Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 1, 2019 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York


Luster without the Shine

By Richard Shiff
Wednesday, May 11, 2022

This essay is taken from the publication Robert Mangold: Plane Structures, published by Pace Publishing.

A Lengthy Preamble to Robert Mangold’s Timelessness

The tooth of a Homo sapiens child has been found where it shouldn’t be, sandwiched between archaeological layers of Neanderthal remains in a cave in France. The discovery demands a reassessment of the evolutionary history of these two species of hominid— Neanderthals and us. As an academic concerned with change in modes of creativity over time, the terms of the new paleoanthropological report give me pause. “Astonishingly,” as a journalist puts it, the scientific team working at the site has determined that “the period between the Neanderthals relocating and the first modern humans moving into the cave 56,000 years ago was just one year.” [1]

But what is astonishing? After all, the cave was unoccupied when the second group appeared on the scene—an opportunity for the taking. To determine whether their moving in merits surprise, we would need to know how shy of each other migrating bands of hominids might have been fifty-six thousand years ago. Would the faint odor of departed Neanderthal have rendered the cave appealing or repellent to Homo sapiens? The root of my own amazement is, instead, arithmetical—the ratio of fifty-six thousand to one. The hard-focus precision of “one year,” coupled with the soft-focus vagueness of fifty-six thousand, disturbs my historian’s sense of what might count as a cultural change viewed through the lens of analysis and evaluation. I can’t readily identify with fifty-six thousand years of human existence, but the thought of some concrete event occurring within a single annual unit of such an enormous chronological span converts the inconceivable to the imaginable and the imaginable to the believable. The scientists’ tale of a sublet cave arrives ready-made for a revival of the Flintstones television series. [2]

From remote beginnings to proximate ends. Whether as apocalyptic cataclysm or revelation of ultimate truth, those who predict the end of time typically reckon its advent as their personally fated future, perhaps no more than a year hence. Some of those living in 1999 feared they would not survive the following year’s turn of the millennium. Although their world’s demise was immanent, the thought of being present to witness it was a consolation. At the preselected moment, if no apocalypse were to occur, the situation could be saved by admitting to miscalculation. Just set a new date, but not so far forward as to risk being outside the purview of public concern.


Robert Mangold, Curved Plane Structure 2, 2020 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

With a similar sense of temporal compression, those interested in art tend to think that within their own era an evolution in aesthetic sensibility has been developing extraordinarily rapidly. Perhaps this is just a convenient cliché of contemporary thought, my generation’s way of claiming a degree of historical uniqueness. I assume that my passage from the manual typewriter and rotary-dial telephone to the wireless electronic keyboard and smartphone has altered my everyday functioning as a sentient, perceiving being. As someone publishing on cultural history, I can’t imagine arguing otherwise, even though I can’t quite articulate how the sensibility I now feel differs from what I felt a few decades ago, before the digital revolution. The mere fact of living through an era—enduring the undeniable vividness of the lived-through—may be enough to produce an illusion of ever accelerated change, each day more alive than the previous one. Theories of change follow upon this illusion, confirming it as reality. To claim that little has changed within a particular discipline or mode of life is not a sexy observation. Outside of theology, theories of stasis gain little traction within contemporary debate. I’ve never attempted to promote one.

There must nevertheless be alternatives, for this apocalypse-now attitude reflects a short perspective. Perspective is inherently relative. Occasionally, an individual takes a long perspective, with a corresponding shift in the standard pattern of theorizing. Late in his extensive life of creative invention, Pablo Picasso expressed a sobering thought that appears, by the mere logic of endless time, indisputable. This notoriously proud individual, the beneficiary of global recognition, seemed to slight his own status within the history of art. He wasn’t demeaning the value of his efforts nor was he reckoning with an accumulation of doubt, for, most likely, he had none. He had done what he could do, and he knew that it was good. Or better, it was genius. Yet, in his moment of reflection, Picasso recognized how little had been accomplished by him or anyone else in relation to sheer possibility.

