ideally in daylight with all its variables. It’s not only difficult to find appropriate language for our experience of these purely visual events, but words are largely irrelevant and almost certainly inadequate to the complex optical richness and emotional power of the best of these uncanny objects.

And if the questionable efficacy of attempting to write about Marioni’s elusive paintings weren’t enough of a deterrent, the problem is compounded by the fact that the effort is also presumptuous. Marioni himself is a notably articulate, lucid, and persuasive spokesman for his own work, able to illuminate both the specifics of his particular methods and the larger issue of the nature of his chosen discipline. For once, the artist may actually—atypically—be his best interpreter. As a result, for the discipline. For once, the artist may actually—atypically—be his best interpreter. As a result, for the critic who struggles to come to terms with Marioni’s paintings, the temptation to take refuge in Wittengenstein’s celebrated disclaimer, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”—or, to put it more succinctly in relation to works of art, “shut up and point”—coexists with the desire to quote extensively from Marioni’s published statements or paraphrase his comments from notes scribbled during studio visits. Either way, it’s a daunting task, yet, it must be admitted, also irresistible. So here goes.

Marioni’s insistence on calling himself “the painter” is neither capricious nor pretentious. He makes a cogent argument for the notion that the irreducible quality of painting is not, as Clement Greenberg posited, flatness, but rather, color. A sightless person encountering the flat surface of a painting, whether smooth or aggressively textured, would be able to deduce something from touch, but would nevertheless have no notion of the work’s color and hence would miss the point. (There’s some relation here to Marioni’s friend and admirer Michael Fried’s assumption that a work of art is made to be beheld.) Painting, then, equals color. A flood of color, without internal divisions, of a particular dimension and proportion—which is how any of Marioni’s mature works can be broadly described—is painting reduced to its essence.

The selection of these essential objects at the Phillips is limited to intimate, modestly sized works, nicely proportioned to the domestic scale of the galleries where they are installed. (Since acquiring an ideally ample studio outside of the city, Marioni has also made very large paintings whose seductive expanses read rather differently than those in than those in “Eye to Eye,” but none of them are included in the show. ) As the laconic titles of the works on view suggest— Green Painting (2010), Yellow Painting (2003), Turquoise Blue Painting (2009)—Marioni seems to have dissected the entire spectrum into its component parts. He has said that he thinks of himself as painting portraits of colors, revealing the personality of the hue before us. In fact, at first encounter with the group of reticent works at the Phillips, which span the full range of chromatic possibilities from red to violet, we mainly notice the differences in color of each “family” of canvases. Gradually, we become alert to the subtle variations among related works—the delicate shifts between, for example, several yellow paintings or among a run of blues. Some of the sheets of color before us are cooler, some more acidic; some seem bottomless, others transparent. Seeing these paintings in relatively close proximity further destabilizes them and makes us doubt the accuracy of our perceptions, since the experience of looking at one painting influences, at least at first, the way we see the color of the next.

The canvases in different families of hues have different proportions—a response, Marioni says, to each color’s innate associative character, and an indication of his metaphorical portrait project. An olive-ochre painting, for example, a diaphanous curtain of fused, ribbony runs of pigment, stretches horizontally, in keeping with the echoes of landscape inherent in the color green. Reds tend to be vertical and somewhat body-like in their proportions, while blues, which inevitably conjure up recollections of sky and sea, and yellows, which trigger memories of light, are usually more ample, without extending into horizontality.

If we spend enough time with each painting, changing our viewing distance to take in small incidents in the surface, as well as the general impact of the whole, we start to tune into the true complexity of each expanse of color. The apparent monochromes are not quite what we assumed them to be. As our eyes adjust to the delicate shifts in the wall of color, we become aware of underlying layers, sometimes tantalizingly exposed at the edges of the canvas. These cognate or, occasionally, contrasting colors serve to warm, cool, or otherwise modify the dominant hue. We are immediately conscious that each of Marioni’s confrontational expanses is exhibited in the orientation in which it was made; we are forcibly aware of the role of gravity in pulling the flowing paint from the top to the bottom of the canvas. But we notice, too, the evidence of small manipulations of the cascade of fluid pigment as it slid down the surface of the support: a range of restrained ruffles, scoops, and splits, the result of Marioni’s interruption of the flow with an arsenal of improvised tools and sometimes his fingers. These marks, punctuations, and changes in tempo at the edge of the skin of paint reveal the artifice involved in the making of the object before us. Gravity may have been the agency that caused the liquid paint to move as it did, but its effect, too, was subject to the artist’s will, intelligence, and intervention.

