PRINT March 1974

Robert Mangold: An Interview

RECENTLY I’VE BEEN THINKING ABOUT the content of abstract art, which is a subject people tend to shy away from. It may be too soon in our .discussion even to bring it up, but your early work is often described as having to do with the content implied by an industrial vocabulary. For example, Lucy Lippard read it that way in 1965. At that time that seemed an attractive way to characterize it because of so much else that was going on, namely Minimalist sculpture and certain Minimal painting, which was clearly evocative of industrial processes, industrial shapes, industrial ways of forming. And so she talks about your content as being touched by that, and yet I don’t really feel that that’s true—at least my sense of the work.

Well, the pieces that were referred to were literally sectional kind of walls.

And did you think of them as being about panels, and architectural fragments?

Yes. I was interested in the idea of a sectionalized kind of painting that could be fragmented into parts and still exist as a whole; I mean the total piece could be four sections and you could split it in half and still have a piece. And even complete in four sections, it implied that there was more.

You mean modular units adding up to a single whole?

But the whole was never there, there was an implied continuation. In the earliest work which dealt with the image extending beyond, there might actually be another unit which would fit next to the panel you were looking at, and there could have been a third. It really didn’t matter as the outside shape of the work was arrived at arbitrarily.

And what established the continuity between these things?

The sectional units were constructed in terms of a four-foot division because that is the standard size of the building materials which were used. I would build the wall with the openings occurring roughly the way window breaks-might occur, the earliest looking quite literally like a real wall section. Later pieces shed the references almost completely.

I liked the idea of a section of something implying more and yet being a complete thing. I was in a way testing what makes a complete shape and what doesn’t, and what is or is not arbitrary. In 1966, when I worked on the first circle/part painting I didn’t even think of it as a quarter circle. I mean I think I titled it Cool Gray Area with Curved Diagonal or something. But after I did it, I thought that the idea of doing parts of circles was another way of dealing with the sectional idea, but dealing with it in another kind of context.

What seems to me to be true of the work that follows the walls is that it’s very emblematic. In other words, the works that have curved lower edges seem very shieldlike. They recall to me a fifteenth-century kind of painting which one gets with Castagno painting on a shield, in that frontal, holistic sense of the shield as both a picture and an emblem.

Some of the work from 1966–69, the circle/part pieces, could be read that way, but the subdued surface and the division breaks, I think, minimized the outside, the importance of the outside shape.

So you felt that the segmentation that was set up by internal drawing vitiated that sense of the external shape?

Yes, and also in the earlier paintings where the surface was sprayed, it got you involved in the internal surface in a way that seemed to get away from the pressure of the external shape.

So what you’re implying is, if not criticism, at least hesitation about pursuing a Minimalist painting-as-object position in which the external shape would be the paramount concern.

I’ve been more inclined to think about painting as a combination surface-shape rather than as object. I’ve never worked on or painted the edges; the works were always strictly frontal, and the shape of the piece was arrived at in a subtractive method. I would cut away from the basic rectangle or square, a taking away from the edge or as in the frame pieces of 1970, from the center.

One point I should make is that throughout the work, I’ve been very much an intuitive artist, I have followed intuitive feelings or hunches. And, in some cases, I do not have a clearly rational justification for the decisions I’ve made.

Can you give an example?

Well, there was a point around 1964 when everyone was declaring painting to be dead, when sculpture seemed to be a much more exciting area. All the bright people seemed to be heading toward some kind of three-dimensional or situational or environmental thing. My work contained elements that could have carried it in that direction, but at this point I had a feeling that . . . Actually, I remember inviting someone into the studio, a critic who talked at length about the three-dimensionality of the pieces. I had completed a small model of a new piece that was to be quite flat against the wall; this work he thought was rather uninteresting. As he went on talking about the reasons for its lack of success, it struck me as more and more interesting. And I became convinced that the flat plane on the wall was what I really wanted to deal with.

It was at that point that you began to make those graphic divisions.

Yes, these made up the 1965 show. Before that, the pieces were more sculptural, but they came out of painting. At the time when many people were abandoning painting and its limitations, it seemed very important to really delve into that.

And did that mean having to deal with illusion?

No, because I never thought that the works were illusionistic.

But, for instance, in some of the panels which are rectilinear and then crossed with diagonals—the diagonals are bowed in such a way that the surfaces are . . .

Yes, but those are much later, from 1970 or 1971, and even there . . . mean some of the more recent work could be considered as dealing with’ illusionism, and I think they are very visual, but I don’t think of them in terms of opticality or illusionism. With the recent Circle-within-a-Square or Square-within-a-Circle pieces, there are curious kinds of optical by-products of the piece, none of which are important.

