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Brian O’Doherty

The Fierce Integrity of Anne Madden
New York, January 2017

The immediate seduction of this fascinating work – after the first perception – is your
involuntary attempt to recompose the presumed original. Having made several attempts to
do so – and failing – another theory must be sought. So convincing is the finished composite
image that it took some time to posit that each of the six rectangles were (I speculate)
painted separately according to a theme (of two blues, a pinkish orange against a red
ground – with Madden's blunt and pointy lobular forms – very typical of this artist's formal
repertory) deployed across each surface. If this is true, Madden was painting to a formal
thematics rather than composing a single canvas with six parts in potency. The six parts are
thus complete in themselves but seem eager to participate in their continguity.

But then another surprise. Are they really separate canvasses? Maybe the canvas is divided
into six parts by lines, not separate panels? Which leads one to study Madden's other
separations, divisions, from binary (right and left; up and down) to extended sequences.
Which brings me back to the extraordinary sequence dealt off in ‘A Space of Time’ (1998–
2003) very properly named, because sequences invoke, use, depend on, must have – time.
Do we have twelve panels here, or one long canvas divided into twelve sections? The
sequence is carefully chosen. What length of time? Twelve months? Years, Days? Hours?
Whatever the answer, rich matrices are presented, each with a similar technique but a
different mood. The sequence begins in darkness, lightens (two sections) promises what
may be a dawn (red), then goes on to darker, lightens, slips into darker a terminal dark (four
sections) and ends with a brighter single panel. While the work is instinct with naturefeeling,
expectations are not allowed to proceed through easy readings, for the sequence, if
you try to tie it to time, has ever-so-slight speed-bumps. What is consistent is that ground,
that matrix of particulate paint previously mentioned which, in its inner buzz, imitates a kind
of Brownian movement. All the way through this sequence (indeed through all this artist's
work) the intensity, the artist's concentration, does not slip. Madden never shirks the hard
work, and as any artist will tell us, hard work it is. But wait, there's a surprise which
immediately transposes this matrix into metaphor.

In every section, with the possible exception of sections one four and five, (I'm depending
on my uncertain eyes here) is a disruption in the plane, a figure, a winged figure – a bird! If
you follow its placements, it swoops down and finally rises through what is now air,
atmosphere, the empyrean. For millennia, the bird has been associated with spirit,
transcendence, with, above all, freedom. Once the bird is white; once it has a white wing.
Mostly is it a silhouette. Marianne Moore once quoted to me a comment from a Greek
philosopher that when ‘the bird of attention sleeps, it can only be awakened by silence’,
silence of course, being visual art’s most prized possession, now much transgressed. Given
Madden's' habit of mind, what classical myth is rehearsed here? No answer. But odysseys
and journeys frequently travel through her work. This image succeeded the Icarus series,
which proceeded quietly to its final drop. Before that another series, the odyssey of the
wandering boat, the magic matrix now becomes water, an element much stirred by
Madden's brush. All of this splendid career, the wit (see the sectioning and divisions), its
ironies (the playfulness), the seriousness (ever-present), the phases and tropes, its literacy
(the classics), its distant utopianism (the perfect garden of formalism), the colour, the
impeccable manners, not to speak of manner, the ambition, the size – none of this prepared
us for the suite of stunning paintings (200 x 200) that burst out of her studio to complete
her retrospective at IMMA in. Nature, however disguised has been a constant companion in
Madden's art and life. Wherever she settles, her environment, responds to her expert
solicitations, grows up around her in choruses of shrubs, plants and flowers. The inspiration
for this blazing series was/is one of nature's oddest phenomena, so odd indeed, it seems
like an irresponsible prank – the aurora borealis, waving its ridiculous scarves and waterfalls
of transparent colour over the rim of the Northern sky. To tackle this huge eccentricity of
nature required courage and fortitude, of which Madden has a full supply. After a lifetime of
artmaking, this series is evidence of a magnificent letting-go. The blaze of this aurora is
misleading insofar as its first perception is one of phenomenon. How is this exuberance,
which must have been full of portent for the ancients, so subtly maintained through
secondary and tertiary colours, which overlap, whisper and recombine to annotate, refuse,
then invoke the dominant reds – all conducted in total silence, – one expects music! I’ll
settle for Emily Dickinson’s ‘Sunset’ – ’clouds are leaping like leopards in the sky’.
How do you paint coloured air? But first of all, the necessary study of what colours this
natural phenomenon is offering. Thus ‘Aurora Borealis 1’ (2004) which, with remarkable
accuracy, realizes the various colours that compose her subject. Five separate panels relay
(left to right) the darker colours (first two panels, with some indications of continuity
between them) then a red; a deeper, sonorous red; finally a dark concluding panel; all of
them frotted and inscribed with faint curving escutcheons – ghosts of compositions
momentarily formed, perhaps, pre-formed during the aurora's self-transformations. The
panels here do not seek realignment, but are set and declarative, that is – they include the
gentle bumps as the eye travels across the panels' seams. These indeterminate escutcheons
are stamped on the canvasses of the next series (2004–5) where six separate rectangular
panels are presented in a vertical stack, all subtly reddish, with the exception of the left
lower panel, which is a pale violet. But then, the Madden surprise! The previous indistinct
imprints on each panel travel across panel boundaries to compose a great, hovering winged
figure – a memory of Icarus, perhaps. The reference was probably reassuring for the artist,
touching a previous series from a radically new, inflamed context.

