Joseph Marioni: the narrow, shallow register of our High Modernism

An exhibition at the Philadelphia Musuem of Art until late May, 2016 of the paintings of Joseph Marioni, born 1943,  American, is called Liquid Light.   They are of acrylic on linen They were painted in the last 15 years.  The artist is categorized as a ‘high modernist’ and a leading living ‘colorist’ .

 The room is a large one and there are hanging there perhaps 12 or 15 paintings of different sizes.



Red Painting, 2002


Painted violet, 2015


Orange painting, 2000

Each is a field of one colour only.  The names of the colours do not always match the common and garden idea of that colour.

If you look close into the paintings and at the sides and bottom of the canvases it is clear that different shades and even colours of paint have been layered. 

Not many layers and not thick either.

As a result, depending on the placement of your camera and the position of ceiling lights,  you may pick up varying nuances of colour and shade.

Also, the walls are white and the fact that the camera changed the colour with some paintings is interesting.



2 views of Yellow Painting, 2011



Two views of Turquoise Painting, 2010. 



2 views of Green Painting, 2004.

 You do not need to read the Artist Statement to know that the Waste Land has been made visible here.  Nor do streaks and slight variations of shade dilute  this waste.

This is a representation of the empty, narrow, shallow register of our highly modernist lives.

Lives in which many ‘earn a living’ of deadening monotony for money which is not enough to maintain our families.

In which we deaden ourselves against language of increasing verbal violence in our politics, in popular culture.  Against arbitrary  actions of violence from the powers that be and those with irresponsible access to guns.  Against images of thousands drowning in the Mediterranean.  Against children and parents freezing near to death in open fields at the margins of Europe; and dying of heat and vigilante force on the southern margins of the United States.  Against non-stop ads flashing and popping on our screens and in our ears for things which neither we nor our organic environment need.

Deadened with the aid of addictive substances flushed through our veins by a vast medical establishment or by our own madness.

Then you read the Artist Statement : the Waste Land has been verbalized. 

The artist says that the context of his work is ‘the movement of artists away from storytelling in the composition of the picture-form and towards the structural identity of the painting’s own painted -form’. 

The artist says ‘….what we are beginning to realize is that when we have achieved the full realization of an actualized painting, when we have stripped away all the worldly décor of the day, and come to look upon the unadorned flesh of its body – just paint on canvas – what we see emanating from its body is dematerialized light’. 

The artist, in other words, is to facilitate the birth of each painting as an entity with the right to be, to live.  Live as a plant lives:  with a body which processes light.  The painting is to have a relationship to us equal to those of the plants which enable our earth.

The painting is not to be an artifact of human endeavor.  An artifact with a long and special history as a reflection of human lives, hopes, fears etc.  

To me this is first-order rubbish.  Even if I can see how we could have arrived at this point after a 70-year history of abstract, conceptual, minimalist, performance and other experimentations in our art, I cannot accept that this murder of our art is inevitable. 

These paintings are dead.   A narrow, shallow rut of thin paint.  They represent nothing, the nothing in the artist’s mind. 

 Why there is nothing has to do with the history of our particular civilization which has passed from traditional forms of community to the supremacy of the individual in his or her community to me-first-and-me-all-the-time.  That me has nothing in his or her mind because me is nothing and knows nothing except in community. 

Many of us use our artistic and craft traditions in the struggle against the deadness of our high modernistic life.  To see the Philadelphia Art Museum propose Waste Land deadness to us – a Joseph Marioni, a Cy Twombly – is a cause of continuing disquiet.


The Museum has placed an 8th century Thai sandstone sculpture of Avalokiteshvara among these dead paintings. 

 The Museum suggests we find resonances between the meditative practice of Buddhist tradition and their suggested approach to these dead paintings.  I found this suggestion ludicrous to the point of sacrilege.

I was amused and becalmed to be in the presence of this bodhisattva, the Compassionate Buddha, the concentration of the compassion of all Buddhas.

Needed here in this gallery, as much, much more urgently in many places in our world and for many millions of people, compassion.















2 thoughts on “Joseph Marioni: the narrow, shallow register of our High Modernism

Comments are closed.