It’s interesting that you refer to it as “the piece” rather than “the painting.”

Well, they are paintings in the sense that they are flat and painted, but the painting process is not terribly important to me, and it takes the least amount of time in the work. Most of the effort goes into the thinking about the pieces beforehand, from notations and then from drawings that I will hang up on my studio wall. I’ll kind of carry those ideas around with me for awhile, and then decide whether it’s an idea I want to get involved in or not.

But what strikes me in remembering those works is the effulgence of the color—it’s a sense of radiance. And that added to the quality of the curved edge as a segment of a larger circle, suggests a foreshortened quality that the edge possesses.

I try to avoid that happening if I think that it’s a strong effect. Also I don’t think the works were really read illusionistically.

Then, does the color give each piece a singular identity?

Right, color plays an important, but controlled role in the works. It identifies and separates the individual work, and gives the surface an assertive presence. In most cases, the color is kept somewhat subdued to prevent it from dominating the piece since I want the work to be a total unity of color-line-shape.

There were some works that I did in 1968–70, where I used the same color for the purpose of relating the pieces of a single series. The more recent works play down any serial quality.

I don’t think you’ve ever been a serial artist.

Well, I think at a certain point I expanded and emphasized some of the serial possibilities in the work. I also got personally involved in testing ideas of size and scale in relation to my work. I thought that the idea of scale that had been handed down from Abstract Expressionist painting was questionable at that point. In 1969–70, I worked on several sets of paintings one of which consisted of seven sets of three rectangular panels that had a certain size proportion relationship. Each set was maybe one inch larger than the next; I worked on a few pieces like that where there were a large number of size variations. It was also playing with the idea of model versus major work, where there was no model or major work but just gradations. I was trying to decide how many sizes you could make a piece in and still have the different pieces have any interest. Most of these works I destroyed and were never exhibited. In any case, in the recent work I’ve returned to working on single pieces that, while related to another piece, are not dependent on the family of works to give the individual piece meaning.

Hearing you talk about that decision for wholeness, I come back to the way in which your work has a strong symmetrical quality, and is signlike or emblematic. That reminds me of the structure of certain Abstract Expressionist painting—an emblematic structure which generates a sense of direct address. That seems to have been characteristic, not of European painting, but of American Abstract Expressionist painting. And it seems to be in your paintings as well. For that reason, your work seems to be within a lineage that derives from the strongest aspect of Abstract Expressionist painting.

I think my influences are certainly out of Abstract Expressionism; Barnett Newman’s painting was an influence. Most of what’s interesting today in painting or sculpture still derives from Abstract Expressionism in one way or another. It seems to me that everyone, certainly of my generation, came out of that.

Do you think that that kind of organization contains a certain kind of meaning?

Well, one of my feelings about painting, about the advantages of flat art, is that it could be seen totally, completely in one view, and that that was its unique and advantageous position in a way.

But the question is, what is that about? I mean what does that mean for the viewer who sees it at once; and who is the painter who demands for it to be seen at once. I guess that’s what f mean by content. It’s about what one means by that tone—which in certain artists is an imperious tone. It’s a kind of “look now!” But with you it isn’t. It’s a much gentler thing, but at the same time it’s very direct. I suppose that’s really what I’m asking about.

Presented as a question, I don’t know what to say, really. I am interested in the idea of presenting as simple, economical, and as wholly readable a statement as possible. But at the same time, I really don’t know what that means. I mean I don’t know why I’ve chosen that as an area that I’m interested in.

Well, for instance, what is the meaning of a painting which empties itself out as instantaneously as yours does, but at the same time withholds half of itself? On some level, I suppose it’s the way in which your painting generates a substitute for what is not tangible, not realizable. That substitute is in the part that’s not there. I’m talking now about the ’67 and ’68 segments. There is a beautiful kind of paradox between what is not there and what is so instantly there.

In the segmented pieces of 1968 there were 16 pieces that came out of a basic breakdown of those three half circles. But the half circle was considered the whole unit, and I think that unless I would hang those in a way that would suggest that there were more. . . . if I hung them very low or something . . . I mean, I don’t think anyone looks at them and thinks of the other half.

Even so, isn’t the work grounded through internal symmetry, so that we feel a tension between the symmetrical and frontal qualities of that work, and that other thing that you’re talking about, which is the way in which the work instates itself or suggests itself as being part of some kind of larger continuum?

What you say is true of those pieces up to, let’s say, 1969. But the more recent work doesn’t deal with that at all. They’re much more of a totality. They’re not parts of anything.

You mean the inscribed circles?

Yes, in all of the recent work there is a sharing of ideas—elements from work to work, but they are not dependent upon each other in any way. The new work is more self-contained.

Rosalind Krauss