Beauty in seclusion: Brice Marden’s calligraphic works on view at Rhinebeck’s ‘T’ Space

View of Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain installation at ‘T’ Space in Rhinebeck. (Photo by Susan Wides)

Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain series of ink paintings has been shown before – the 80-year-old artist created them in the late 1980s and early 1990s – but they have a special resonance in the current exhibit at ‘T’ Space, the wooded compound created by architect Steven Holl a few miles outside of Rhinebeck. Hung chest-high, which causes the viewer to look down into each piece rather than scanning the wall above – close to one’s heart, rather than in a place apart – the 35 approximately eight-by-nine-inch ink-and-gouache paintings consist of calligraphic marks applied with a stick, whose formal language ranges from discrete characterlike figures arranged in a loose grid to an overall tangle of lines that read as a Pollockesque energized field.

Within these parameters, Marden creates a seemingly endless set of variables: The thick skeins of lines vary in thickness, or rise smokelike in a column on one section of the page, which otherwise is filled with loosely spaced calligraphic marks. The marks themselves vary in kind, from inchoate, embryonic forms to forcefully articulated, as if they belonged to different languages; some of the linear forms are applied with more pressure, others with a looser touch, responsive to gravity. White gouache paint is applied in places, creating a subtle tonal variation, a wisp of atmosphere. Precise but nonspecific, spontaneous yet deliberate, meditative yet full of movement that captures the dance of the artist’s arm and hand, the paintings push the Minimalist envelope, expressing ideas of balance, fluidity, structure, texture, gesture and tonality. They have the slow, easy grace of a raindrop falling down a pane of glass, the fresh staccato of bird tracks and the brush of a wing left in the snow.


Their sense of harmony, of their connection to nature, is enhanced by the gallery space itself, which was designed by Holl. Half-hidden in the woods – the building’s weathered wood siding is a kind of camouflage – the T-shaped gallery (configured so that a portion of the space is always hidden from view, despite the fact the building is only 750 square feet, explained the architect) is completely illuminated by natural light, including several large skylights. At the opening on June 2, Holl noted that the gallery is proportioned on the Golden Section: a mathematical ratio that is found in the nautilus shell as well as other patterns in nature. He said that architects such as Kahn, Sullivan and Le Corbusier utilized the Golden Section, as did Bartók in his compositions, and he noted that Marden himself “cut a Golden Section line” in his choice of axis for hanging his paintings – which perhaps explains why they look so nestled in the space, so at one with it.

It was a day of connections. The extraordinary event also united the artist and his Cold Mountain paintings with their literary source: Red Pine’s translation of the Cold Mountain poems, which were written by the ninth-century Chinese poet Han Shan (the name translates to “Cold Mountain”) – a volume that consists of both the original Chinese characters, which were the initial inspiration for Marden, and the English translation. (In a 1991 interview with artist Pat Steir, which was printed in part on a flyer given out at the event, Marden said that he based his paintings on the form of the poems, which is four couplets and five or ten characters per couplet.) Holl noted that he had recently bestowed the Thornton Wilder Prize for translation on Red Pine, a/k/a Bill Porter, on behalf of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave him the idea of approaching Marden, who lives in nearby Tivoli, about showing his Cold Mountain paintings at the ‘T’ Space Gallery with a reading by Porter. Marden agreed to participate, resulting in a gathering that was a perfect expression of the cross-fertilization and synthesis of the arts as well as art’s place in nature that is the mission of ‘T’ Space. The gallery was founded by Holl, under the auspices of the Steven Myron Holl Foundation, in 2010, and is directed and curated by his sister-in-law, Susan Wides.

Wearing a yellow tee-shirt with a red bandana, Porter, who also won this year’s Poetry Award from ‘T’ Space, stood at the podium under the large tent and read selections from his volume of translated Cold Mountain poems – first in Chinese, which to Western ears had a kind of sing-songy, atonal musicality to them, and then in English. The presence of the poet and translator, who lived in a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan in the 1970s and resides in Washington State, emphasized ‘T’ Space’s connection to the Pacific Northwest, which Holl observed is a “special place apart.” (He himself is from Washington State.) That connection of the West Coast with the mysticism and Buddhism of the Far East, as exemplified by the Beats and in particular poet Gary Snyder, who lives and writes on a mountain in Northern California, was made latent by the presence of Porter; but a walk down to the nearby lake would reveal another echo of that East-meets-West ethos: Perched on the shore is Holl’s tarpaper shack, in which he paints the watercolors that inspire his architectural creations. The sight of the humble lakeside abode evokes the spirit of the Chinese hermits who composed poetry in their Spartan retreats in the mountains more than 1,000 years ago.

