If you sat in the alcove at Max’s, you could see everybody who was coming in. I’m a big people watcher. Brice Marden
So much of contemporary art seems intent on jockeying to control the moment: Who’s on top? What’s the current figure on the market? Which spectacle is claiming the most audience attention? One of the gifts of Brice Marden’s paintings is their extraordinary ability to transport the viewer out of the moment. Time seems to stop, and the longer you look—from far away at the vibrating composition or up close at the individual brushstrokes—the more Marden’s canvases seem to radiate in their own dimension. There’s a common mistake that abstraction is supposed to be easier, faster, a sort of democratic slang, all volume and no content. But the canvases by the 76-year-old abstractionist require patience, like learning a foreign language, and the longer you study them, the more nuances you catch. In his five-decade career, Marden has gone through a number of phases. He moved to New York after art school in 1963 and came into his own under the influence of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Like those masters, Marden investigated the materiality of the medium without losing his interest in the gestural and, thus, without turning his canvases into cold conventions. (To note: the floaters in my eyes never intensify when standing before a Marden painting, and that’s because even the barest works have pull and depth; it never feels like staring into a vacuum.) Color seems to be his compulsion, as well as its tensions and contrasts with light and surface. He has made eerily quiet monochromes, vivid panel pieces, experimented with beeswax, kitchen spatulas, charcoal, ink, and graphite, tree branches for brushes, and has let travel and nature influence his palette and approach. Marden says that one of his important early experiences with art was hitchhiking into New York City from his childhood home upstate and exploring the Museum of Modern Art. For several years, one of the artist’s most famous works—a six-paneled piece entitled The Propitious Garden of Plane Image, Third Version (2000-2006), composed of his signature frenetic lines, which seem like highway maps on Mars—hung in the lobby of that museum.
Then, of course, there is Brice Marden, the New Yorker—one of the few masters of American art who you can find out at a downtown restaurant or wandering around the Village wearing a black knit fisherman’s cap. Marden is a mystical abstractionist with his feet on the sidewalk. After his years hanging out at Max’s Kansas City in the ’60s and ’70s (different hats, different decades), Marden had two daughters with his wife, the equally gifted painter Helen Marden (Mirabelle, the former co-owner of Rivington Arms gallery, is a photographer; her younger sister, Melia, is chef of the downtown restaurant the Smile). Brice and Helen run a resort hotel on the Caribbean island of Nevis, have just opened a village inn in Tivoli, New York, and were among the early art pioneers on the Greek island of Hydra, where they often spend their summers. Mirabelle served as creative director in the recent publication of her father’s 1970 visual journal, Book of Images (out by Karma). In the coming spring, she’s helping to publish two more of her father’s journals (B. Marden, 153 Ave. C, Sept. 1964-Sept. 1967 and B. Marden, 74 Grand St. Feb. 68-each named after an address of one of his studios). This past September, Mirabelle stopped by her father’s current studio near the Hudson River, where he was working on pieces that might appear in an upcoming show at Matthew Marks Gallery. They ate pastries and talked about art, life, compulsion, and waking up in a field of ferns. —Christopher Bollen
MIRABELLE MARDEN: You’re going to have to speak up.
BRICE MARDEN: Okay.
MIRABELLE: Maybe finish chewing. [laughs] I think the last time I interviewed you—the only time I’ve interviewed you—was in high school. Do you remember that? It was for my creative-writing class.
MIRABELLE: We were supposed to interview someone about a decisive moment. And I asked you when you knew you wanted to be an artist.
BRICE: And I said, “Falling asleep up in the woods in Briarcliff.” I think I was in the seventh grade.There was a big field out behind my house that went up into a wooded hill.
MIRABELLE: This was in Briarcliff Manor, New York—which is on the Taconic.
BRICE: Yeah, this is right next to the Taconic Parkway. Eventually they tore the house down and expanded the parkway.
MIRABELLE: Do you remember, years ago, we visited where your house was and looked at the trees that your dad had planted.