While local social issues and cultural tensions often summon our immediate attention, if not action, the overarching statistics of chance and possibility diminish the odds of notable change, which is likely arriving far more slowly than usually calculated. Imagining the distant origin of figural invention in whatever prehistoric cave had accommodated this first representational act, Picasso speculated that from the unrecorded time of Lascaux and Altamira forward to the early 1970s very little of the potential of figuration had been realized. [3] The history of art was an evolution in form that had hardly progressed from its infancy. Here, the logic is easy; but acknowledging the vast array of figuration across cultures and across the ages as no more than a beginning requires a temperamental perspective willing to estimate the count between one and fifty-six thousand as still rather close to zero.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 8, 2021 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

If a vast potential remains to be tapped, its source is not only the range of human inventiveness but also, and perhaps more importantly for Picasso and other studio artists, the reserve of possible human perception held within any material medium of expression. We cannot render real what we imagine we can see and feel until we see and feel it. If the material world is the source of human sensation, then novel experience, as opposed to mere memory, ought to derive, innocently enough, from materiality. Yet no experience, it would seem, retains its innocence. It must be subject to filtering through the standards and norms of the prevailing culture. Think of any living language as a parallel case. The language is a medium, even a material one, with its sounds and its looks. Dadaists, concrete poets, and other experimental writers exploit the materiality of language without stressing the linguistic resources to a point of utter failure, despite sometimes trying. Language is resilient. Taken to the height of its sophistication, it may seem either densely impenetrable or a version of nonsensical baby talk. Yet how much of it has never been spoken, written, or even thought? A passive respect for normative coherence limits the most rebellious linguistic agents along with everyone else.

Attracted to children’s art and street graffiti as much as to figures on the walls of caves, Picasso often returned his use of painting to rather childlike or amateurish configurations that nonetheless manifested the entirety of his accumulated aesthetic understanding, as in The Young Painter, 1972. He reduced his inherited conceptual framework to a field of free-floating sensory phenomena, projecting figural possibilities for all to perceive regardless of previous pictorial experience, no theorization necessary. His practice, like that of many who wrestle with an expressive medium, became a resource for self-stimulation, guiding his emotion as much as submitting to it. With the potential of the medium exposed, Picasso could intuit how little of it he and others before him had succeeded in using or had even attempted to use. If there existed an object, imprint, or tracing that the paleoanthropologists were willing to call Neanderthal art (as opposed to aesthetically oblivious tool making), I fantasize that Picasso would have tried to master the form himself, reinvigorating a long abandoned facet of figural carving or drawing. Neanderthal or Homo sapiens—it’s all hominid creativity, akin to Picasso’s sense of art. This ageless global fundament motivates Robert Mangold’s art as well.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 3, 2020 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

From Phenomenon to Idea

The world overflows with phenomena. They lead art forward, as art leads culture forward. Though dependent on phenomena, art also requires ideas, even organized theories, to open perception to the phenomena ready to be sensed. Yet, as I’ve implied, the culture or ideology that arises from a concatenation of ideas also restricts the range of phenomena to which a cultural unit, a society, responds. Exceptional artists extend the scope of what is accessible, but not without experiencing their own limitation—they too fall far short of perceiving all possibility. Picasso is not unique in having expressed skepticism over the relative advancement of art in his era. Nor is he alone in having acknowledged that the various practices of traditional media, as they continue to serve human interests, remain far from being exhausted.

In 1994, Mangold recalled some of the influential thinking associated with the artworld of the 1960s, the first decade of his mature career; he then reflected on his present situation three decades later. His assessment played on the structure of a syllogism, using its linear logic to stress the irony of its own empirically demonstrated collapse:

Albers said Angst is dead.
Minimal sculptors and critics said the same for Painting.
Conceptual theoreticians declared the end of the object.
And Earth Art signaled the end of the gallery.
So here we are many years later with a surplus of Angst, paintings, objects, and galleries. [4]

What, specifically, was Mangold’s rhetoric revealing? Josef Albers, born in 1888 in Germany, was removed from the supposed angst of the American Abstract Expressionists—doubly removed by his seniority and by his German Bauhaus experience. He experimented with colors, not feelings, as in Homage to the Square: Apparition, 1959. Yet Albers’s art hardly lacks feeling for anyone attuned to the emotional resonance of his chromatic interactions. [5] In Mangold’s reasoning, the specific example of Albers is secondary to the observation that the post-1960 world of art no longer cultivated nor even tolerated the display of anxiety and other drama-prone emotions.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 5, 2020 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

But had anxiety ever been prevalent as a dominant motivation for art? Surely not all members of the New York School were anxious, any more than all Florentine painters of the Madonna or the Crucifixion were paradigms of spirituality. Given the postwar romance with existentialism, anxiety became the default feeling attributed to painters, so long as a certain quivering or trembling could be discerned in the mark of a brush. By this standard, Mark Rothko and Philip Guston must have suffered a great deal of anxiety, while Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt experienced little of it. By 1994, Mangold had already witnessed a vogue for Neo-Expressionism among both American and European artists and critics. The drama of “Angst” had returned, whether as playacting or for real. Mangold took little interest one way or the other; the issue had no bearing on an art of direct sensation like his own. The fact that involvement with “Angst” could come and go, from decade to decade, indicated that the matter was in no way essential to aesthetic practice. It was a transient aspect of waves of cultural fashion.