With attention, and over time, our reading of Marioni’s paintings changes significantly. What we first believed to be a spontaneously achieved waterfall of a single color gradually announces itself as a thoughtfully constructed palimpsest of repeated, free but controlled applications, each with a particular chroma and degree of transparency. It comes as no surprise to learn that Marioni thinks of himself as a glaze painter, drawing on the tradition of old masters who gradually built up tones and hues, or modified those beneath, with translucent overpainting. The result of this layering, in chromatic terms, is akin to the effects of sustained chords, in tonal music: the combination of individual notes within a given key produces new harmonic sound subject to a great deal of variation in they same way that Marioni’s superimposed layers of color within a given family combine to create new hues.

Marioni’s term “liquid light” is as considered as his description of himself as “the painter.” The mobile medium of paint is, in his hands, an equivalent for light. Color, as we perceive it, is, of course, light, the result of the reflection of different wave lengths. Marioni says that deciding where the light is located, in each of his paintings, is a major preoccupation. Is it deep within or close to the surface? Different degrees of radiance, different intensities of light—the result of shifts in metaphorical depth—help to give individual paintings their distinctive characters, modulating the effect of the dominant hue. The sense of light in Marioni’s paintings, however, is not wholly illusory. A meticulous craftsman, he uses an almost perfectly transparent acrylic medium, made to his specifications, without any sullying additives, which allows the suspended pigment to retain its full clarity and intensity, so that underlying, modifying layers can make their presence felt. The orchestration of these layers, each with its own temperature, mood, and resonance, produces the overall flavor and feeling tone of the finished work.

The paradox of Marioni’s paintings is that they read simultaneously and with equal conviction as declarative objects and as rarified optical experience—as immobile walls of color and as mutable sluices of liquid. Their object character is emphasized by Marioni’s thick, beveled stretchers, so significant an aspect of the work that he routinely lists the materials of his paintings as “acrylic and linen on stretcher.” Even the linen on which he paints is selected according to the color range in which he has decided to work; the texture and color of the chosen linen support is determined by hue that will be placed on top of it. The stretchers taper slightly—they are wider at the top than below—to respond to the tendency of the sheet of liquid paint to come together and gather in, at the bottom; the upper part of the stretched canvas projects slightly from the wall at the top, to emphasize the downward flow. We notice these small departures from the conventional rectangle mainly after being alerted to them and then only after close scrutiny, although, like the all but subliminally perceived underlying layers that tinge the dominate color, they affect our perception of the work, contributing to our sense of the painting’s physicality and materiality.

This evident materiality, however, is contradicted by the contingent, transient quality of the skin of paint itself, the potent sense that the object before us exists only for the eye. The more we concentrate, the more insubstantial the fragile, minimally inflected sheet of color seems to be, its occasional fluttering edge or puddle notwithstanding. These ruffles and solidified runs, in fact, serve to intensify our awareness of both the former liquid state of the paint and the multiplicity of the layers in which it was applied, so that we are forced to deal with two conflicting pieces of information at once—the fact of the layers and their impossible fragility and insubstantiality—at the same time that we are overwhelmed by the disembodied wash of glowing color confronting us. What associations that flood of “liquid light” provokes is impossible to predict. Whether we read them as distillations of the natural world, signs of emotion, emblems of the beautiful, or embodiments of the spiritual—among many other things—is a matter for the individual. What’s indisputable is that while Marioni’s paintings may be spare, economical, and calculated to make words superfluous, they also give us a lot to think about for all their spareness and economy.

At the Phillips, there are three approaches to the Marioni installation. On foot, from the floor below, we encounter the first painting, the earliest in the selection, at the beginning of the staircase, find another part way up, and discover the entire group of works and an apt wall text. If we come up the elevator in the most recent addition to the museum, we pass the gallery dedicated to Mark Rothko enroute. It’s instructive to enter the surprisingly compact space, which turns the Phillips’s four canvases, made between 1954 and 1957, into a kind of environment and a fine demonstration of Duncan Phillips’s notion of representing the artists he deemed most significant and influential with “units” dedicated to multiple examples of their work.

