New York

Sylvia Plimack Mangold

Brooke Alexander

Analyzing Van Gogh’s Crows over the Wheat Field, Meyer Schapiro describes the lines of perspective as “the paths of Van Gogh’s impetuous impulse toward the beloved object,” then goes on to note that in this painting as in most of the later work “this flight to a goal is rarely unobstructed or fulfilled.” In Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s canvases from the early ’70s a similar dialectic is at work: a pronounced convergence in the floorboards she typically rendered is frustrated by various painted-in devices—a mirror, rulers that “prove” space is not shrinking though it appears to be, etc. At the same time the compulsion of Mangold’s need for arrival is reinforced by things like the rulers, measuring as if to pin down what was by definition forever in recession, a point always vanishing.

When, several years ago, Mangold began painting night landscapes in a style that exchanged soft-focus mass for the earlier hard lines, it was possible to understand this as a resolution of that yearning—to see her as akin to the Impressionist, who, to quote Schapiro again, “would be less concerned with the object and would, on the contrary, welcome its dissolution in an atmosphere that carries something of the mood of revery without desire.” In effect, however, she simply turned from projecting her own desire to projecting the viewer’s. She gave us lovely, straightforward, old-fashioned paintings, even putting in distant home lights shining invitingly in the immensity of evening (this subject is returned to once in the latest batch of canvases). But there is a certain (poignant?) complicity in these works, a sense that Mangold herself shared her audience’s appetite for seductive clichés and had to defend against it by a heavily emphasized irony: the landscapes limit themselves to small rectangles in the centers of the canvases, their edges reinforced by (painted) strips of masking tape as if to prevent their contaminating the “purer,” mostly untouched spaces of the borders. While positioning the reduced image inside the tape is like placing it in quotes, and underscores its objectness (it looks so much like a reproduction of a painting cut out of a magazine and pasted up), this is also an operation of rescue, of preservation from the hard knocks of reality. Paradoxically, the large perimeters outside the tape feed the hunger for transcendence, since they offer the blankness that is a necessary prerequisite for creation and, in occasional smudges or drips of paint, the randomness that when juxtaposed with finish and order suggests transformation. It is as if something mysterious were happening under that tape—as if there were some alchemical agent at work there that reacted miraculously with those stray stains to produce order and “art.”

In a way, of course, this is reading the paintings backwards; the drips are supposed to fall out of the landscapes rather than the other way around. They are reminders of production, traces of the studio. In the new works this is clearer because the landscapes have expanded to take up most of the canvas; the masking tape now comes very close to the edge and those proofs of manufacture have correspondingly smaller room to display themselves. The result is that it’s much easier for viewers to lose themselves in the “picture,” to forget the artist’s touch in contemplation of “natural” spectacle. Mangold panders to a nostalgic weakness which is its own trap, like a porn pusher complying with a customer’s request with the anxious-to-please knowingness that makes the encounter pornographic to begin with.

Why painted tape, why not the real thing? So as to stratify betrayal. For the naive, although trompe l’oeil ends in a delighted chagrin, this example of it must throw doubt on the cherished realism of the scene. For the sophisticated, who are knowing along with Mangold, it is a final pitfall. The mechanism this group relied on to guarantee their superiority turns out to be itself mimetic—as everyone knows, a debased taste. This same group is likely to preoccupy itself with the idea that the tape dismantles, makes evident the hidden process of the “academic” part of the painting. In the layering and crossing of strips, in the way the image frays out under some tape and over others, there is a reciprocity with the veils of glazing by which the highly finished landscapes are built up. Yet to ponder the Richard Diebenkornian estheticism of line intersection, the Josef Albers-like obsession with the edge, is to find oneself lingering literally at the periphery. Abstraction is thus rendered literally and figuratively marginal.

The other effect of the expansion of the image is a linking up with J. M. W. Turner (as well as with mid-19th-century Americans such as Martin Johnson Heade and Frederick Church). Not only is the format horizontal, but sky meets land (if at all) in a ratio of about three to one. Also like Turner, Mangold works up toward highlights from a dark ground—often purple, one of the “fuscous” colors called for in recipes for the sublime. The infinity and grandeur of the heavens also feed into that concoction, but Mangold avoids arousing fear and terror in the spectator; even if these works could be antedated by more than a hundred years they would still fall not into the category of the sublime but into that of the beautiful (always considered a lesser alternative). As it is Mangold’s predilection for sunsets, shared with Turner, and for trees in the snow shows just how far the beautiful has fallen—calendar art is its last refuge. Mimicking a kind of painting whose adherents saw the artist as a transparent conductor between God and his wonders, or, more romantically, as a Promethean thief, Mangold explains that idea’s disappearance in terms of the con artist who’s split the scene.

Jeanne Silverthorne