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Photograph by Nathaniel Robinson © Robert Mangold

Essays

Squaring Accounts

By Matthew L. Levy
Friday, Sep 18, 2020

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Robert Mangold, Gray window wall, 1965, oil on wood (destroyed) © Robert Mangold

Of course Robert Mangold would choose an exhibition of squares as an occasion to throw a curveball. How better to describe a painting like 3 Square Structure (2018)? For more than fifty years, this artist has staked his practice on three key terms—color, drawing, and shape—exploring the perceptual pressures that each can exert on the others in formal configurations as elegant as they are off-kilter. Yet here we are confronted with a painting with no drawn elements, as if, after mulling it over for half a century, he had decided that one of these terms might be dispensable.

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Robert Mangold, Two Squares Within a Double Square, 2017, acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 56" × 96" (142.2 cm × 243.8 cm) © Robert Mangold

Or consider Two Squares Within a Double Square (2017). Here, one finds a projecting square canvas that brings the work into what is ostensibly a relief mode, a startling development for an artist who, in a 1967 essay, theorized his commitment to what he called “Flat Art.” [1] Written during the apogee of Minimalist sculpture, when many of Mangold’s peers had abandoned painting for the material and phenomenological plenitude purportedly afforded by three-dimensional practices, Flat Art affirmed painting’s native two-dimensionality as an inexhaustible source of aesthetic intrigue. In the years since, he has put that flatness through its paces, conceiving some of the most unorthodox supports in contemporary painting while remaining true to the medium’s essential coordinates. Is he now having doubts?

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Robert Mangold, Red Wall, 1965, oil paint on fiberboard, 96 1⁄2 x 96 1⁄2", Tate Gallery, London. Presented by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, 2012 © Robert Mangold

I begin with these two works because while they might appear to be a departure for Mangold, they in fact represent an updated restaging of a dilemma from that formative period in his practice in which his commitment to Flat Art was forged. [2] While preparing for his 1965 breakthrough Walls and Areas exhibition at Fischbach Gallery, he began to probe incrementally deeper into three dimensions with his Walls series. Resembling excised architectural fragments, these works were accented with wooden rails and metal moldings, elements that emphasized the paintings’ “object-like” qualities, to use the critical parlance of the time. This line of work culminated in Gray window wall (1965), a hulking plywood construction that featured prominent sills and a stepped footprint, both of which established a clear engagement with three-dimensional space. Moreover, Gray window wall rested directly on the floor, a condition that signaled to Mangold that he had arrived at the threshold of sculpture.

As if to postulate an alternative trajectory, Mangold painted Red Wall (1965), a work that in key respects represented Gray window wall’s antithesis. Painted on two four-by-eight foot sheets of Masonite, Red Wall presented a bold assertion of the two-dimensional plane, free of relief elements and undifferentiated, save for the vertical seam between the two panels. Seeing these two works hanging simultaneously in his studio clarified Mangold’s investments as a painter:

Somehow it was almost a revelation to me that the idea of a very flat work was where my interests lay. Where painting’s interest lay for me. And that it was not about a bridge between painting and sculpture and not about painting becoming a sculpture.… Somehow it was very important for me to understand the essential nature of what painting was, that painting was surface and that painting was edge, and the fact that painting was a flat object, was a part of its nature and was important to its nature. [3]

Mangold’s realization should not be confused for a high modernist declaration of medium specificity. Whereas a modernist critic like Clement Greenberg would uphold painting’s flatness as a conduit for the medium’s optical transcendence, Mangold delighted in the physicality of the two-dimensional surface (e.g., how the vertical seam between the two panels could alternately register as a drawn line or gap depending on one’s viewing position or how the cutouts skewed one’s perception of the seam’s symmetrical sectioning).

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Robert Mangold, Two Open Squares Within a Red Area, 2016, acrylic and black pencil, on canvas, 48 x 96", Private collection © Robert Mangold

The two paintings with which we began similarly posit opposing tendencies within a consistent aesthetic idiom, setting relief against undifferentiated flatness, and as before, this articulation of antitheses has opened up a new path forward in Mangold’s practice. Yet if the current exhibition finds him in a retrospective mode, he comes to it not with the winking quotation of a postmodernist (though 3 Square Structure’s red hue and rectangular pocket of enclosed wall space do present uncanny echoes of Red Wall), but rather through the gradual unfolding of the working rhythms intrinsic to his practice. Thus, an understanding of this exhibition requires a look back at how he arrived here.