BRICE: My father planted those trees because they were going to put Con Ed power lines going up the hill. He fought it and fought it. They put them up anyhow. I think he planted those trees as visual protection. But, yeah, I used to go wander in the woods, and one time I was in this little grove. I fell asleep and woke up lying in these reindeer ferns, and it just seemed to me that when I woke up, I was different than when I went to sleep. I always took that as the point that I become an artist.
MIRABELLE: Did you dream something?
BRICE: I don’t remember any dream. All I remember is waking up and feeling that there had been a change while I was sleeping.
MIRABELLE: I didn’t know you wanted to be an artist when you were that young.
BRICE: Well, I also had this whole ambition about being in the hotel business.
MIRABELLE: [laughs] Which, ironically, also came true. You almost went to hotel-management school, right?
BRICE: Yeah. But there was a certain point in high school where I just stopped certain things, like being on the football team. I had gone to Texas the summer between my junior and senior year of high school.
MIRABELLE: That’s one of my favorite stories: you raised money to go to Texas to follow a girl. Romantic stalker.
BRICE: Yeah, I was stalking a golf pro to Laredo. I’d built up this whole big thing about Texas in my mind, so I got a job in Houston. My father worked for a mortgage-servicing company in New York. That’s why I got this job at the T.J. Bettis Company in Houston, which was one of the largest mortgage-servicing companies in the world at the time. I had a job in the mailroom and then I moved to the computer room. My job was to run amortization schedules—basically, to take IBM cards from this big filing cabinet, run them through the machine, and put them back in the file.
MIRABELLE: You’ve told Melia and me that something changed for you that summer in Texas.
BRICE: It was a big moment for me. I was off on my own. I lived in a hotel on Polk Street. It was really a fleabag hotel. It had a metal locker.
MIRABELLE: And that was the summer you first heard Elvis, right?
BRICE: Yeah, there was music in the office, and the guys I worked with would try to be the first to identify whatever song came on. They said to me, “You know about Elvis?” I said, no. So on our lunch break we went to the coffee shop in the Greyhound bus terminal and they played some Elvis songs for me on the jukebox. That must have been the summer of ’56.
MIRABELLE: Were you making drawings at the time?
BRICE: Yeah. I was feeding these amortization schedules through the machines and there was a lot of spare time. I bought a book on how to draw, a kind of academic approach, and I started making these drawings.
MIRABELLE: What was your first drawing?
BRICE: I think it was a vase of flowers. I was drawing on leftover IBM printing paper. Then I also started smoking cigarettes.
MIRABELLE: You became cool. [laughs]
BRICE: My first day back in high school, playing football, I almost died. So I decided I’d start writing for the school paper, which was like a mimeographed sheet. I wrote about the football games, and I wrote for the gossip column.
MIRABELLE: I think one of the biggest secrets people don’t know about you is you love gossip. Sorry to put that out there.
BRICE: I love the healthy exchange of information.
MIRABELLE: But weren’t you also going into the city a lot and going to jazz clubs?
BRICE: Yeah. I had a friend that played the tenor sax. We’d go to Birdland. I’d hitchhike on my own into New York. I saw a lot of Brigitte Bardot movies.
MIRABELLE: It was her birthday yesterday. She’s 80.
BRICE: It was just Rothko’s 111th birthday. Anyway, I can remember trying to go to galleries in New York but being so intimidated. I would hitchhike down to go to the Museum of Modern Art and see a movie. Then I’d get the train back—not the one my father took home.
MIRABELLE: Did you ever get caught?
BRICE: Oh, they eventually figured out what I was doing. But I didn’t do it a lot, maybe four or five times. I love the idea of hitchhiking into the city. It was bizarre.
MIRABELLE: Maybe you just really wanted to get out of Briarcliff.
BRICE: I was interested in seeing Manhattan. And I remembered going on a trip as a kid to the Museum of Modern Art and having an experience looking at a Brancusi. It was a moment where you figure out something more is going on here than what you’re seeing. I think it was my first real aesthetic experience.
MIRABELLE: When did you start working at the Jewish Museum?
BRICE: After I graduated from art school at Yale. We were all in New York looking for jobs. I was going to museums trying to get guard jobs, and the artist Harriet Shorr had gone for an interview at the Jewish Museum and said, “Why don’t you try that museum? They might need somebody.” They’d just had a robbery or something, and the insurance company told them they needed another guard. I went there and they hired me. So that was cool.
