PRINT December 1995

Richard Shiff


I like art that repays long, extended looking. Having seen SYLVIA PLIMACK MANGOLD’s current work twice this year—a truncated version of her retrospective in June at Brooke Alexander and the full exhibition in September at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery—I found that I would have needed to rearrange my day, even my week, to absorb it all. A painting by Plimack Mangold immediately slows my fast, impatient viewing. Her recent trees in particular require extra time. Maples and elms? Can garden-variety trees be painted compellingly in 1995 without configuring them as endangered, marginalized, gendered, or the Other? Plimack Mangold simply puts the emphasis on seeing and making. Her trees grow organically, but also materially, like a painter’s vision. She shows how many different things paint can accomplish at the same time as creating illusion. Sometimes paint is a tree, sometimes it’s air, sometimes it’s (the illusion of) masking tape. Paint is also gesture, counterpoint, and pure substance. What’s the value of painting in a single picture everything from trees to paint itself? It enables us to witness a sensory intensity we’d like to experience ourselves, with or without paint, whether by eye, hand, or skin.

Another best: GEORG BASELITZ at the Guggenheim. His oversized paintings teetered on the bombastic, and his insistence on turning the image upside-down ought to have seemed silly to the viewer. Yet every one of his “abstractions” held a surprise, and I gave most of them bonus points for looking as fully articulated from the far side of the ramp as they did close up.


The worst? The WHITNEY BIENNIAL, of course. Seeking distraction following intensity, I visited the Biennial after seeing Plimack Mangold’s show. The Whitney’s chaos undermined even Agnes Martin’s serene work, which appeared esthetically voided. The Biennial’s always bad. I don’t think it’s entirely the fault of curators, now or in the past, for they’ve been handed a couple of bad concepts to work with—diversity and comprehensiveness. Clement Greenberg used to insist that the efforts of critics and curators meant nothing, that artists policed themselves and each other, determining that the best work got shown. Perhaps artists do act as guides and self-censors, but they can’t control what happens when selections from A to Z converge on a single exhibition site. The problem seems to confound museum professionals as well. The diversity of the Biennial (curator Klaus Kertess referred to its amorphousness and multivalence) should have held great interest, but as actual display this exhibition couldn’t hold my attention. I soon resumed my customary pace and exited with time to spare.

Richard Shiff is the Effie Marie Cain Regent Chair in Art and director of the Center for the Study of Modernism at the University of Texas at Austin.