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Robert Mangold, 3 Squares Within a Double Square I, 2017, acrylic and black pencil, on canvas, 56 x 96" © Robert Mangold

Mangold’s 2017 exhibition at Pace Gallery featured horizontally oriented rectangular or pill-shaped canvases that he punctured with varyingly shaped apertures and animated with sinuous currents of drawn line. As has been his custom, Mangold deployed these constituent elements in an organic, evolutionary process, such that each painting represented a unique configuration while bearing a family resemblance to the others. However, the last completed work in the exhibition stood as an outlier. 3 Squares Within a Double Square I (2017) retained the square cutouts found elsewhere in the exhibition, but a vertical jog disrupted the canvas’s horizontal sweep, and it dispensed with the circulating arabesques in favor of a centered, drawn square. While it had visible antecedents elsewhere in the exhibition, the painting staked out a distinct set of terms that signaled a new direction in his practice.

Such an inclusion was an unusual step for Mangold. His paintings had always developed in an incremental fashion, with new work germinating out of old, so that one could see, for example, how the 2017 paintings related back to the combinations of circles and squares he exhibited at Pace in 2014. However, his exhibitions had typically represented a kind of closed statement, comprising however many unique articulations a given set of formal terms might productively yield. Describing his approach to working in series, he once said, “I made variations on an idea… [T]he group of works ends when I feel that further variations are unnecessary, or when the particular idea is complete enough for me…” [4] Such an approach shared some of the systems-based logic of Mangold’s Conceptual art peers, such as his close friend Sol LeWitt, without adhering to their exhaustive, iterative execution.

A Mangold exhibition had clearly defined parameters while still allowing for growth and artistic intuition. However, the 2017 exhibition went beyond the typical endpoint of a Mangold series. It foreshadowed what might come next.

Drawing in 3 Squares within a Double Square I served a different function than it did elsewhere in the 2017 exhibition. Where it once unified and enlivened disparate geometric forms, here it echoed the shapes rendered materially by the canvas. Like a Joseph Kosuth definition work, displaying three different representations of a common object (dictionary definition, photograph, the thing itself), the painting posited three distinct expressions of a geometric concept (drawing, physical form, negative space). These three representational modes established Mangold’s terms for the present exhibition.

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Robert Mangold, 3 Squares (red), 2017, acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 64" × 90" (162.6 cm × 228.6 cm) © Robert Mangold

Of course, no sooner did Mangold define these terms than he began exploring how they might perceptually confound one another. For example, in 3 Squares (red) (2017), one of the earliest completed works in the exhibition, drawn and literal shape coincide, as a graphite line hugs the edge of a rectangular canvas protrusion and extends beyond it to complete a square. As has so often been the case in Mangold’s work, drawing irrevocably alters our comprehension of physical fact.

While one knows the protruding form to be a rectangle, it is impossible not to see it as part of the drawn square. Mangold’s forms often act like characters in an abstract drama, prompting us to impute narrative action to obdurate matter. In 3 Squares (red), one imagines the drawn square to be the excised remnant of its cutout counterpart, as if it had been cut and dragged with a Photoshop tool.

Whereas 3 Squares (red) hybridized drawn and literal shape, the previously discussed relief element in Two Squares Within a Double Square rendered it entirely physical. Only in this one work does the square exist as a projecting plane, balancing the cutout’s recession to the wall. Critically, Mangold left the sides of this component unpainted, so that it insists on being read as a two-dimensional plane (e.g., it does not reward viewing from the side), albeit one that exists in three-dimensional space (e.g., it casts a shadow). [5] Perhaps sensing the paradox inherent in such a condition, Mangold elected not to pursue this strategy any further. Yet if this painting stands as a cul-de-sac within the context of this exhibition, it established a counterpoint that would define subsequent moves.