MIRABELLE: Last night we were talking about how important it is when you’re installing a show at a museum to talk to the guards. I forgot that you were a guard.
BRICE: Yeah. The only artist I ever talked with when I was a guard—and it really wasn’t much of a conversation—was Jasper [Johns]. I remember he came in and he was cleaning off his white flag painting. He said he was working on something in his studio and there was a lot of dust. He was working on the number painting that’s now in the lobby at Lincoln Center. He made it with Sculpt metal and maybe would grind parts of it down so there was a lot of dust he thought might have gotten on the white painting. So he was in the museum cleaning it off.
MIRABELLE: I know you still have the poster that the other guards gave you when you left.
BRICE: Yeah. It’s a signed Jasper flag poster. I was too embarrassed to ask Jasper myself, so these other guards, they just thought that would be hilarious.
MIRABELLE: What was it like being a guard, spending that much time in one room with those paintings?
BRICE: It was amazing. I was stationed a lot of the time in the room that had all of Jasper’s early work. So I was in there and I could just be by myself, studying it, thinking about it. It was a great experience. And Jasper was a big influence on my work, because of certain ideas I had about realism in paintings.
MIRABELLE: What ideas?
BRICE: I had been very interested in Spanish painters like Velázquez and Zurbarán.
MIRABELLE: Aren’t you sad that Melia and Frankie didn’t name their son Zurbarán?
BRICE: I’m very happy with Alfred’s full name. But Zurbarán would have been great. [laughs] I had applied for a Fulbright after college to go to Spain—it was, like, the 300th anniversary of Zurbarán’s birth or death or something. I did research on him in that great art bookstore that was on Madison Avenue. Well, I didn’t get the Fulbright. My friend Kent Floeter got it and went to Barcelona.
MIRABELLE: There are photos of him in Barcelona in your journal that he sent you.
BRICE: Yeah. On a motorcycle with a fez on. [laughs]
MIRABELLE: When did you start working for Rauschenberg?
BRICE: After my first show closed.
MIRABELLE: How’d you get your first show?
BRICE: I was introduced to Klaus Kertess at the opening of the “Primary Structure” show in 1966 at the Jewish Museum.
MIRABELLE: They did a version of that show again last year. Did you see it?
BRICE: No, I didn’t. This whole thing of living most of the time in the country … Like, this morning I could have gone up and seen Matisse’s Swimming Pool at MoMA before they put the glass on it, and I just couldn’t make it in time.
Very early on, I became conscious of the fact that art is a societal threat because it’s tied so explicitly to truth. Brice Marden
MIRABELLE: So you met Klaus at that show?
BRICE: He was starting his own gallery. And Klaus said, “I’d like to come by and see your work.”
MIRABELLE: Who were you hanging out with early on in New York? Who were your friends?
BRICE: When I first got to New York, I was hanging out with folk singers because my wife’s sister was Joan Baez. We had lived in Boston when I went to college at BU and had been involved with the whole folk-music scene up there. So my scene was the folk scene when I got to New York. So there’d be a Pete Seeger concert and then there’d be a party after the concert at the Foreman’s apartment, where there’d be all of these folk singers. I met Cisco Houston at one of those things. When Pauline [Baez, Brice’s first wife] and I were first in the city, our idea of a night out was to go to Gerdes Folk City. That was where Dylan played early on.
MIRABELLE: What about meeting other artists?
BRICE: I knew artists from Boston and Yale. I started curating exhibitions when I was at BU. But I was a little isolated in the city at first. I was married and we had Nicholas [Marden, Brice’s son with Baez]. I had a job to support the family and was still going to school. I would go to class, then to work—I worked in a frame shop, too, for a while—and then I would go home and then put in a couple of hours in the studio.
MIRABELLE: But that eventually changed. When did you start hanging out at Max’s Kansas City?
BRICE: When it opened. [both laugh] The minute it opened I was sitting in a booth in the front.
