New York

Robert Mangold

Pace Wildenstein

A fellow writer once advised me that a short essay could contain many ideas but a long piece ought to have a single big one. Likewise, a small painting will often be composed of a multitude of little touches, each of which separately gives no idea of the whole, while a very large work may be better realized by restricting the composition to no more than a few big open areas. By that criterion, it might be said that Robert Mangold has found the ideal scale in his mural-size “Zone Paintings,” with the three on view in his recent show ranging from just under fourteen to all of twenty-seven and a half feet in length.

These large works are, at minimum, handsome paintings that sit easily in their scale, unruffled by either anxiety or bravado. Composed of several panels each, they are almost symmetrical but not oppressively so, since their arched upper comers are angled differently on each side. Neither all intuition nor all rationality, they even emend their own apparently absolute nonobjectivity because the ellipses that have been drawn onto the blue or orange areas with heavy black pencil distantly but distinctly recall schemata of the human form—the narrower ellipses bodies, the wider ones heads. These paintings wear with ease their understated affinities to precursors ranging from Matisse all the way back to the Renaissance, and they seem quite indifferent to the idea that contemporary art should have anything like an “edge.” It’s as though they were programmatically devised to show how Clement Greenberg’s desire for “a bland, large, balanced, Apollonian art” could have been fulfilled by means quite different from those employed by the Color Field painters the critic eventually championed. Unlike most murals, however, these are neither celebratory nor commemorative in tone, but dispassionately contemplative.

Scale aside, what is new in the “Zone Paintings” is Mangold’s breach of the logic of juxtaposition, based on an equation between color and support, that had previously been synonymous with his work: Color zones now cross the boundaries between canvases. Each painting features a single ever-so-slightly mottled color (either blue or orange) plus a hazy gray or black; for instance, Blue/Black Five Panel Zone Painting, 1998, contains three blue zones interrupted by two black ones. And we are meant to feel the black as an interruption, since it cuts across some of the ellipses. The gray and black areas are zones of caesura, absence, or concealment. In relation to the vicissitudes of the ellipses, these achromatic areas play something like the stage-setting role of architectural ruins in a narrative landscape painting, but even more than that, they help bring into focus the mass-cultural overtones that faintly animate the otherwise too-willful grandeur evoked by the works’ vast horizontal expanses. Like a slow wipe in a Cinemascope movie, this shift across boundaries catches the potentially disquieting feeling of change in process.

Also on exhibit were a good number of small studies for the “Zone Paintings,” both on paper and on canvas. (Actually, even the nearly fourteen-foot-long painting is a study for the one twice its length.) Their presence underlines the care Mangold has taken in arriving at satisfactory compositional solutions, but they also allow the viewer to second-guess him; I myself preferred the greater instability of the relations among the ellipses in a 1997 study for Orange/Gray Four Panel Zone Painting, 1998, to the solider-feeling arrangement in the finished painting. Having already placed the monumental stability of his paintings at a certain enlivening risk by giving up his work’s long-held congruence between color and support, Mangold has opened himself up to the dangerous but always thrilling question: Why not risk more?

Barry Schwabsky