Rothko is obviously part of Marioni’s lineage, a chosen ancestor whose work makes it possible for paintings like those of the younger artist to be considered works of art and not simply demonstrations of color possibilities. Yet compared to Marioni’s monochrome cascades of a single hue, which seem to have come into being almost without the action of the human hand, as the result of natural laws, Rothko’s hovering rectangles seem to be about touch, as much as they are about the relationships of specific colors and shapes to each other and to the supporting rectangle. In other words, Marioni’s paintings seem to embody the singular qualities of the medium of paint itself in completely abstract terms, presenting it to us, for our delight, in its most elemental form, admittedly in a carefully controlled and considered fashion; Rothko’s canvases, by contrast, appear to subsume their materials to other notions.

The third way to enter “Eye to Eye” is from the house that was the site of the original Phillips Collection. From this approach, the first things we encounter are works from the museum’s collections chosen as a kind of introduction and accompaniment to Marioni’s paintings. Selected, we are told, “to introduce the shared belief of museum founder Duncan Phillips and painter Joseph Marioni that color is the ‘most direct instrument of painting,’” the diverse European and American works on view are united chiefly by their emphasis on the evocation of color and light, with greater and lesser degrees of abstraction as a subtext. The artists include European modernists such as Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Henri Matisse, and Vassily Kandinsky, as well as progressive Americans such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, Arthur Dove, and Milton Avery. A room dedicated to a wonderful group of John Marins, in both oil and watercolor, reminds us of Phillips’s enthusiasm for his work, at the same time that it introduces questions about the relative importance of subject matter and the properties of materials to the pursuit of “color and light.”

The discussion is brought closer to the present by a slightly oddball assembly of works by Adolph Gottlieb, Nicolas de Staël, Piet Mondrian, and Ilya Bolotowsky, among others, and a kind of “afterthought” installation of works by the Washington Color School—Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing—in the elevator lobby. Originally, the selection of accompanying works was supposed to be made by Marioni himself, to complement the installation of his paintings and, at the same time, offer viewers a window into his thinking. Apparently a project successfully realized at many other institutions—an artist chooses works from the collection in which to site something of his own— this proved not to be entirely feasible at the Phillips, so the current selection represents a kind of collaboration between Marioni and one of the museum’s curators, which may account for the presence of several works that seem to have little to do with the painter’s rigorous aesthetic. Yet the conversation among the chosen works is still stimulating, and—depending on which way you approach “Eye to Eye”—the selection provides an admirable warm up or cool down from Marioni’s eye-testing, ravishing paintings of “liquid light.”

1 “Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips” opened at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, on October 22, 2011 and remains on view through January 29, 2012.
Karen Wilkin is an editor at The Hudson Review and on the faculty at the New York Studio School. more from this author This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 December 2011, on page 50 Copyright 2011 The New Criterion |


Art Review

Frameless Immediacy: Joseph Marioni at Mark Müller's

By Mrs. Angelika Affentranger

Somebody once said one's eyes want to go swimming in Joseph Marioni's pictures. And indeed, some of the new works on view at Galerie Mark Muller in Zurich invite immersion; the gaze almost loses itself in the unfathomable depths of the coloring. These paintings exert a kind of pull; they are like fountains of accumulated energy. Yet other works by Marioni have the exact opposite effect; one's vision bounces off their smooth skin of color, as if reflected by a mirror and thrown back into the room. Here the energy of the colors flows out into the surroundings and transforms the impartial lighting of the gallery into radiant chromatic spaces. Matter-of-fact are the titles: Green Painting, Blue Painting, Red Painting. They could not be more appropriate for works that are so utterly self-contained in their presence as a picture, in their radical, frameless imagery.

The parameters that Marioni has staked out for himself are exceptionally stringent: a monochrome palette and canvas. But the expressive potential that can be gleaned from them is virtually inexhaustable. Every picture is invented from scratch with its chromatic hues and values, its rivulets, and its delicately superimposed membranes of color. Frame, format, hanging (varied in height and distance from the wall) – as examplified by Robert Ryman's differentiated treatment of the picture – must be viewed as inherent components that contribute essentially to the mood exuded by each work. Even so, Marioni's paintings never appear as closure but remain open to the exploring gaze that takes up the thread of the color continuum and weaves on. Marioni sometimes calls his paintings icons, thereby evoking that archaic type of picture that seeks only direct confrontation with a seeing and sensing other.

Translated by Catherine Schelbert

The Brooklyn Rail - February 2012

Art Review

The Phillips Collection | October 22, 2011 - January 29, 2012

Robert Morgan

OAKLAND – "Liquid light"

In 1986, Joseph Marioni proposed the term “radical painting” to describe what he does. Radical painting is the root source that “exists as a concrete object in the real world [and] presents the least information and the most sensation of all painting.” The sensation to which he refers is color; and through color, he aspires to give his viewers an “experience of some primordial essence.”