MIRABELLE: Mom wants me to ask you, how come you didn’t sit in the back room at Max’s? There was a difference between the front and back room, right?
BRICE: Oh, yeah. The back room was more Warhol oriented. You know, we used to sit in the back room too. But there was an alcove—I sat in the alcove a lot. It was closer to the jukebox, and I listened to a lot of Hank Williams on that jukebox. And also, if you sat in the alcove at Max’s, you could see everybody who was coming in. I’m a big people watcher.
MIRABELLE: So let me ask you a broader question. What’s your favorite piece that you’ve made? Do you even think about that?
BRICE: I do think about it and I don’t really have a favorite. You could categorize them—some are exploratory; with some, you’re more on top of it, the ideas are developed and so you have a certain kind of statement there. And then some are real summation paintings, real big paintings. They’re sort of the summation of the work you’ve been doing for years. And other work is the work that leads up to that. You do those paintings and then you’re looking for something else that leads other places. You tend to think of the big ones as favorites because they’re summations.
MIRABELLE: Do you think the big one you’re working on now is a summation?
BRICE: Well, no. It was going to be a summation, and it’s gone from being that to being something completely different. I mean, it’s a really complex structure. It’s a mixture of different ideas and how it all works as one painting is the real problem to solve. The title is The Moss Sutra With the Seasons. Well, I don’t think it’s With the Seasons.
MIRABELLE: Do you think you’ve created your own mythology? Like, the first moment you remember wanting to be an artist, you were waking up in nature in moss and ferns. Now this giant painting you’re working on is about moss. Is that reading too simplistic?
BRICE: No, it makes sense. My work has always been involved with nature, no matter how abstract. Sometimes it’s more formal and less involved with the real world. But there’s always been some sort of involvement with nature.
MIRABELLE: That’s kind of your religion, in a way.
BRICE: It’s the whole tradition of Western art. Western art has a certain relationship to nature. And then things got really interesting for me when I got more involved with Asian art.
MIRABELLE: There was a clear shift in your work in the ’80s.
BRICE: Yeah. Western artists stand as humans looking at nature; Asian artists try to be in nature. You become one with nature rather than painting a portrait of it. That’s a big shift.
MIRABELLE: You changed the way you worked on the paintings from being very close and intimate with beeswax and using spatulas to working more like a calligrapher in the way you used long brushes and concentrated on movement, which involved being further away. There was more distance. It’s a different dance of going in and going out.
BRICE: When you’re using a long brush, you have your arm at full length. Basically, it exaggerates the movement of your body. But I always start far away and end up really close. Usually, when I am drawing, say with a brush from a distance, I always close in on it and I end up working it with a knife, so every inch of surface gets touched by this little knife. It’s like going from the vague to the specific—closing in on it, focusing.
MIRABELLE: Do you ever think about the influence of dance in your work?
BRICE: Oh, definitely. Dance is a big factor. So many of the paintings I make are these frieze-like dance forms. I’m always saying that the vertical paintings are figures and the ones that are horizontal are landscapes. But then I do a lot of paintings where there are all these figures dancing in the landscape. Like The Muses painting [1991-93].
MIRABELLE: I love that painting. Here’s a question that somebody wanted me to ask you. Is it more important now for artists to reveal or to protect?
BRICE: These things can be done simultaneously. You can be very revealing by what you’re trying to protect.
MIRABELLE: That’s a good answer.
BRICE: I was in the symposium a couple of weeks ago with other artists, and I was talking about the art being more detailed, more thought out, and complex. I said, “You don’t want to make it easy for the viewer because you want the viewer to grow in their vision.” And Yve-Alain Bois got up and said, “Well, why does it have to be more complicated? Why can’t it be more simple?”
MIRABELLE: But I think you make it complicated for yourself because you’re always talking about working through problems or setting up a series of rules for yourself when you make a piece. It’s not important for people to know about those rules, but you do use them. Like the work you’re making now—the color steps and what’s going on top of each other. I saw your notes. It’s very intricate.
BRICE: This painting had a very complicated formal structure. And, basically, I abandoned it because something else was wanting to be said. I was nervous about making a really big painting, and that formal structure was an attempt to hold it together. It just came to a point where I had to change it.
