New York

Robert Mangold

John Weber Gallery

Robert Mangold’s latest show consists of four paintings, three painted studies, and four drawings (shown on projecting wedges). Two of the major works use a similar format: an isoceles triangle inscribed in two adjacent, equal rectangles. In one, the panels are parallel; in the other, perpendicular. Both are roughly 4 by 5 feet. The other two works (dated 1976) are larger. In one, two right-triangular panels form a scalene triangle, in which are inscribed two squares, the inner complete, the outer truncated by the right hypotenuse. In the other, two right-triangular panels and one rectangular panel form a trapezoid; at either end, unequal squares are drawn tangential to the hypotenuse and across the panel divisions. In all these works the inscribed forms touch the painting edges.

Critical norms often define painters negatively; this is the case with Mangold and Minimalism. Mangold’s work is best seen in deviation of Minimalist tenets (e.g. painting as object; image as unitary structure; concerns with materiality, symmetry, serial logic). But here such expectations are at best half-met. The work seems both holistic and serial, paradigmatic and syntagmatic, yet no one painting is whole, nor is the sequence consistent. When the image is closed, the support is open (i.e. it deviates from the rectilinear norm); when the support is closed, the image is open (i.e. it is truncated, as in Two Squares within Two Triangles). A quality of extension thus pervades the work: no painting has a center (as image and support are never coincident) and no painting is the center of the show. Each work is an icon incomplete or effaced, and it is uncertain whether the defect is conceptual, technical, or perceptual—whether, in other words, it is in the paradigm, the painter, or the viewer. Distortion; the dialectic of image as paradigm and as gesalt; the dichotomy between what we conceive as “idea” or “form” and what we perceive as imperfect mimesis: all these involvements continue to engage Mangold. An absolute is simultaneously posed and denied, a situation that can be found (ironically?) in Abstract Expressionist painting. Are we engaged in emblematic address or silence, in a completed or a continuous act?

There are other paradoxes: the status of the forms, for instance. Are they images (as of pyramids) or signs (as of direction), allusive or non-allusive? Or the status of the painting itself: Is it an object first, because incomplete, or is it a “field” or “window” first, because extended? (This is an issue latent in Mangold’s work since the “Frame” paintings of 1970, in which the center of the support was cut out to expose the wall.) Even the context is unsure. In what appear to be three kinds of work—drawing (on paper), study (small scale), and painting—the old issue of model versus major work arises: which is “done”? Similarly, the motifs are so minimal as to be ambiguous. Is the triangular notation an intimation of perspective and/or and index to architecture? Architectural forms have long interested Mangold, from the “Wall” sections of 1964 on. And here the architectural significance of the geometry is obvious: one immediately sees pyramid and vault structures in the painting (which also makes geometry seem an “edifice” in its own right). The result is that the work vacillates between design (blueprint) and project.

Mangold does not stress painting as object. The work is frontal, the edge is unpainted, the support is not deep. He prefers to see painting as a “combination surface-shape.” The panel division reconciles surface and shape. This takes the periphery line inside and, so, prevents too simple a reading of the contour and too illusory a reading of the surface: it gives the eye a neutral line, at once surface and edge. It is also constructive, for just as the drawn lines bind the • image to the support, the panel lines relate the support to the wall. Image and support are thus separate and mutual, easing somewhat the Stella-like dialectic of which defines which. Which is to say that drawing here is catalytic, not subtractive—as it was in the early shaped canvases—or divisive—as it was in the “V,” “W,” “X” series of 1968–69.

Up through 1976 Mangold used neutral tones. Often sprayed, atmospheric, they drew the eye to the internal surface, easing the pressure of the external shape. Yet they were also natural, the colors of art materials (especially clay), which conferred a substantiality to the work as well. The tension remains: now as form is stronger, color is stronger; it is shrill, arbitrary (red, yellow, violet, blue) but still subject to form. No one color is used twice, which tends to confirm a formal uniqueness.

So Mangold remains leery of illusionism too. With figure-ground relations denied, we are left, for content, with symbolic geometry. The circle/square work of the early 1970s called ’up ideas of Vitruvian proportion: the relation of geometry to anatomy, of man as measure of the world, the (mystical) ratio of the earthly (square) to the divinely perfect (circle). The triangle motif is more scholastic but its symbolism is similarly suggestive: aspiration, the Trinity.

All in all, Mangold remains poised, evenly conceptual and objective, neither too didactic nor too sensuous. He remains, as one critic says, “polite.” Polite, but not facile. The questions are more complex, and the answers less easy, than in the past.

Hal Foster