Sylvia Plimack Mangold

The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the final venue for the first comprehensive survey of Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s paintings, housed an exhibit of 54 major canvases and a single drypoint print, all executed between 1967 and 1994. This retrospective, organized by the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, documents this artist’s evolution from a realist painter of studio interiors to a landscape painter of the Hudson River Valley. The earliest paintings exhibited (which date from 1967 to 1975) were austere images of floorboards, walls, mirrors and empty studio spaces. The methodical control evident in these compositions earned Plimack Mangold considerable fame as a painter in the late ’60s and early ’70s. This exhibition presented the full range of Man-gold’s thematic and visual repertoire: trompe l’oeil images of rulers, paper, and masking tape; landscape studies inside larger, almost abstract framing devices; and portraits of individual trees.

In all her works, Plimack Mangold turns to the simple and familiar: from the floors of her studio to the landscape outside the window of her home in Washingtonville, New York. Two Exact Rules on a Dark and Light Floor, 1975, is emblematic of the precision and deceptive simplicity of Plimack Mangold’s work. Measuring 24-by-30 inches, this painting is, on a formal level, an arrangement of 12-inch black-and-manila squares and parallel gray rulers. Its title was taken from the name of the manufacturer of the straight-edge tools depicted and actually used to create the work itself. Plimack Mangold used square black and white linoleum tiles discovered in the cellar of her new home as models for the floor represented in this canvas. The meticulously crafted illusion of a light and dark floor seen from above, sloping slightly away from the viewer toward some point in the distance, is shattered by what appear to be two identical metal Exact Rule straight-edge rulers fastened to the surface of the canvas. One soon realizes, however, that these fragments of metal yardsticks, both cropped just before the 18-inch mark, are flat, painted replicas, complete with calibrations. In fact, it is only because the top rule is smaller in scale than the bottom one that it appears to rest further back in space. In Two Exact Rules, Plimack Mangold questions how perspective determines the object perceived, and the strange, paradoxical marriage between the real and the illusory.

In other works, Plimack Mangold incorporated painted remnants of used masking tape in her compositions. These tapes became framing devices in a sensuous and moody series of Catskill nightscapes. Schunnemunk Mountain, 1979, painted in varying shades of blue, is a panorama of silent trees, dark sky, and sparsely lit contoured hills. Reminiscent of Whistler’s nocturnes in its romantic and abstract elegance, this is a painting of unabashed beauty. In an effort, perhaps, not to sentimentalize this sublime landscape, the artist surrounded the depicted scene with layers of used masking tape. The illusion the tape gives that we are looking at this landscape through a window, is undercut by the paint brushed over its edges, which returns us to the flat surface of the picture plane.

Plimack Mangold’s consistent exploration of the process of painting and her manipulation of pictorial space have led the artist from realism to conceptualism to a romanticism inflected by Modernism. In her most recent oil paintings, the perceptual acrobatics and signature enclosing tape are gone. Solitary trees at various seasons fill the canvas. Plein-air paintings such as The Elm Tree, 1993–94, painted in a highly gestural manner, highlight the spaces between the branches, which come to resemble geometric patterns. The trees are the closest Plimack Mangold has come to painting as sculpture. Her career-long balancing act between lyricism and structured precision reaches its zenith in these fragile meditations on the intricacies of nature.

Francine Koslow Miller