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Robert Mangold, 3 Square Structure, 2018, acrylic on canvas, 73-1/2" × 9' 2-1/4" (186.7 cm × 280 cm) © Robert Mangold

Since the Walls, Mangold’s work has always advanced dialectically as a movement through antitheses. Just as Gray window wall’s foray into architectural space motivated Red Wall’s declaration of flatness, the lack of drawn and cutout elements in 3 Square Structure countervails Two Squares Within a Double Square’s projected shape. This opposition did not result from a preconceived system but was rather the natural result of the workaday habits of Mangold’s life in his studio—of living with a body of work and contemplating what next steps might issue from it—or as he stated in characteristically laconic fashion, “I got to a point where I didn’t want to put a hole in it, and I didn’t want to draw on it.” [6] Thus with shocking nonchalance did he shrug off the weight of his own fifty-five year history with his medium. No longer playing host to drawing, 3 Square Structure keys up its color, dispensing with the delicate, fresco-like washes found elsewhere in the exhibition to establish a bolder assertion of uniform surface. It has an architectonic quality (again harkening back to the Walls), while still partaking in the current series’ vernacular of overlapping and abutting squares. Absent Mangold’s customary refined draftsmanship, drawing becomes a mental function, as one extends the lines of the canvas edges in one’s mind to impose regular geometry on a highly irregular form.

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Robert Mangold, Two Merging Squares, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 44" × 80-1/2" (111.8 cm × 204.5 cm) © Robert Mangold

To revisit something from the past is often referred to as “circling back,” yet what Mangold achieves with these works is more akin to a spiral—a looping backward to chart a new path into the future. As with his 2017 exhibition, the last completed work in this series offers a glimpse into what that path might hold. Two Merging Squares (2019) signals a continued interest in forsaking drawn line in favor of undifferentiated surface. However, Mangold’s conception of the square has clearly changed. If the painting’s right half is to be understood as a square, as the title suggests, it is a tilted one, as if foreshortened—a reading the artist himself has sanctioned, even while it is partially contradicted by the regular left square and uniformly monochrome application of paint. Mangold has long resisted such a pictorial understanding of his shaped supports. He belonged, after all, to an artistic generation defined by its cool, literalist sensibility and distaste for the trappings of illusionistic painting. Yet in his studio currently hang small studies featuring tapered trapezoidal canvases that similarly convey a sense of perspectival depth. They cast the wall as a spatial matrix and appear to stretch into the distance—a metaphor, perhaps, for creative horizons yet to be explored.

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Studio view March 4, 2020 © Robert Mangold

Endnotes
  1. Mangold originally drafted this essay for an art journal in 1967, but when an editor suggested he expand it, he elected to pursue it no further. The essay would not be published until 2000. Robert Mangold, “Flat Art,” in Robert Mangold (London: Phaidon, 2000), 162.
  2. I offer a more complete account of this juncture in Mangold’s career in Matthew L. Levy, Abstract Painting and the Minimalist Critiques: Robert Mangold, David Novros, and Jo Baer in the 1960s (London: Routledge, 2019), 46–48.
  3. Robert Mangold, “Robert Mangold and Urs Raussmüller: A Talk on December 5, 1992,” in Robert Mangold, exh. cat. (Schaffhausen: Hallen für neue Kunst; Paris: RENN Espace d’Art Contemporain, 1993), 61.
  4. Robert Mangold, “Interview with Sylvia Plimack Mangold,” in Robert Mangold (London: Phaidon, 2000), 63–65.
  5. In this respect, Two Squares Within a Double Square could be said to conform to Mangold’s 1967 definition of Flat Art, as when he writes, “Flat art is all surface, the edges of a surface…When the edge is treated as a side and is painted in some way that suggests it is to be seen in relation to the surface, it is of course no longer a flat work that has but one viewpoint…” It should be noted, though, that he describes Flat Art as comprising a singular surface, whereas the present painting is composed of surfaces that occupy two distinct planes. Mangold, “Flat Art,” 162.
  6. Robert Mangold, in discussion with the author, March 4, 2020.
Essays — Squaring Accounts: Matthew L. Levy on Robert Mangold, Sep 18, 2020