Likewise, for the other three points of Mangold’s pseudo-syllogistic critique. The Minimalists declared the obsolescence of the medium of painting, the Conceptualists dispensed with material objects, and those committed to site-specific work in the land eliminated the need for white-cube exhibitions. Yet, by the 1990s, painting as a discipline was thriving and objects were being displayed for a growing public in urban galleries. Many painters were, like Mangold, guided more by aspects of the medium and how its qualities affect perception than by the resultant image, and what it might refer to, either denotatively or connotatively. In this respect, I think of painters such as Ellsworth Kelly, Bridget Riley, Jack Whitten, Chuck Close, and Suzan Frecon—just to start the list. And I can also place an electronic artist such as Jim Campbell into the same group. Whatever else may concern them, they all regard the medium as Picasso did, as a font of endless possibility.

The materiality of a medium such as painting generates sensations, which generate ideas. Mangold’s art plays with cognition as much as with its medium-oriented features of shape, color, line, and scale—the timeless elements of visual representation, now very much associated with abstract art. When the sensory qualities coordinate to produce the sense of a perspective, however irregular and unruly it might be, Mangold’s mass of phenomena begins to settle into a grid of thought. Perspective is both sensation and concept. As soon as I think about what I sense in Mangold’s art, the perception loses whatever innocence it had. My intellectual concern for sensation compromises my sensory perspective. Or rather, each perspective, sensory and cognitive, compromises the other. Mangold knows this all too well.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 4, 2020 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Analysis Fails

Mangold’s latest group of exhibited paintings are eccentrically shaped canvases with surfaces of monochromatic acrylic. About half of them include pencil demarcations. Working monochromatically removes from a painter’s repertory the devices of chiaroscuro (gradations of value or tone and tint) and couleur changeante (variation and contrast of hue), the two traditional means of representing the play of light as it articulates a volumetric form, providing an illusion of depth on a surface essentially flat. This type of illusion is no phantasmatic dream. It is real in the sense that everyone perceives it, whether the response is inherently physiological or the product of such ageless cultural conditioning that no one doubts the validity of the spectacle.

Mangold creates real illusions but not of the traditional type. In his case, any suggestion of movement in space must derive either from the external shape of his stretched canvas support or from whatever his pencil line determines, or from both. Conventionally, painters generate illusionistic depth by utilizing various devices of perspective (as when representing a mountain at a distance from a foregrounded scene). A perspectival space can result from elements of linear construction as much as from atmospheric color. If Mangold’s recent works have what we know as “perspective,” he has transferred the lines that would produce it from inside his pictorial surface to its outside, at the limiting edge of the canvas. As I’ve intimated, for all the effects he generates, he restricts himself to four aspects of pictorial articulation: shape, color (hue), line, and scale (size relative to some standard, such as the typical adult human body). All works in his new exhibition are either greater than human size or approaching that size; facing a viewer, the paintings project themselves as objects not to be ignored. Yet none of the features of these works strikes me as confrontational or aggressive.

Because the elements of Mangold’s art are few, one might think that their principles or rules of organization would be readily determined, that the elements might fall into place as the body of work became familiar through repeated viewings. This has not been my experience. The current of Mangold’s productivity flows faster than my cognitive capacities allow me to follow, so that each work arrives on my phenomenological horizon with a frisson of perceptual challenge. Every viewing holds surprise.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 6, 2021 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Question: What happens when I pass from sensation and emotion to perception and cognition, that is, when I resolve to think about what I see in Mangold’s recent art? As I attempt to generalize—because thinking requires this—it seems that each of Mangold’s shaped canvases involves (the illusion of) some sort of bend or fold, forward or back, or some kind of projection or recession. Following an arbitrary decision to regard the works in chronological sequence, I’ll attempt to express my basic comprehension of the Mangold experience.

