Two friends that started together. They shared gallery owners, collectors, travel, and exhibitions. One decides to leave the market. The other becomes a superstar. Today, 56 years after their first meeting, David Novros and Brice Marden call each other every Friday. And it's best if their wives do not disturb them.
Just organizing a joint interview, your first ever, turns out to be difficult. Brice Marden has studios and residences in Upstate New York, on Hydra, the Caribbean island of Nevis and, more recently, in Marrakech. He is only rarely in Manhattan because he has the feeling that he can no longer work here. And he has to work, that's for sure: he just switched from his longstanding gallery Matthew Marks to Gagosian. And shows his pictures there for the first time, just in time for the opening of the Frieze Art Fair in London. David works too. For years already on wall-filling paintings, which one must not photograph and which, if they are finished, should remain in the studio. Here, in his house in SoHo, which he has lived in since the early seventies, the years when he was still a darling of the market. He does not regret the decision to only do painting in place, painting intended for a specific location and staying there "In the system where Brice succeeds, I would not have been happy." And yet he also seems to be thinking of ways in which his radical approach could return to public awareness. Paula Cooper, the New York gallery owner, persuaded him to an exhibition of old works this spring. And those, not only Brice says, were fantastic.
What is your first memory of Brice?
DN: That's easy. We were both in the Yale Summer School of Music and Art. Summer 1961. And I liked Brice right away.
BM: The Yale Summer School asked all art schools in the country who their best juniors were, the ones that were a year before graduation. They were invited and tested. A bit like a baseball camp. Suddenly, you saw what other students did, not just those at your own school, but also people from Texas or California. That helped to better evaluate yourself. Basically, we all tried to be halfway aware of what was happening. And everything happened in New York.
That is, you had a clear biographical advantage over David, who came from Los Angeles. You grew up in Briarcliff Manor, a small town near New York City.
BM: I came from the suburbs. White middle class. That was no advantage. David, on the other hand, had an advantage. I remember watching him paint a picture that summer at Yale and suddenly realized that he must have seen Scent.
BM: The late painting by Jackson Pollock. And I know that I found that very unfair (laughs). I felt that David must have seen it in the original, not just a picture.
BM: In the Weisman Collection in Los Angeles.
DN: In my own version of Scent, there was also a lot of van Gogh. And Matisse. I was actually very backward and naive. And did not really have any idea of what my personal style was or where it should go. It was very sleepy in Los Angeles. I remember that for a long time a picture of Arshile Gorky hung upside down in the LACMA. If I complained, it was always: “Thanks for the hint, we’ll turn it around.” And on my next visit it was still hanging around.
After all, Brice was jealous of you. How did you feel about his work?
DN: I was not the only one who immediately recognized his talent. I immediately saw the poetry of his work. I think everyone knew then that Brice would paint great pictures. And I did not have that feeling with anyone else.
Not Chuck Close or Vija Celmins, who were in the camp at the time and later became famous as well?
BM: And you certainly did not become famous. It was a time when you thought you would paint until you were in your fifties, and then you might have a show. A bit later there were guys like Johns and Rauschenberg who were very successful young. That changed everything.
Yale is located near Boston, which has some of the best museums in the USA. What art impressed you the most that summer?
DN: For me it was Manet’s The Dead Christ, which I had seen during a trip to New York in the Met. And a room with huge works by Clyfford Styll. It was not so much the works themselves as they created their own space.
What happened after the summer of 1961?
DN: Brice went on to Yale. And since there was school for me, I went back to Los Angeles with the plan to move to New York quickly.
BM: But you have traveled before.
DN: I traveled through Spain, Italy, France. I looked at everything I could. It was the Alhambra, first, that gave me the feeling that a painting could be something other than a rectangle hanging on a wall in a museum. That a painting does not even have to be made of paint. Then the monastery of San Marco on Florence with its Fra Angelicos in the cells. And Giotto in Padua. Painting in place, as I call it, painting created for a place that stays there, that's what impressed me most. On this journey the desire arose to make large-format painting for very specific places.
And then you came to New York.