MIRABELLE: Do you think what a lot of younger artists are making now is too simple in the wrong way? That not enough thought is being put behind the work?
BRICE: I’m not that familiar with a lot of it, but in terms of young artists, the show in the past year that really impressed me was Darren Bader’s. He was really going off in his own direction, and you can’t sort of stop halfway and be like, “Is this art?” It’s all right there. It’s about seeing and thinking.
MIRABELLE: It was a great show. You used to make lists of shows and galleries in your journal that you wanted to see.
BRICE: When we were up in New Haven, we’d go through the magazines and list what we wanted to see when we were walking up Madison Avenue.
MIRABELLE: You spend a lot of time now in Tivoli, away from the city, but you’ve made a point of staying involved in the art world.
BRICE: It was a definite decision. Just as coming to New York was a definite decision. I came to New York on $500, which I got after showing my work at Yale to a group of judges or critics or whoever decides that you win an award. I won the Susan B. Hilles award. I had a teacher at Yale who was really important to me. He said, “You’ve painted yourself into a corner, but I sort of like the way you’re doing it.” [both laugh]
MIRABELLE: Here’s another question that someone wanted me to ask you: What was the painting Taking Flowers to Marsha ?
BRICE: Oh, God. Next question. [laughs] That painting resulted after a Picasso show I saw at the Modern on one of those trips hitchhiking to New York. I was totally impressed with Blue Period Picasso, and this was my blue period. Marsha was a waitress in a coffee shop over on Sheridan Square.
MIRABELLE: You’ve always been quite the romantic. Do you think you would be where you are without Mom? Because she took you traveling to all these places that totally changed your work. You wouldn’t have been to Greece …
BRICE: No, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere without her. And traveling has been a big, big help. It just expands the amount of information you have to deal with. It was strange just spending the summer up in Tivoli and not going someplace else where you take your passport, where they’re thinking differently, looking and speaking differently, and you’re seeing things that excite you. I’ve really gotten so many color ideas just from being in Morocco.
MIRABELLE: And what about when we went to Thailand when I was little and you saw shells that inspired a change in your work. Sahra [Motalebi] told me she talked to you about it. She was asking you how you changed from your monochromatic work, and you said that you quit using cocaine.
BRICE: [laughs] Maybe I did say that. I wanted the work to change, I was trying to get it to do something and it just wasn’t working. I forget how much was in conjunction to quitting the cocaine and starting with the calligraphy. I don’t know the exact timeframe, but it felt like a crisis. Everybody was doing a lot of coke …
MIRABELLE: This is in the ’80s.
BRICE: So you take a big trip. One thing you don’t have access to when you take a trip is drugs.
MIRABELLE: You took mushrooms. You were stepping on sea slugs on mushrooms. [both laugh]
BRICE: Oh, God. I was changing and trying to figure it out. I had a lot of drawings, I had a lot of information; it was just a matter of getting it to fit together. I mean, I still smoke when I work.
MIRABELLE: What are your thoughts on that? On drugs and being an artist? Does it change as you get older? I feel it’s sort of a cliché that you’re an old stoner. You don’t really smoke pot and work at the same time, do you?
BRICE: Yeah, I smoke pot when I work. I take a couple of tokes before I start. It just loosens you up.
MIRABELLE: But you did quit drinking. Sorry. Is this becoming like therapy?
BRICE: I think I quit drinking because it upset your mother and it upset you guys. You’d get really upset.
MIRABELLE: I don’t remember that.
BRICE: You said my face would change if I had two glasses of wine—my face would start sinking. Also, it’s like giving up cigarettes. When you’re not smoking anymore, you don’t have to carry around a pack of cigarettes, a lighter—all this paraphernalia. So you’re liberated in a certain sense. It’s the same with drinking. I’m the kind of person that, if you’re doing something, you keep on doing it and doing it and doing it, and eventually it becomes an excess.
MIRABELLE: Do you think you’re obsessive compulsive?
BRICE: Is that like counting and stuff?
