New York

Robert Mangold

John Weber Gallery

Robert Mangold’s Painting for Three Walls is just that: a work of three two-panel paintings painted in the open cube of a studio and installed in the similar cube of a gallery. The center canvas is blue-gray, the one to the left is orange-yellow, and the one to the right is green-brown. As is common with Mangold, each of the supports is not quite a rectangle, (but on paper that sounds more distorted than they actually look). Within each of these “distorted rectangles” is drawn a “corrected rectangle,” that is, a rectangle that looks true. In the yellow and gray canvases the corrected rectangle echoes the horizontality of the distorted rectangle; in the brown canvas the vertical is emphasized.

For more than a decade, Mangold has worked with ratios between distorted edges and corrected lines (in a way often reminiscent of the visual deceits long practiced by architects). In addition, except for a recent foray into rather garish color, he has used a muted palette, mostly the ochres, grays, and greens that appear in this show. It seems he is as much interested in color (im)purity as he is in formal (ir)regularity. The colors are not quite pure or ideational and not quite earthy or visceral.

What is new in this show is the ensemble of three paintings in one work. They are not, however, sequential—the “A” canvas (gray) is on the center wall, whereas the “B” (yellow) and “C” (brown) canvases are on the side walls. As much as these colors refer to the basic colors of art materials, they also refer (perhaps subliminally) to three grounds of landscape. Landscape is also intuited in the horizontal format of the work. (The one constant is the seam between the panels; it may serve as a surrogate figure.) In such a scheme the gray canvas represents “sky” and the yellow and brown canvases represent “fields.” As the gray is in front of the viewer and the yellow and brown are on the sides, we tend to “see” the sky element and “feel” the field elements. This is consistent within our experience of landscape. The sky is the ideal element and it is apprehended by vision, the more ideal sense. The fields are the earthy elements and are apprehended primarily by the body. This is also consistent within our experience of landscape as mediated by modern art. About Walls, 1964, and Areas, 1965–6, Mangold recently said: “I used to think about a painting that would be atmospheric and architectural.” I think it’s clear from Painting for Three Walls that he still does. The new work is also related to work of 1970, (Untitled Frame Sets) where Mangold actually cut out rectangles (also “distorted”) from the canvases to expose the walls. Though the forms were cut out and the format was vertical (perhaps suggestive of portraiture), the concept of the frame is germane to Painting for Three Walls, where the corrected rectangle also creates a frame. Only, this “frame” (i.e., the regular or corrected rectangle) appears inside the irregular (or distorted) rectangle, which becomes, in the inversion, the “content.” The interest is in the border; the inner rectangle seems contentless. (There is even a hint of centrifugal perspective in the way that the edges veer away from the center.) Perhaps this occurs because we tend to associate cultural containers, whether they are frames, niches, book covers, or stages, with regular forms.

Such a concern with frames, and with the “atmospheric and architectural,” are not so much retardataire as academic. In an essay for the show, Naomi Spector calls Mangold’s “painting-in-a-space” original. The originality is assured, but it’s in a milieu that perhaps no longer exists. Now such ideas are hardly new (that is, redeemed as new) to most painters, and certainly not to Mangold. Her essay begins with an ode to Mangold’s studio—which (though one sees it often in biographical criticism of the sort) is a rather archaic genre after years of assiduous discussion by artists and critics alike of the many ways in which the studio, the gallery, and the museum determine modernist works of art. For much art such spaces are given conditions (perhaps “necessary,” perhaps not). But to make the condition the premise of a work (as, it seems, Spector would have Mangold do) is to miss the point. A parameter like that is an ideological condition, not a modus operandi, and as such must be subjected to criticism, as it has been by Daniel Buren and Brian O’Doherty, among others. It remains the contradiction of Mangold’s work that it seems to be at once at the end of a line and at the head of many tangents that have led from it.

Hal Foster