First, Plane Structure 2, 2019. The painting appears to bend forward at a fold or hinge marked at center by a vertical pencil line. Such an impression results from the height of the trapezoid formed to the right of the line being greater at its right side than at its left (a larger element appears nearer than a smaller element of the same type). Despite a certain bilateral symmetry, it’s also easy enough for me to imagine that the upper and lower edges of the trapezoid keep expanding outward, as if the square to the left were an anchor for the more dynamic shape, the trapezoid, to the right. And I could go on . . . But going on is the problem, or rather, an experience of perceptual and cognitive puzzlement turned delight—a sensory pleasure founded in Mangold’s deceptively simple form, with its direct application of color that seems to assert presence. “Do not ignore this object,” the brownish hue seems to announce, perhaps because the color is so obviously an element of considered design rather than an incidental attribute of the general environment. The object and its color become curiously memorable, as if bearing some mysterious signification, like a valid mathematical theorem that no one is able to prove.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 2, 2019 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

A work in deep turquoise, Curved Plane Structure 2, 2020, suggests bending around a discrete corner. If the surface appears to curve, its curve or bow also seems tenuously faceted along a vertical pencil line, which marks a division. The projected form of this work hovers between curve and angle, depending on the degree of resolution associated with a particular viewing position (hard focus, soft focus, elements of anamorphosis). A work in olive, Plane Structure 4, 2020, folds and bends in so many ways that I won’t attempt a description of my mental processing, which flips and flops too quickly from one perception to another. The complexity of this work results from a more elaborate, yet still very simple, use of interior drawing. Mangold has inscribed a square within the left half of an expanding trapezoid. The square appears to stabilize this area of the trapezoid, setting it against the support plane of the wall, which introduces the bizarre possibility—not logical, but sensory—that the entire expanding shape also bends along its central vertical axis. This is what I “see”; and here, seeing is thinking. Plane Structure 5, 2020, has analogous complexities; a pencil line circumscribes a trapezoid that doubles as parts of a complex exterior shape; to cognition, the configuration becomes less complex if I imagine that a hinged trapezoid occludes part of a planar square from which the hinge operates.

Plane Structure 6, 2021, Plane Structure 7, 2021, and Plane Structure 8, 2021, manifest geometrically irregular shapes that regularize when conceived as juxtapositions of squares or trapezoids of varying relative sizes—larger and smaller or the same, on axis or skewed. When two or more squares or trapezoids relate as larger to smaller, the phenomenon evokes projection and recession, as if the same form were moving in space, toward or away. A trapezoid is itself evocative of a square that isometrically advances and recedes. If the unequal ends of the two trapezoids in Plane Structure 6 are measured, the ratios of reduction are 8 to 7 for the larger unit and 10 to 9 for the smaller. This too is a perceivable relation, one ratio to the other. A final work in deep sea blue, Plane Structure 9, 2022, suggests progression either from greater to lesser or lesser to greater; the progression advances within the shaped area as well as outside it, in the negative spaces produced by the stepped underside of the form, as each unit of the stepped edge increases in length (proceeding downwards). I have the puzzling sensation that the limit of this form doesn’t limit anything; it negotiates a phenomenological border.


Robert Mangold, Plane Structure 9, 2022 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

An Impetus to Title

As I’ve stated, Mangold titles his objects in so straightforward a way that little if any of the range of phenomena they generate seems captured in the language. The titles reference none of the virtualities, only the actualities. But Mangold’s virtualities are undeniable and therefore, for purposes of perception and cognition, real and actual.

As commentary and interpretation, an essay customarily acquires a title to announce its theme or hint at the scope of its argument. When I mull over Mangold, the idea of luster nags at my thoughts. Luster isn’t my theme, but it may be something of a guiding sensory experience. Luster is a natural property of various minerals and gemstones that reflect light, often doing so from an inner layer and with the phenomenon altering in accord with the perspective of the observer. In some contexts, especially when speaking metaphorically, luster can be synonymous with qualities of shine and brilliance. But the luster of Mangold’s art, with its matte surfaces, bears little relation to customary examples of brilliance, like the sun with its rays, or affectations to genius manifested in flashes. I like to imagine Mangold’s luster as a phenomenon that doesn’t entail what shine and brilliance usually connote. He doesn’t pretend to genius; no aspect of his art is flashy. There’s no shine because no shine is needed. To create a compelling art without resorting to shine is a remarkable feat in an age of pretension, affectation, and exaggeration.