MIRABELLE: No. But the way you collect things …
One of the great things about art is it isn’t worth anything. It’s absolutely free. It’s going to get made no matter what. BRICE MARDEN
BRICE: I don’t mind touching doorknobs and stuff like that, if that’s what you’re asking.
MIRABELLE: No! I’m talking about the way you organize your thoughts. It becomes almost obsessive.
BRICE: Well, yeah. Say, if I start a body of work, I get things worked up to a certain point where I can say, “Okay, I’m going to do five paintings and fully explore …” I find as I’m working, the studio just gets neater and neater and neater. When I finish, the place is very neat. [laughs] It’s like order is being created in the work and a certain kind of order is being created in the environment. But now I have all these different studios. It’s a little confusing.
MIRABELLE: How many paintings are you working on at the same time right now?
BRICE: I’ve got a whole bunch of them. Upstate, the two four-panel green paintings and then there’s a small one. And I’ve got five paintings going in Nevis. Three of them are finished.
MIRABELLE: What would be the advice you’d give a young artist working today?
BRICE: To really work hard. Just keep on working. When you’re working, you never think you’re working enough. It’s hard but it’s not bad hard—although it’s not easy. But it’s unbelievably rewarding. It’s a questioning process—a question of self and you can’t have too big of an ego that gets in the way of that.
MIRABELLE: I agree with you. There isn’t enough sensitivity these days to the way that people approach making and being involved. But I’m old-fashioned.
BRICE: One of the interesting things is things don’t really change. The great thing about fine art is it really doesn’t change that much.
MIRABELLE: Some people would say that’s not the great thing, but you think that it is—the tradition of it.
BRICE: Yes, it does change constantly too; it’s not just echoing. And occasionally it leads the thought of the time. But artists are also independent of time. Your whole position is one of sort of stepping back and not partaking—you’re observing and you’re making things out of this particular observation. It’s like the question you asked earlier: Does it reveal or protect?
MIRABELLE: I think if you’re honest, you’re doing both.
BRICE: That’s the whole thing. When people ask, “What is truth?” now the question seems like some sort of fucking joke. But that was what people like Cézanne were concerned about: What’s the true picture? Vera Icon. Veronica’s Veil. Jesus’s face.
MIRABELLE: Secretly religious. Do you think you ever lose sight of what your—
MIRABELLE: —your responsibility as an artist is?
BRICE: You mean, like, with my opening hotels?
MIRABELLE: No, tell me what you were going to say starting with “Constantly.”
BRICE: You know, there are certain avenues open to you, so you follow them. Are you taken advantage of in those decisions by other people? You go to art school—are the teachers brainwashing you? How much of it is true? We say we’re involved in some search for the truth and blah blah blah. But if you really sat down with the artists working in New York City and said, “What’s the search for the truth?” half of them wouldn’t even know what the fuck you’re talking about.
MIRABELLE: Which artists do you respect?
BRICE: I respect all artists, just some more than the others. [Mirabelle laughs] Because it’s something that really needs to be done. I mean, look at what’s happening now. Every time I open the paper, there’s some symphony orchestra collapsing somewhere in the United States. What the hell is going on? And then you find out that the board members try to run these things as businesses. In this kind of super-capitalistic society, everything is turned into money. And one of the great things about art is it isn’t worth anything. It’s absolutely free. It’s going to get made no matter what. People are going to make it whether they’re scraping in the mud, drawing on the walls, whatever. It has to get made; it’s something about human expression. Very early on, I became conscious of the fact that art is a societal threat because it’s tied so explicitly to truth. People get all nervous, thinking, “Oh, am I just involved in some big societal scam? And it really is just dirt on the canvas more than anything else?” I came out of the abstract expressionists. That was who I was looking at when I was a student and that is what seemed to be the important thing. And I was involved with a lot of this catharsis and—
BRICE: Yeah. But then I read Amy Sillman, who complains about this whole macho aspect of abstract expressionism. I was totally shocked when I read it all.
MIRABELLE: How could you be shocked by that?
BRICE: I thought, “Oh my God. She’s absolutely right.” I should have been asking Ruth Kligman [painter and muse/lover to Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning] important questions. She was involved with all these guys, and she was no dumbbell. The point is you’re involved with ideas. And arguments arise.