This painting, which seemed to release Madden for her stirring, forthcoming adventures,
introduced another aspect of her work – imprinting figurative suggestions in her new
colour-struck environment where they remain shyly imperceptible until they declare
themselves – a slow perceptual release of content. The freedom Madden earned is fully
indulged in her sweeping gestures (from the shoulder and elbow) responding materially to
the Aurora's ethereal dance of agitated photons, building her colour-mountains, swooping
basins, undulating tubes presented in diptych and triptytch form (including her habitual
sense of paradox – "are you really paying attention?") as she exercises her continuities
(‘Arabesque’, 2007) and discontinuities (‘Aurora Borealis 2’).

What next? The ‘what next?’ is a highly troubling question for every artist. The platform of
the past has elevated you to where? You – in Madden's case – have thrown everything
preceding out, risked everything, and succeeded. Do you rehearse your past? Lovingly
annotate your discovery? Move forward? But how? Madden, in classic modernist protocol,
has always challenged herself, refused the easier pathways.

Her seven large new paintings (2016) answer these questions. They perform a superb
strategy by moving away from the abstract literalism of the Aurora series while bringing its
colours and some of its forms along with her for another formal and mythical journey. Three
of these paintings are divided – one a top-and-bottom, the two others, into triptychs. Both
are less dramatically coloured, oranges, light blues and violets in configurations which
remember the flares of the Auroras, as when watching a blazing fireplace, when bits of
flame briefly leap up, forming gaseous licks and tongues, before being at once replaced.
‘Waves’ is an essay in almost musical composition with these shapes and colours – slightly
convex repetitions in minor and major keys, little spatters and sprawls imprinted nearby, a
quarter moon suddenly eclipsed, (left part); a voracious orange ‘mouth’ (centre) about to
close on what lies within its arc; two pointed lobular shapes (left and right) are underlined
(and balanced) with darker blues. Despite its crowds of shapes, the effect is gentle, with one
minor cross-over between middle and right sections less than a third of the way up the
seam (a fish shape with a cockade!).

The other triptych takes the insulating signatures of the aurora and makes them spiral in
from both sides to mingle and partly dissolve in the centre section, where the shapes frankly
‘kiss’ and tease their mutating maps (I am a believer that the act of description is itself a
temporal ‘model’ of the painting's motion. Description, as every scientist knows, is a high
art). The undulating tubes and snakes are given their own elegant writing and interlacing in
another oil on linen, ‘Flares’.

The other three paintings (all, by the way, large) show Madden again in classic – literally
classic – form. First the great rotating ball of ‘Labyrinth’, born from an anti-clockwise
rotation at the centre, reversed in part at the spinning margin, while reds, several light
blues, various pinks duck under, weave, and overlay in a vivid reminder of their celestial
origin. Outside this fireball, dark purples and densely freckled reds mimic the spin, and
eventually stabilize it.

After the labyrinth – a labyrinth of colour without discernible passages – ‘Minos’ – a twopart
painting; above, scrolls and spirals of the Aurora writing on an evening sky, over a bank
of light greys below; then, below again a light bank of purple cloud above, a full orb (sun/
moon? and – then Madden's final (so far) invocation of a classic tale: the Minotaur, the
fiercely horned bull with flaming nostrils and ruby eyes materializing out of a dark horizontal
matrix. Then, in ‘Light and Dark’ the end of the journey (so far). A vertical spear of light
descends on the frankly revealed, horned beast below to conclude Madden's penultimate
creative burst. Why penultimate? Because as this artist is alive, (and long life to her) there
will be more.