Color Them Beautiful: Marden, Scully Paint Politely

“Who is Brice Marden painting for?” That’s what one veteran painter asked after visiting the Brice Marden retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Feeling impressed but dispassionate, he observed: “It’s as if Marden constantly looks over his shoulder as he paints.”

In a 1976 interview, Mr. Marden answered the question: “I paint for myself. I paint for my wife … really at heart, [I paint for] anybody who wants to see it.”

Every artist wants an appreciative audience; otherwise, what’s the point? A painting is there to be seen, implicitly, by someone else. All the same, there’s a difference between taking an audience into account and playing to the crowd. Mr. Marden fits into the latter category, and it’s worth pondering who—or what—constitutes the “crowd.”

The standard complaint about Mr. Marden is that he’s elegant to a fault, whether it’s applied to the early monochromatic canvases that put him on the map or the expansive networks of looping calligraphic lines that he’s pursued in recent years. It’s an apt, if frequent, criticism: Mr. Marden rarely shakes off his penchant for the immaculately contrived mark. He can’t help but advertise his own good taste when putting brush to canvas.

In that regard, he has something in common with Sean Scully, another contemporary abstract painter with a major reputation. Mr. Scully’s recent paintings, drawings and prints are featured in Wall of Light, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully clearly take inspiration from Abstract Expressionism: the encompassing “American scale” of painters like Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko; the romantic notion that nonrepresentational form can carry spiritual portent; the conviction that art-making is a quest of heroic proportions. The work of both men is inconceivable without the example set by the New York School.

It’s equally true that their careers have been predicated on slipping out from under its imposing shadow by looking to cultures and epochs far removed from our own.

At Mr. Marden’s MoMA show, there’s a suite of painfully self-conscious collages using reproductions of antique sculptures and paintings by Goya and Fra Angelico to highlight the tradition in which he works. The Cold Mountain series and subsequent canvases are equally frank, if more circumspect, about his debt to Asian art, especially Japanese calligraphy.

Mondrian, Rothko and Philip Guston inform Mr. Scully’s stacked arrays of jutting blocks of color. His palette—smoldering, dusky, elegiac and occasionally punctuated by vibrant tones—points to the blacks, grays and tans found in the paintings of Goya, Zurbarán and Velázquez.

These links to precedent are palpable and admirable. Tradition or, as Mr. Marden has it, “that one big thing,” is a vital force, an indispensable foundation. Yet what do Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully contribute to that tradition, really?

Mr. Marden’s prowess with color is indisputable: Any painter whose palette is unnamable, even when a canvas is dedicated to a single hue, clearly possesses a gift. The Whitney’s tripartite Summer Table (1972-73) is, in its implacable richness, almost impossibly evocative. The later canvases are defined more by drawing than painting, but his ever broadening line admits to velvety and, at times, lurid tones.

Mr. Scully’s talent is for color as well. You’ve got to love how a lone vertical slab of brooding green anchors Barcelona White Bar (2004), an orchestration of deep reds, oranges and grays. However bulky and monolithic the compositions, Mr. Scully’s palette enlivens them with bold rhythms and counter-rhythms.

Overall, however, the handsomeness of both men’s work is suffocating.

Mr. Marden is incapable of making an honest mark. However intuitive, spontaneous and worked his surfaces and brushwork appear, they are calculated from the get-go. Effect, not exploration, defines the work. A colleague suggests that placing a Marden canvas next to a vintage Pollock would offer an eye-opening comparison. I’m more inclined to see how one would fare alongside a Richard Diebenkorn painting; Mr. Marden’s pictorial techniques have their basis in Diebenkorn’s quietly tenacious process.

If Mr. Marden flaunts his sensitivity, Mr. Scully bullies the room. It’s not an unappealing approach: Forthrightness, even arrogance, can be bracing in art. But Mr. Scully is content to reiterate compositional formulas—his puzzle-like variations on the grid are, at this date, a trope that has lost its reason for being. The wisps of bright color that peek out from behind the crevices of his geometries are an easy and annoying mannerism. The physicality of his paint-handling is, in its own way, as overbearing as Mr. Marden’s and sometimes confused: The touch is often woolly and vague when it wants to be fleshy or architectural.

Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully deserve our attention, in part for the modest pleasures their work affords, but more so as signposts of our jumbled culture. They are modernists pointing not to new possibilities, but to pictorial platitudes that go down too easily to inspire great art.

History is the audience these two painters play to, and in the end, it’s their straitjacket. Tradition develops and mutates, often when artists least expect it. Henri Matisse, a painter both men admire, knew that tradition reveals its continuities and truths only when ruthlessly called into question. Mr. Marden and Mr. Scully are too cozy and too polite in their expertise to stretch that far. Sometimes culture wants something a bit rude—as do the rest of us.

Brice Marden: A Retrospective of Paintings and Drawings, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, and Sean Scully: Wall of Light, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, are both on display until Jan. 15, 2007.