Marioni is clearly aware of the issues confronting the advancement of painting in the age of the Internet. For more than 40 years he has developed a finely tuned method of painting that some would identify as a type of monochrome approach, which he affirmatively denies. He believes his concerns are not consistent with what monochrome painters are striving to do. Marioni does not paint his linen surfaces with a single hue, but with many. The distillation of these surfaces occurs over a period of time, indicating many coats of pigment have been applied, not all of them the same uniform color.

The occasion of traveling to Washington, D.C. to view the exhibition Eye to Eye: Joseph Marioni at the Phillips, curated by Vesela Sretenovic, came as a result of a discussion with the artist that lasted more than three hours one cold afternoon in the office of Paul Rodgers Gallery on West 20th Street. Until then—more than 40 years after I had first seen his work in San Francisco—we had never really sat down and engaged in a discussion. In addition to the optically charged, large-scale paintings on the walls of Rodgers’s office salon, I was curious to see more of Marioni’s recent work. The exhibition at the Phillips Collection consisted of maybe 15 relatively small-scale paintings by the artist, completed between 1993 and 2011. Additionally, the curator asked the artist to choose paintings from the permanent collection that would be shown in the galleries adjacent to the two rooms where his work would be hung. The results were somewhat astonishing, as the semiotics of color in painting became the central issue.

The selection of works included paintings by artists noted for their original use of light and color, ranging from Matisse to Bonnard, from Van Gogh to Monet, from O’Keeffe to Ryder, from John Marin to Gene Davis, and from Joan Mitchell to a selection of paintings by Mark Rothko from the 1950s. The Western historical legacy, showing the exuberant revelations of color and light from the late 19th through the mid-20th century, implied a natural theme for the exhibition. This occurred not only through the insightful selection of Marioni’s work, but also as a tribute to the late founder of the collection, Duncan Phillips, who maintained a long-term involvement with painters whose inventive chromatic breakthroughs defined the course of modernist painting.

For Marioni, the beginning of the 20th century was a time when painting was largely split between mimetic forms of representation and abstract forms that proposed to carry expressive, philosophical, and/or ontological content. There was also a third means of pictorial production, one that stood apart from the other two—namely, painting that depended solely on the premises of its own means. Rather than a representational image or abstract distillation of something else, this kind of painting virtually defined what the essence of painting could be. Marioni understood the need for this kind of approach, where painting would evolve further toward its own objectivity. He saw this in the tripartite red, blue, and yellow canvases of the Russian painter Rodchenko in 1921.

Instead of overstating the existence of form through language, as was evident in the formalist criticism of the 1960s, Marioni has insisted that painting should move in the direction of the viewer, and what the viewer sees in relation to experience: “The relationship of the viewer with the painting is a private experience of a certain human condition.” In further stating that “not all human conditions are linguistic”—a phrase used more than once in his writings—the artist emphasizes direct viewing as the most accurate means by which to determine qualitative significance in painting. One cannot classify Marioni’s work as simply monochrome, abstract, or some other variant of late Color Field painting; the artist’s mandate, rather, is that we see and feel the work directly, not on a screen but in the architectural viewing space where actual light illuminates the surface from a controlled exterior source.

In recognition of the rhetorical limitations of painting, Marioni appears to incarnate the painted surface with a physical grace that he hopes will optically and metaphorically dematerialize into an aura of translucency. Ultimately it is the layering of color that makes the surface begin to appear palpable as “liquid light.” At that point, the effect of transparency appears neither separated from the surface nor contingent on some exterior form of meaning. Simply put, it is the means by which the artist applies color that intrinsically offers meaning, as surely as color and light become inextricably bound to one another.

As a thinking artist, Marioni functions in part as a metacritic in the sense that he appears to relish dialogues with critics, collectors, art historians, theorists, curators, museum directors, and other artists. (I understand the term “metacritic” from reading the philosopher Eugene Kaelin back in the 1970s, where metacriticism is essentially defined as a criticism of criticism.) He is an artist who resists names or labels that attempt to classify him. The one label from which Marioni has never wavered or equivocated, however, is that of being a “painter.” His evocative exhibition of “liquid light” at the Phillips Collection is a perhaps a harbinger of what late modernist painting can be when museums and artists work together to make their points heard, felt, understood, and finally, carefully honed and delivered for public view.

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