DN: First I was drafted, which was a real shock. I was lucky that I was not sent to Vietnam and after the artillery training in Fort Sill I had mainly the task of painting stars on the side of jeeps. It was the Village Voice that saved my life because it enabled me to stay in touch with the place I longed for. I still remember writing to Brice that I would move to New York as soon as I came out, and if he had any advice for me.
Did he have any?
DN: He wrote back: Beware of the drug dealers.
Brice, you also went to Europe.
BM: It was different than David's. I was married and had a son. Through the father of my wife, who was at Unesco, we had the opportunity to take a flat in Paris for a while. I'd seen fantastic things that we barely knew in New York. Wols and Jean Fautrier. Wonderful Balthus drawings. But I also realized that New York was no longer the little brother of Paris.
Sounds like your stay was less drastic than David's trip to Europe.
BM: On the contrary. I left my family or my family left me. My wife could not imagine living with me and our son for the rest of her life on the Lower East Side. That was the perspective at that time. She expected me to use Yale to get a teaching post at a college, she wanted safety.
So you moved back to the Lower East Side alone.
BM: There was still unfinished work from me. In Paris, Andre Malraux and Charles de Gaulle had the houses renovated on a grand scale. I had spent the afternoons watching the construction workers repaint facades. Back in New York, I painted one of my old pictures completely, almost as if I was filling it. My first monochrome painting.
David, you had arrived in SoHo by now. Did the city have what you wanted?
DN: Oh, it was paradise on earth. When I moved to Broome Street, artists lived everywhere. In the evening I went for a walk and saw them working in the illuminated lofts. On my first day in SoHo, I met James Rosenquist on the street. He introduced himself and immediately asked if I wanted to come to him for a party in the evening. He had just finished his famous picture F-111 and wanted to celebrate it. At the party I met Roy Lichtenstein and Ivan Karp, the gallerist. I was happy. Robert Grosvenor also lived in Rosenquist's building and soon became a friend. I also remember how much we ran into each other back then. Especially in the Lower East Side, where Brice had his studio. It was right above a laundromat.
BM: And hot as hell.
DN: There I saw his monochrome paintings for the first time. I sat there, silent and sweating. Everything smelled like soap. But the pictures were wonderful.
BM: That's what we did most of the time if we did not paint. Visiting friends and looking at their pictures. Theoretical discussions were in the evening at the bar. But when you looked at the pictures, not much was said.
What was it you saw with David?
BM: He had a piano in his room, which he had somehow turned into a spray booth. And he made these huge spray paintings.
DN: I wanted to be a muralist. But since I had no clients, I had to develop other strategies. I didn’t want the viewer to just stand in front of a rectangle and wait for something to happen. He should follow the shapes on the wall, keep moving. I use color that changed when you walk by, Murano paints. I made portable murals.
Both of you were working as museum keepers back then. Brice at the Jewish Museum, David at the MoMA. As an artist, does one have the advantage of being able to spend so much time with individual companies and artists, and even get paid for it?
DN: I was in a room with the golden Marilyns of Warhol. And had decided at that moment that I cannot stand Warhol. But in another room where I spent a lot of time there were incredibly strong Mondrians. That definitely had an effect on me too
BM: When I was a guard at the Jewish Museum, Jasper Johns had his first museum exhibition there. It's no secret that it impressed me a lot. Of course it is different if you can worship the pictures for days. I had to think of Zurbarán again. How he had painted the folds of the robes so "real" that they became something completely different. The flags of Johns worked just as well for me. he painted flags. But then again it was not flags, just paintings. I wanted something similar for my painting, just without the image. I wanted you to wonder about a strange deep gray, turn around once, and when you look again, you see a green.
Jasper Johns is said to have visited you too.
BM: Yes, he came when I just finished pictures for my first exhibition. I had a big picture on the wall, a double square, The Dylan Painting. The sun went under, and very slowly a shadow moved over the picture. We sat and watched the shadow. He said nothing, I said nothing. It felt like hours until the shadow finally arrived on the other side of the picture. And he says, "Well, that was nice." That was his studio visit.
Why is it called The Dylan Painting?
BM: My ex-wife was the sister of Joan Baez. And when Joan was with Bob Dylan, they were often with us and making music in the kitchen. We could not get out because we had a child. I told Bob that I was going to start a painting called The Dylan Painting, and when it was done, he could have it.
