New York

Sylvia Plimack Mangold

Brooke Alexander

In the late ’70s, Sylvia Plimack Mangold decided to get away from the precision that characterized her earlier, somewhat mathematical paintings. So she switched to landscape painting, and her canvases have since been smeared and glassy, like specimens on lab slides, smudged over their trompe-l’oeil tape edges as if by a big thumb. Imagine that land scape images could be vaseline with out losing their legibility, that they could be glazed like marmalade over the white bread of the canvas. The effects are as mixed as these metaphors. On the one hand, Mangold detaches natural scene from nature and coolly scrutinizes it, sometimes magnifying a single element (such as the lone tree in Sugar Maple, 1985) for a near/far dialectic in which neither extreme is ever quite focused. On the other hand, she spreads an old-fashioned painting compote over a modern support. The real question is which is uppermost—the scientific inquiry of the modern skeptic or the hunger for a homemade treat.

It’s interesting to place Mangold’s bind in a generational context. Her practice overlaps that of Vija Celmins, Pat Steir, Richard Artschwager, and Ree Morton, all of whom have dealt with the Modernist’s ambivalence coward tradition by distancing realistic imagery. They were all early appropriators, but appropriators careful to leave the quotation marks apparent. Younger image scavengers come closer to James Joyce’s ambition to be like God, coolly paring his fingernails above and behind his handi work. The older generation is more like Joyce himself, who refused to be so absent in the end, self-consciously leaving his fingerprints everywhere; he was too proud of his intellect to play dumb. Mangold and company are the same; they leave clues that make intentionality clear. It’s a bit like the difference between verbal irony, which can be only deliberate, and situational irony, which could be accidental. For the newer ironists, their art-historical position gives their work its contrariness or criticality (Sherrie Levine being the most obvious example). The artist need “say” nothing—one’s position in the continuum does it all and leaves the viewer with inte resting questions about a moral center. It’s the difference between trace and imprint, the one being past and inadvertent, the other a present-tense act of will; one is removal, the other addition.

Also different is the approach to representation. Mangold, for instance, is very involved with the criticism of imitation, whereas someone like Levine or Jack Goldstein is concerned with a commentary on substitution, the replacement of the original with the copy. One is an investigation of the handmade product, of painting; the other, of the camera and meta-art issues. Discontinuity was once much discussed as a Modernist characteristic, and Mangold’s handling of time in a painting like Trees at the Pond with Violet, 1985, is exemplary. Against the “eternity” of the self-renewing landscape she pits a series of minimalist, slightly differentiated white panels, positioned to suggest a changing sky and hence the passage of time—but time seamed, not flowing. Further removed from any continuum is the esthetic of the moment in Goldstein’s or Robert Longo’s paintings. The climax—moment of explosion or eruption—is frozen in a manner oddly close to, yet intending to be disruptive of, continuous representation.

For now, Mangold’s new works are poised between the changes she has gone through in the past and any future course, but as such they offer a coherent point of view from which to examine subsequent developments in conceptual realism. Despite her differences with younger practitioners, Mangold continues to reach for a group goal: the controversion of Plato’s assertion that representation is excluded from the realm of ideas by virtue of its slavish counterfeiting. At the same time, her play on scale rejects Aristotelian universals, the unchanging verities of thought and feeling, just as her fictionalized landscapes question the Hellenic authority of genres and types. This is a relativism that cuts across generational divisions

Jeanne Silverthorne