So, I propose that Mangold’s surfaces are lustrous. Some of the effect must result from the translucent application of acrylic pigment spread over an opaque white ground. Mangold’s roller generates an array of marks that neither call attention to themselves nor seem entirely regular and fully controlled. Typically, the surface color varies in density, but only slightly, so that the variation itself provokes no search for cause or meaning. The surface, like a Mangold title, is anonymous and matter-of-fact. “My paint is not tactile,” Mangold says, “you’re not looking at a substance, you’re looking at color.” [6] His new body of work, with each canvas displaying only a single color, ranges from primary red and yellow to tertiary tones of olive and jade, and on to a rich but chromatically impure brown, as well as a very dark black. Mangold’s colors, I’ve always thought, appear saturated even though most are tints or tones of a purer version of the same. This pseudo-saturation, a kind of auto-illumination, evokes the phenomenon of luster. It contributes to the slow perceptual glow generated by sensing and musing over this art of real illusion. The luster insinuates itself and persists without diminishment or fade. If this luster is a sign, what is it indicating?


Robert Mangold, Curved Plane Structure 1, 2020 © 2022 Robert Mangold / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

Signs make me anxious over their meaning, always multiple, duplicitous, dubious. The whole of society suffers anxiety when the theorization of experience, whether that of early hominid life or that of our Picasso-Mangold moment, doesn’t pan out. Yet history records theories that do pan out; and when one does, it transforms its adherents into creatures of habit. Better to tolerate living with the license to doubt.

Luster is deep, profound; shine is glancing, superficial. Mangold’s luster, lacking the affectations of brilliance and shine, affords a vision that, transcending the impulse to generalize and theorize, obviates the need. His luster signals a probing sensory investigation without determinate beginning or end, linked to fifty-six thousand-plus years of aesthetic effort. Mangold dispenses with the vain pursuit of a theory that would organize ages of accumulated disorder. Though success in theorizing calms the rational mind, sensation and emotion sustain the human soul.

Luster (without the shine) indicates character and the presence of an ethic—elements of dedication, sincerity, humility, humanity—an ethic of experiential inclusivity and adventure. In recognition of all the ages of hominid existence, art acquires such an ethic, its luster. Mangold’s project, a point of positivity in a negative cultural environment, exemplifies the openness and promise of ethical art.

  1. Katie Hunt, “A tiny tooth unearthed from a French cave is upending what we know about early humans,” CNN, February 10, 2022, www.cnn.com/2022/02/09/europe/tooth-human-neanderthal-france-cave-scn/index.html (accessed February 18, 2022).
  2. I’m reminded of how Barnett Newman responded to news of an analogously momentous paleoanthropological discovery in China; it involved teeth of various sizes. The numbers meant nothing to him as he speculated on the psychological essence of humanity. “Original man, what does it matter who he was, giant or pygmy? What was he? . . . For if we knew what original man was, we could declare what today’s man is not. . . . Undoubtedly the first man was an artist”: Barnett Newman, “The First Man Was an Artist” (1947), in Barnett Newman: Selected Writings and Interviews, John P. O’Neill, ed. (New York: Knopf, 1990), 158.
  3. See Pierre Daix, “L’arrière-saison de Picasso ou l’art de rester à l’avant-garde,” XXe siècle 41 (1973): 13; Daix, “For Picasso, truth was art; and falsity, the death of art,” Artnews 72 (Summer 1973): 48–49.
  4. Robert Mangold, unpublished studio note, March 14, 1994; courtesy Robert Mangold.
  5. As for Mangold himself, many of his brighter colors, such as his reds, are unusual variants of familiar, primary hues. Slightly “off” the primary standard, they escape becoming evocative in any conventional manner. This quality of off-red ceases to connote roses, lips, blood, and the like. During the 1960s, Mangold believed that he could use color without the suggestion of emotion, detaching his feelings from his work; but he eventually realized that emotion, by one means or another, would always remain a factor; Mangold, statement to the author, July 26, 1998.
  6. Mangold, interview by Shirley Kaneda, Bomb 76 (Summer 2001): 30.
  7. A theologian might exclude the Word of God, if this too counts as referential signification, as opposed to direct inspiration.
  • Essays — Luster without the Shine: Richard Shiff on Robert Mangold, May 11, 2022