Of course, there is more than one measure of success, and Marcus was surely recognized by the generations of students who trained with him at Sacramento State University between 1959 and 1991, or by the faculty he brought in, helping to shape a key node of Northern California art in the late 1960s and 70s.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Marcus served in the Korean War, and taught in several art departments before his appointment at Sacramento State. At the time of his arrival his work was an orthodox Abstract Expressionism, but within a few years, inspired by Bay Area Figuration, he had turned apostate, producing flushed scenes with Fauvist echos. He exhibited canvases and oil pastel drawings at Adeliza McHugh’s new Candy Store Gallery in nearby Folsom, which by the late 60s had become a prominent venue for the wild, gnarly, humorous, and cartoonish art often grouped under the labels Funk and Nut. These predominantly Northern California artists—including Robert Arneson, Clayton Bailey, Roy De Forest, David Gilhooly, Jack Ogden (Marcus’s former student and later Sacramento State colleague), and William T. Wiley—presented a happily rude counterpoint to the Los Angeles Cool School and New York’s minimalist and conceptual art movements.
If Marcus’s fin-de-siècle evocations of Matisse or Vuillard set him apart from the Funk circle—he wasn’t included in Peter Selz’s landmark 1967 exhibition Funk in Berkeley—his intense coloration and démodé indulgences were not entirely out of place there. In fact, he helped guide the Candy Store’s program with introductions and suggestions for McHugh, including Chicago Imagists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, whom he brought to teach in Sacramento after becoming chair of the art department in 1966.
At the end of the decade a shift took place in Marcus’s process that would define his work for the rest of his career: he began painting from photographs clipped from newspapers. Unlike the uses of the photographic image made by Pop artists or photorealist painters, however, Marcus completely eschewed any trace of mechanical reproduction or verisimilitude. The lines are jittery, the surfaces wavering, and the colors vertiginous. Much of Marcus’s work from the 1970s bears a resemblance to the blurriness and oversaturation of a lot of video art of the period. However, his style also reflects his peculiarly involved process. From a projected photograph he would make a freehand graphite drawing, which became the basis for sometimes several studies in oil pastel crayon. He would finally translate one of these to canvas, his paintings studiously mimicking the effects of pastel.
Marcus could be quite coy, even dismissive, about the significance of the newspaper imagery he chose, claiming it was often arbitrary and that the photos served only as a basis for formal explorations of composition and color. Yet his subject matter through the first half of the 70s is too consistent to be written off, nearly always depicting animals or human-animal interaction. Whether cute curiosities, like the surfing dog in He Taught Himself (1969), or moments of violence, as in Dying Mountain Lion (1973) or Horse Falls Jumping (1975), Marcus’s animal paintings exude a deeply ironic sensibility. Their iridescence and bleary forms create a sense of estrangement, rendering the scenes spectacles of human folly. He might introduce elements of caricature, as in King and Queen of Household Royalty (1971), in which two elderly women clutch their beloved cats—human and pet faces and hands rendered in a naive style that plays up the picture’s weirdness. Only rarely did the work verge on critique, and never so sharply as in Dead Guerillas (1973), with its line of soldiers, mass of corpses, and a lion observing from a mural on the wall behind.
Marcus later became wary of such clearly decipherable imagery. He began to alter the orientation of the photographs or to incorporate multiple images, collage-like, into his preparatory studies, sometimes at different scales. Any sense of a photographic source disappeared in these strangely placeless, dreamlike paintings. In the early 80s, Marcus’s palette likewise shifted, darkening around the fluorescent colors to create the impression of a neon-lit nightworld.
In the ominous street scene Sharply Divided Crowd (1985)—one of three paintings from this period that Parker Gallery is exhibiting at Independent—the figures are barely legible, faces and bodies subsumed in a maelstrom of shadow and streaking color. Turned upside down, the canvas reveals an entirely different picture—more easily parsed, if no less menacing in mood—of seated male spectators, perhaps at a boxing match, or an auction. The other two Marcus works in the presentation, Hacienda Asylum (1983) and Bootleg (1983), are similarly turbulent, full of obscure metamorphoses, sudden shifts of texture, and the emerging and submerging of forms.
“We wanted to recontextualize Irving Marcus with two contemporary painters to illustrate how relevant his practice is today,” says gallerist Sam Parker of the decision to show Marcus’s churning and nebulous paintings alongside those by Freeman and Monaghan. “These three artists reward a slow, expansive gaze and don’t hit you over the head with content.”
In the final period of Marcus’s career, beginning in the 1990s and extending until his death in 2021, his work became lighter in tone and mood. The recognizable photographic image never returned, but in place of the foreboding canvases of the 80s were playful, even whimsical, pictures in an illustrational or graphic style.
Curator Francesca Wilmott spent hours in Marcus’s studio during the last years of his life, preparing for the UC Davis retrospective. She recalls his drawers full of newspaper clippings, which were fundamental to his working method. Yet when she would press him about the sources for various paintings, he would demur: he wanted the works to speak for themselves. Marcus, the defector from Abstract Expressionism, remained a formalist to the end.
Eli Diner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. His essays and criticism have appeared in such publications as Artforum, Flash Art, Art Agenda, Frieze, Bulletins of The Serving Library, Los Angeles Review of Books and in several exhibition catalogs. His next book, The Renaissance, will be published in summer 2023 by Apogee Graphics.