New York

Robert Mangold

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Robert Mangold has made five daring new objects, a hybrid species of painting and relief sculpture. These painted, shaped canvases are hung like paintings and stand out a bit uncomfortably from the wall by declaring it. Each of them consists of two panels joined together (a mode of presentation that has become a popular post-Modern conceit), a pair of irregular quadrilateral shapes juxtaposed in intimate yet uneasy coexistence. In four of these works, one panel is a painting with an ellipse inscribed on its surface, while the other is a painted “frame” with a not-quite-diamond-shaped opening that reveals the wall. The surface of the former tends to be overtly painterly, though in a predictable way, the brushstrokes alternating in direction and thickness/thinness of the paint applied; in contrast, the surface of the latter tends to be more uniformly covered and the brushstrokes less apparent. The only elements that the panels seem to have in common are their continuous bottom edge, which is parallel to the floor, and the edge at which they are joined. Nothing else is parallel, aligned, or symmetrical. Even when symmetry seems proposed, as in Red Ellipse/Green Ellipse, 1987—which consists of two paintings, each inscribed with an ellipse—it is evaded, for one ellipse is drawn with a thicker line than the other.

Do these pieces work? They seem a little more obvious in their intricacy than previous works by Mangold—a little too pat. Their deconstruction of ambiguity is stylized, and their simplified complexities give them a Modernist look, in the narrow, Greenbergian sense. As paintings, they are conspicuously self-conscious, questioning their own genre in a way that has by now become banal, neither undermining the medium nor stretching its limits. Moreover, their beauty seems only skin-deep, the result in part of the contrived disharmony and quasi-glamorous color; the effect is something like the sleek finish of an expensive car that has been bought more for its “fast” style than for the mileage it can get.

In art that is fundamentally geometric, the geometry tends to impart a sense of control. Whereas in his previous works Mangold seemed to underplay this sense of control, his new works seem overcontrolled, for all their apparent desire to break loose of it. The tension of the parts isn’t tense enough; the works’ tautness and geometric eccentricity seem equally matter-of-fact. Greenberg once said that modern art worked with violent contrasts; here the contrasts have become a mannered, labored performance. The violence is no longer involuntary, but manipulated: manipulation, indeed, is all too obvious in these works.

There is manipulation—a mechanically reproduced look—in their thin expressionist surface, a lame overture to the well-orchestrated geometry. Like Brice Marden, Mangold here belatedly acknowledges the expressionist eventfulness of surface that was prominent in so much work of the early ’80s. Married to geometry, however, it is a highly diluted expressionism—the inevitable result of a forced, unequal partnership. But the tokenism of Mangold’s appropriation of expressionist surface signifies something more than the expressive inadequacy of these works compared to his previous ones, where the geometry often had an uncanny effect: an effort to save a geometry that is itself in trouble. Mangold is no longer certain he can produce the uncanny effect with his constructive power, which has lost its innovative edge, so he has turned to watered-down expressionism to bolster it. These works are ambitious exercises in reconciling geometry and gesture, inadequately realized. They are intelligent failures, ingenious but weak.

Donald Kuspit