(Left to right): Cold Mountain Studies 8 and 12, 1988 – 91, ink on MBM Ingres d’Arches paper with the addition of gouache on sheets 20, 23, 28 and 29, © 2019 Brice Marden / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, photography by Bill Jacobson, 2019

While hermits are viewed as misfits in the West, Porter said that they were deeply respected in ancient China as sages. Formerly a government official, as were many of the ancient Chinese poets who had exiled themselves in nature, Han Shan “is the only poet whose name we don’t know,” he added, hence the translation into the vernacular “Cold Mountain.” Porter spoke about the meaning of emptiness in Buddhism, of Han Shan as a “spiritual practitioner.” He read:

People ask the way to Cold Mountain
but roads don’t reach Cold Mountain
in summer the ice doesn’t melt
and the morning fog is too dense
how did someone like me arrive
our minds are not the same
if they were the same
you would be here

As he finished reading, barely audible above the reedy chirp of crickets and croaks of frogs was the gentle chiming of Tibetan bowls. Raphael Mostel, who composed and played the singing bowls in a composition called Sounding the Space, was accompanied by three local timbal players. It was a meditative touch that seemed to bridge the 1,000-year-old gap between the composition of the poems and the present moment.

“Brice Marden: Cold Mountain Studies,” located at 137 Round Lake Road, in Rhinebeck, will be open to the public on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. through August 11. Admission costs $20, with a sliding scale. The fee also includes access to a two-mile art installation trail, which courses through the 30-acre property on the opposite side of the road. The trail intersects a 900-foot-long piece by Richard Nonas, consisting of a city-block-long expanse of rail-tie crossbeams laid on the ground, which Wides describes as “an emotional landscape,” part sculpture, part architectural construction, that hikers traverse as another path through the preserve. Also visible from the trail is Oscar Tuazon’s Tent, a rectilinear structure of curved steel rods with an arched roof tucked under a row of dramatic cantilevered beams and pieces by Holl and other architects. “Steven designed and had the trail cut so that it maximizes and brings special attention to the landscape, including the crisscrossing stone walls,” said Wides. The trail begins at the left-hand side of his extraordinary Ex of In House, an off-the-grid home, now rented out to guests, which despite its 918 square feet contains soaring, spherical spaces raked by natural light. The building is ingeniously structured around the intersection of a set of spheres and tesseracts, and the sense of a dynamic space, alternately compressed and expanding, is complemented by views of a serene reflecting pool and the surrounding woods. (The house is accessible to the public on a private tour.) Besides the private home occupied by Holl, his wife, architect Dmitri Tsachrelia, and young daughter, the complex of the T2 Reserve (as the entire property is called) includes a studio that serves as the monthlong residency site for five architectural fellows, who are assigned a specific project to design (last year it was an observatory), and a cottage where they stay.

On July 14, at the next ‘T’ Space event, a show of photographs, writings, models and historic maps focused on the book by the late educator Astra Zarina, I Tetti di Roma, will open in a new building designed by Holl, which eventually will house his archives – consisting of thousands of models, documents, paintings and sculptures – and serve as a research library. Called Artarc, the 2,700-square-foot structure is clad in corrugated aluminum. Zarina’s book examines the public spaces in Rome for insights into how civic life could be renewed in contemporary urban design, which tends to omit or privatize such spaces. The opening will also feature a reading by poet Elaine Equi, whose book, Ripple Effect: New & Selected Poems, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. “Rome and the Teacher” will run through August 24; however, the show will be open only by appointment.

The final exhibit of the season will feature the work of Clytie Alexander and Raoul Hague, described in the press release as “two abstract artists in dialogue,” which will open on August 18. Alexander, whose work consists of variations in a series, employs light and color to suggest motion and stillness and draw attention to the surrounding space as much as their own precincts. Hague, who died in 1993, was a Woodstock artist who was born in Constantinople in 1904 and moved to New York in 1928, where he studied with William Zorach at the Art Students League and was introduced to carving in stone by John Flannagan, and settled in the upstate art colony in the early 1940s. His abstract wood sculptures retain the mass of the tree-trunks from which they are carved: monumental, blocky forms that twist and turn on their axes, resulting in a Cubist-inspired art that is both elemental and elegant. It should be a treat to see Hague’s work displayed in the Minimalist, white-walled, naturally illuminated space of the ‘T’ Space Gallery. Jin Hi Kim will perform on the komungo, a traditional Korean instrument, at the opening, which will also feature a reading by poet Anna Moschovakis.

“Brice Marden: Cold Mountain Studies,” Sundays through August 11, noon-5 p.m., $20 including art trail access. “Rome and the Teacher, Astra Zarina” opening, Sunday, July 14, through August 25 by appointment, Artarc. “Clytie Alexander & Raoul Hague” opening, Sunday, August 18, through October 27. All at ‘T’ Space Gallery, 137 Round Lake Road, Rhinebeck;