BM: When it was finally completed two or three years later, I wrote to him that he can pick it up. He never answered. He had become a big star in the meantime.
The show, in which you show your Dylan Painting, takes place in 1966 in the Bykert Gallery, which was also David's gallery. It was the breakthrough year for you both.
BM: Oh, David had a show in Los Angeles before and an important show at the Park Place Gallery, an artist-co-operative led by Paula Cooper. David exhibited together with the sculptor Mark di Suvero. That was a big deal back then.
DN: A little later, I got my solo show there and invited Carl Andre to take over the back room.
What are you laughing at?
BM: Carl. He could be weirdly funny. He was constantly making statements about art. Very determined. Konrad Fischer always said: Carl does not like art. That's why he tries to drive out all artificiality. He was a kind of mentor to us. And most importantly: He was close friends with Frank Stella, and he was a mythical figure. What did we think about Stella?
DN: If Carl liked our stuff, it meant something. At Max's Kansas City, we always sat in the middle of the side. Brice and I, Carl, John Chamberlain, Robert Smithson, Neil Williams.
And without Carl Andre, it would have been only half as funny.
DN: Definitely. These were good times. In the backroom was the Warhol group. but we were never there.
Did you feel like minimal artists at that time, as a minimalist painter? In 1967 Lawrence Alloway curated the first major exhibition on the subject in the Guggenheim Museum Systemic Painting.
BM: David was in it, but not me (laughs)
DN: The label 'Minimal' was invented by lazy art politicians who wanted to make life easier.
BM: To be honest, I was pretty intimidated by what was being said. Donald Judd was a real intellectual. On the other hand, I felt like an Abstract Expressionist: intuition, magic. They were things that I believed in. I was of course laughed at for that one at that time. So, for the time being, I preferred to shut up.
Judd would probably never have chosen a particular green for his sculptures because he just had an incredible nature experience in Nebraska.
BM: Certainly not.
And yet it was Donald Judd who gave you, David, a decisive artistic move.
DN: I had already read and admired his texts in college. Of course, when I got to know him, I told him about my desire to finally do painting in place. My work had become much less formalistic at the time. Instead of spraying, I used the brush. And when Judd then bought his house in SoHo, he suddenly wanted to show me this one wall and asked me if I would make a fresco for it.
Of course you wanted to.
DN: Naturally. Only buon fresco, real fresco, was a lost art. There was a single book. But there was nobody I could talk to about it. The wall had to be washed with acid. And dry. And I needed a plasterer to work with as a team. I found a wonderful Jamaican who understood what I wanted from him.
If I understand it correctly, they used milled pigments dissolved in water to paint directly into the still moist, lime-plastered wall. And after a few hours, the special gypsum reacts with the air in a chemical reaction called carbonation. And then the pigments permanently fixed. The painting is not on the wall any more. It becomes part of the wall. Everything has to go very fast, and mistakes are not allowed.
DN: And the plasterer may only plaster exactly as much as the painter can paint in one day. A break over night is not possible. So we made the picture in two sections, and since there were long summer days, we worked until sunset, we came right down. Don's children and his cats romped around us. The second evening we were done.
DN: It was perfect. It was the means of expression that I had imagined.
I did not inquire in vain whether you understood yourself as a minimalist painter. At a time when the works were not allowed to show the hand of their creators and much experimentation was done with industrial materials, your work is quite soulful. And not least standing in an ancient tradition.
DN: I have always felt this strong connection to the history of painting. And not only to Western painting, to all painting. I always wanted to know as much as possible about the beginnings of painting. And I do not believe in progress in painting. I do not think things are getting worse or better. My connection to the old things inspires my new things. I cannot imagine how one can be a painter interested only in modern art. That seems impossible to me.
Brice, there's a quote from you in the late sixties. Painting, they say, or the rectangle on which it takes place, can function as a kind of trampoline, with which one can jump in the direction of spirituality. Apart from the fact that David wanted to leave the rectangle behind - are you still quoting this today?
BM: David is right about everything he has just said. Trampoline, by the way, well, I do not know. But if you ask me that, I still believe in it. If people feel a picture is right, that's about what happens.
