New York

Robert Mangold

Fischbach Gallery

Robert Mangold’s work is becoming more subtle and more problematic. He is focusing down on fewer specific visual issues in a manner that is increasingly explicit and at the same time still ambiguous. He was previously involved, albeit in a very low key, with the problems implied by shaped paintings and modulated color, i.e. the action of wall area as ground that occurs with shaped works and the ambiguity of surface that subtly graded color creates. In his most recent work, he has retained vestiges of wall/work interaction but is concentrating now on the interaction of drawn line and framing edge, of linearly depicted shape and the actual shape of the canvas.

He talks about his paintings having an existence as series, hanging them to perpetuate that impression; but the real visual interest lies within each canvas, not in the series. One of the works in his show at Fischbach that clearly reveals the strengths and distractions of his current approach is a group of five rectangular canvases, each 60 by 40 inches, painted a uniform, light gray. Each rectangle is broken by an X, drawn meticulously and heavily with a graphite pencil—drawn so heavily as to seem almost a cut in the canvas. Each X, a tactile pair of black lines, extends far enough into the corners of the canvas so as to relate to its edges without pulling away as a disconnected image, but not so far as to section the canvas visually into four triangles.

The five Xes are not uniform, although they appear so initially. The first one is symmetrical around its intersection. The next two vary with one point of intersection slightly above the center of the canvas and the other slightly below. The last two have intersections slightly to the left and the right of center.

Mangold expects the five canvases to be apprehended together in three stages: the first glance when the Xes appear the same, the second when a viewer senses they are different, and the third when a viewer realizes how they are different. His analysis is basically correct. Unfortunately, once the difference is comprehended, the visual riddle seems fairly trivial. After a viewer has understood it, he is apt to dismiss the work at that point and overlook the more interesting things happening on each canvas.

A brief discussion of some drawings in the show might help elucidate the qualities that are compelling within each canvas. The drawings are penciled rectangles of varying dimensions, all centered within a few inches of the edges of the paper. Depending on their size, they either pull away as shapes resting on top of the paper surface, or they become frames for rectangular spaces “inside” the paper. The illusionistic play between drawn rectangles and the rectangular paper’s edges is very strong; interest lies in the way slight variations in size alter a rectangle’s relation to its surrounding border. The image is so simple and lean that it accentuates the quality of Mangold’s line, an almost compulsively uniform → and the quality of the ivory paper. What I have described in these drawings is what counts in the canvases as well: quality of line, of surface, and the illusionistic interaction of drawn image with edge. The other, more obvious characteristics of the paintings—their identity as series and the variation within that series—are not of the same import in visual fact, although the artist intended them to be.

Kasha Linville