San Francisco

Robert Mangold

University Art Museum

Robert Mangold has always been a steady, decorous painter of considerable scope—likable if you like passionate, vigorous abstract art with a methodology of understatement. He has interested himself in arguing general shapes into specific images, usually by modifying them with distinctive monochromatic color spread evenly across the whole support; Mangold has said, “Edges make the structure, the colors make the surface:” The results have been paintings that are not merely pure and simple but clear and resonant, like correct declarative sentences that are delivered in a firm, modest tone but that nonetheless contain sudden jogs of logic. This “mid-career” exhibition of 39 paintings and drawings (which will conclude a lengthy tour in late January at the Neuberger Museum, in Purchase, New York) surveys a period of terrific expansion in Mangold’s technical vocabulary: surfaces incised with graphite lines, masonite rather than canvas supports, and more color applied more variously These recent paintings are richer in both ostensive and implied sensations. Color has been heightened and multiplied (more than one per painting since 1977, and as many as four since 1983). For another, Mangold has unleashed his surfaces’ powers of suggestion, with no concomitant loss of mystery or fact.

Mangold calls himself an “intuitive” painter, which means that he proceeds without any master plan. Each work looks pretty much its actual size—that is, the pictures don’t lean on size (or on a general esthetic of scale) but use size individually There are images appropriate to just about every set of dimensions, and some of the most telling ones are fairly small. Paintings in similar formats make absolutely antithetical statements. The large X Painting 2 (green), 1980, tends to shoot outward across its seams in four directions at once, while Three Red X Within X, 1981, compresses at the pane] abutments and is a marvel of rock-hard stillness. Similarly the tricks on logic that the interior lines perform—amounting to perceptual charades on geometrical figures—are provisional, slightly malicious devices for catching the eye so it first delays, then settles and fixates on the whole image. The images have more character than these tricks imply and are more than rational. The colors are superb (more than nice) and set up solid fields that sometimes refer to liquid or gaseous states (air, sky, fire, mist) but rarely to other solids. Distorted Circle Within a Polygon (blue), 1972, appears as a silhouette of a little frame house (as ideally proportioned by Alberti, perhaps), but the blue is wild and “yonder,” barely checked by the lasso of graphite that reinforces the edge.

The “Four Color Frame Paintings” of 1984 introduce “countenance” (Willem de Kooning’s eminently right term for literal character in painting) differently. The oval line in #9 really does say “face’: just as the colors of the joined rectangles—red, lime green, pale blue over green, and cadmium yellow—could be signs of the most clement weather. In #5 the signs are more complicated: the pale brushy green at the top is ”air“; the red at the bottom, ”gravity“; at left, a glaze of sienna over the same red is ”density“; the radiant yellow opposite, ”light." There is additional incident in the way the pencil line seems to thicken and change aspect as it crosses the colors and in its qualification of their identities as well.

Mangold’s images suggest an unimpaired idealism, and they come across with the quiet authority of sensible facts. They are memorable and right, proof that, as Adrian Stokes put it, “Formal arrangements can sometimes transmit a durable imagery.”

Bill Berkson