DN: For me, every great painting is spiritual. Whatever the word may mean to the individual. I am glad it can be anything.
BM: I believe in the possibility of magic. In painting. And some painters are much closer to it than others. I recently went to Dallas to see this exhibition. The late Pollock. It used to drive me crazy that they said he was just drunk, completely over, and with him his painting. I never bought that from people.
BM: Now I was standing in front of one of his gigantic black paintings. It had incredible passages where its lines merge together creating an incredibly dense space where the red, yellow, and blue are gone and are soaked up in black. It is a fantastic painting. I stood there and almost screamed. I could not believe it. Pollock is just great. He, who as a kid, crossed America I do not know how many times in the car, jumping on trains, knew the country. He knew the Americans. He could identify with them. All this is in his painting.
You also made trips together across the country.
BM: Once we drove nonstop from New York to L.A., Bob, Jan, Clark, you and me.
DN: A great trip.
BM: I could only drive at night because I was the only non-Californian in the car and therefore a bad driver. The Californians are always driving.
DN: I was the only one who did not smoke, so I had to drive most of the time. You were always high.
BM: You got a whole new feeling for space. (Laughs)
DN: I can not remember many things. Brice has photos of this trip in his notebooks from the past. It was like a dream. How we stopped at a deserted fish farm by a lake and the light just sparkled. That must have been Utah, am I right?
BM: Yes. Or this trip we made to Chaco Canyon. That was 1975.
BM: A historic Anasazi settlement. Between New Mexico and Arizona. At that time we were alone in ruins. Fantastic temples, only us and a few shepherds.
Did you drive to Houston to visit Rothko Chapel?
BM: No, I saw that, at least for the first time, without David. That was my idea of a vacation back then. Is it still? I checked in at the hotel and for days I always went from the hotel to the chapel and back. The sky in Texas is constantly changing and with it the light in the chapel. It was very exciting. And all the time I wondered: how the hell did he do it?
DN: Art pilgrimages were completely normal. They drove to Houston just to see Rothko. And there they decided to go to Mexico to the Mayan ruins. Today people, I think, go to art fairs.
BM: There are people who drive to Aix-Pen-Provence. And there are people like us who drive to Aix-en-Provence just to visit Cézanne's studio.
DN: These are great moments when you have made the pilgrimage, and you arrive and it is as good as you imagined. Sometimes it is not so good, that is very disappointing.
BM: Like the altar of Grünewald.
DN : For me it was van Eysck's adoration of the Lamb. Brice and I were very much into the Flemings in the 1970s. And this picture was the picture that I wanted to see. And when I stood in front of it, it was just flat. It was only last year that I was told it had a layer of wax applied in the 1950s.
BM: That killed it.
DN: In the meantime it has probably been restored.
Because you just talked about Rothko. In 1975, the Menil Collection in Houston showed an exhibition entitled Marden, Novros, Rothko. Rothko had committed suicide five years earlier and was an idol to you. How did this noble stroke come about?
DN: Dominique de Menil hired Harris Rosenstein as a curator whom I knew from New York, where he had been Artnews critic. And where I have of course chewed his ear off over my “painting in place” ideas. The museum was not there at the time, and the exhibitions were on the campus of Rice University. So he invited me to create a seemingly permanent painting situation. And I suggested asking Brice if he would like to participate. Harris loved Brice. And Dominique had given the Rothko Chapel on order and had other late pictures of Rothko that had never been shown. So it was Marden, Novros, Rothko. They brought in walls that gave three rooms for you, and painted your portable murals for these rooms. And Brice painted The Seasons.
BM: David was fantastic. Incredibly concentrated. Working with him made his painting even easier to understand. What he set out to do was completely absorbed. It's a pity the Rothkos were too big for the building we had our belongings in. They were shown in another building. (laughs)
The year 1975 would be a decisive year for both of you. Brice has a retrospective at the Guggenheim. And you, David, about this time, also motivated by the support of a patron like Dominique de Menil, stopped producing works for the art market.