MIRABELLE: How can you not be involved with your ideas? What’s the point otherwise?
BRICE: That’s true. Or else it’s just product. And product is something that’s made to make money.
MIRABELLE: Do you think it’s helped that kept yourself at a slight distance?
BRICE: Yeah, it’s a good position to be in and it’s difficult to maintain. You don’t want to be a phony.
MIRABELLE: That sounds very ’50s of you.
BRICE: That’s what I said at that symposium to Yve-Alain Bois: “You’ve got to avoid the cheap shot.” He said, “What’s the cheap shot?” I said, “That thing that’s a little too easy to do. You’ve got to avoid that.”
MIRABELLE: The easy way out. I’m looking forward to people’s reactions to your journals. It’s interesting for other artists to see how you organized images and thoughts.
BRICE: I agree. I think it’s interesting that it’s out there. Being an artist is very independent thinking, although there’s always going to be a lot of doubt, too.
MIRABELLE: One of the things that’s interesting about looking through the journals is that some of the things that have influenced you haven’t really changed much. Maybe you’re listening to different music than you were back then …
BRICE: No, I still listen to three-cord cornball. [Mirabelle laughs] I’m listening to the new Willie Nelson album. It has songs that basically repeat the same one line.
MIRABELLE: Willie Nelson is my favorite voice of all time. When we were going through the journals, some of the things you wrote down you’re still thinking about now.
BRICE: Those things got copied down in some way because they struck a chord; and there’s no reason why that should stop. A lot of those came from isolation: sitting in bars, writing shit down. I still like eating by myself.
MIRABELLE: But now you’re eating by yourself at your hotel. [laughs] So what are you most proud of?
BRICE: I think it’s more the family than the work. I’m proud of the family. Of course, we’ve got to see how Alfred …
MIRABELLE: Do you think Alfred’s going to be an artist?
BRICE: I think Alfred’s looking pretty good, very serious.
MIRABELLE: He’s got the Marden brow, that’s for sure. What do you think is the biggest misconception about your work or about you as an artist?
BRICE: I have no idea. But an interesting thing about getting older is that you’ve been thinking about things and dealing with all of these problems for a longer period of time. And yet I was so surprised a couple of weeks ago when I was turning those panels into monochrome—a big area of color—and how I could have a canvas that had a color on it, and then take the same mixed color and put it on and it would look completely different. And it was all about how it’s reacting to the light. I’ve never painted monochromatic areas that big before. So I’m really happy I can experience something new. Even if I’m basically doing the same thing I’ve been doing for 40 or 50 years.
MIRABELLE: That’s a good place to end.
BRICE: You aren’t going to ask me about my hats?
MIRABELLE: [laughs] Why do you wear hats while you’re in the studio?
BRICE: I think wearing a hat in the studio is like wearing a yarmulke. It’s acknowledging another presence. It gives you a certain kind of protection.
MIRABELLE: There’s the belief that wearing a headdress makes you closer to God, or whatever is out there.
BRICE: I’ve always worn a hat when I work. I think it also comes from a picture of Rothko I saw with a painter’s hat on.
MIRABELLE: Do you remember where you got your first painter’s hat?
BRICE: It must have been something that started in New York. Maybe I did it to keep warm.
MIRABELLE: I watched a video of you in your studio from the ’70s, and you were wearing a great gray hat.
BRICE: I liked to visit Gordon Locksley when he lived in Rome and I said, “Where can I buy hats?” He told me how to get to the Borsalino store. I went and bought three hats—two were the black ones that [Marcello] Mastroianni wore in 8½; Fellini also always wore that hat. They only had two black ones in my size, so I bought a gray one, too. When I came back to the States, Larry Poons saw the hat and he just had to have it. So I gave him one of the black ones.
MIRABELLE: I have one of your green Borsalinos, the perforated one. So beautiful.
MIRABELLE MARDEN IS A NEW YORK-BASED CURATOR, PHOTOGRAPHER, AND CO-FOUNDER OF THE NOW-DEFUNCT RIVINGTON ARMS GALLERY. BRICE MARDEN IS HER FATHER.