DN: I did not like the gallery system, that's true. And since the fresco of Donald Judd, I knew exactly what I wanted. The Bykert Gallery sold my stuff very well. And Fredericka Hunter opened another market with her Texas Gallery. And I thought when people see and buy my pictures, they feel like giving me orders. But all that people were interested in was more product of mine. The next pictures for the next exhibition.
BM: David called them portable bourgeois art objects.
And after the Rothko show, there was so much interest that you could leave the gallery system behind?
DN: I was busy, I was able to realize wonderful projects. Two large frescoes in Houston, one of which is now in the Museum of Fine Arts. Projects in Florida. The railway station of Newark, New Jersey. And then in 1984 a huge fresco for the federal court in Miami and then one in Dallas. These were big projects.
You said that back then you felt liberated, no longer forced to do work in the studio, take them elsewhere, then sell them out of their influence. But now you were dependent on other variables. Patrons, the public sector, cultural officials.
DN: I started the projects optimistically, and when I was done, I had usually gotten it right in the face. People lie to you, beat you, do not keep their promises, neither the budget nor the terms. And yet you always have great experiences. As with Don, as with my mural for the MoMA three years later, which unfortunately was destroyed. Or at the Texas Health Science Center in Dallas. And again and again the question is: who cares about art in public space, which has no resale value? In Newark, they built a Dunkin Donuts stand right under my work.
The truth is, the longer you've stayed away from the official art world, from collectors and gallery owners, the more thoroughly you've been forgotten. And at some point, the orders were canceled. And that, even though you have incredible projects and concepts in the drawer. Brice, have you never tried to persuade David to make a comeback in the art market?
BM: If David says the system is totally fucked up, then he is right, of course. I could always understand his thoughts. Except that I just decided to continue making portable bourgeois art objects. Not that I saw my pictures like this. I saw it as a contribution to an ongoing debate. As if we were painter-philosophers who always present their theses. And since no museum has asked me for an exhibition for a long time, it's the place for me to do that.
Your last major museum exhibition in 2006 was at MoMA. Gerhard Richter has probably had more retrospectives since then than you gallery shows.
BM: Yes, but he also makes a lot of pictures. I was in my studio the other day and took a close look at the catalog of his color chart paintings. And at some point I thought, while I study his catalog here, he has probably already painted three more pictures. But to come back to the question, I would not have thought of persuading David to anything.
DN: Just as I had not thought to tell Brice he should not exhibit at Gagosian or stop buying houses anywhere in the world. You might not say that to somebody you admire.
BM: I saw David's things, yes. Fantastic things.
When I sat down yesterday for a coffee in the office of a New York museum director and he asked me what brought me to the city, I mentioned the name David Novros and that I discovered far too late what a fantastic painter Novros is.
He said David Novros was not surprised that his work was no longer shown, after all, he deliberately shot himself in his own foot.
DN: The truth is that it is not the directors or curators who decide, but the Board of Trustees. These people buy stuff, put a lot of money on it, and then the smart museum employees think they should get more of that stuff because all the money people buy it. You will hardly find any curatorial statements that contradict the market. And in the end, it is not necessarily the best painters who assert themselves, but those who know how to deliver perfect products.
Brice, one of your most famous paintings, Thira, is in the collection of MoMA. What would you say if I said that it's not just in the almost architecturally-inspired format, that it’s inspired by your friend's work?
BM: I would answer that it is influenced by Roman painting, the idea of painting as a wall. And from David.
David, Brice will make his debut with Larry Gagosian in London in a few weeks, his exhibition is considered the unofficial climax of Frieze Week. Does Brice make perfect products?
DN: His success has brought him a lot. It has made us see each other less. He is hard to reach with all his houses. But I never stopped tracking his work. His painting had an incredible presence right from the beginning, which could have something to do with the fact that it always referred to certain people or landscapes. And this very presence is not to be found in most abstract painting. The majority of abstract painting solves the compositional questions it poses to itself, but it does not endorse. I have tried to achieve a bit of this presence in my work as well.
BM: (laughs) I was very happy to see your pictures again with Paula Cooper.
DN: The triptych in the big room. I remember how you looked at it here in the studio. And I remember exactly how you eyed the top left corner of the middle panel very close.
BM: What did I say?
DN: You said: Boy, if you just painted the whole picture that way, it would be great.