I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
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The Frances Dittmer Series on Contemporary Art.
To look at any painting by Robert Mangold is to see exactly what is there. For over 30 years, his work has been clear and direct. There is surface, color, line—both drawn and physical—forming the depicted and the literal. From this simple, primary vocabulary, Mangold has been able to explore a wide range of visual, aesthetic and physical relationships such as drawing in relation to the edge of the canvas, color in relation to texture, and shape in relation to space, consistently questioning the relationship of parts to the whole. Mangold, along with Robert Ryman and Brice Marden, is one of the few artists who have been able to sustain a tough and uncompromising position. Though often thought of as the quintessential representative of reductivism, Mangold’s work proves more complex than formal in its sources and ambitions, relying instead on the intuitive, and the dialogue between uncertainty and conviction. He is, like his paintings, thoughtful, forthright, steady and sympathetic. I met with Mangold at his home in upstate New York, where he has lived and worked since the early 1970s with his wife, Sylvia Plimack-Mangold, also a painter. Over coffee, we discussed the trajectory of his life and work, the problems of making a painting and the changing circumstances of the artist and the art world.
Shirley Kaneda You’ve lived in upstate New York for a long time.
Robert Mangold We bought a place in Sullivan County in ‘71 which we thought we’d just use in the summers. We liked being there and decided to try it year round, but it was too far from New York City; both Sylvia and I were teaching at the School of Visual Arts. So in ’75, we started looking for a place an hour out of the city and eventually found where we are now.
SK Why did you leave New York at that time?
RM It was complicated. We had one child and Sylvia was expecting our second. I had a studio, but Sylvia painted in our apartment and didn’t have much space. We were not in a great school district either. When I got a Guggenheim grant in 1971, we bought our first house in the country, which seemed like a way of solving a lot of problems. One reason for leaving the city was economic, but there was also a lot of disillusionment in the late ’60s, partially political, the assassinations and so on. And there was a kind of art world craziness, where dealers coming from Europe would expect to come into your studio by just knocking at your door. There was no privacy, your studio became a kind of showroom.
SK The critic Lucy Lippard was one of your early supporters. She came up with the term “the Bowery Boys” and you were one of them.
RM Well, I guess she was referring to the neighborhood where we all lived or worked. I met Lucy at the Museum of Modern Art where I worked, first as a guard and then in the library. Lucy was doing research work in the library and she was good friends with Sol LeWitt, who also worked at MoMA. The museum hired an interesting group of writers and artists at that time.
SK So what did the term “Bowery Boys” mean?
RM There was this group of artists who visited each others’ studio, knew each others’ work and maybe there were some shared attitudes, but it was more a community group. There were not many places to go, no bars or hangouts that I recall outside of Moishe’s, a deli. I remember playing softball in the summer.
SK How long did you live there?
RM Sylvia and I came to New York in the summer of 1962 after finishing up at Yale. At first we lived uptown, after getting this superintendent’s job in a small apartment house on East 72nd St. But then Lucy told us that there was a factory moving out of the building where she and Bob Ryman lived on the Bowery, three floors available for $180 a month. Sixty dollars a floor. So we got together with a couple of other artists and took the space. Sylvia and I just worked there, as we still had the apartment house deal uptown. Sometime later, Sol LeWitt heard about an apartment on Grand and Forsythe not far from the studio space on the Bowery. So, we dropped the super’s job and moved downtown. Sol lived on Forsythe, and Dan Graham was also nearby.
SK Was being part of that kind of community important to you?
RM It was important to have friends and be able to visit their studios and have them visit yours, because you need others who are sympathetic and interested to show your work to. And then through teaching and exhibiting your work, you meet others, so the circle expanded to people beyond the community itself. But, back then, someone could throw a big party in a loft, and get almost the whole art world into it. It was really a tinier community than what it’s become.
SK In one of your artist’s statements from a diary that you kept, I was surprised to read an entry about a show that you were having in 1994: When you were away from your show, all you could think of was the imperfections of your work, but upon returning to the gallery, you were reassured that they were very good paintings. You also mentioned that you were really concerned about the reception of the show. And I thought, “Wow! He still worries about that!” (laughter)
RM It’s true, it’s true. You see, my work goes through these changes and you have an audience of a certain kind who responds to your work, and of course when you make changes you wonder how others perceive the work. It’s not a question of sales but of whether you and your work get more isolated as you get older. All of us work out of our own bubble. And so you’re really curious, you really want an idea of what other people feel, because it doesn’t really happen in a community way anymore. Maybe it’s a little romantic to think that it ever did. Even though lots of us were friends in the ‘60s, most of the time we talked about baseball or whatever. It’s not like we sat around talking about problems in our art all the time.
SK Do you find criticism in terms of abstract painting today limited, or different in the way abstract painting is being perceived?
RM I must say—and this could be my false perspective—but as I recall, the criticism in the ‘60s, and maybe into the ’70s, was better. It seems there was more of it. Magazines fromArtforum to Art International had people writing with conflicting viewpoints. Everything is now somebody’s top ten. Who cares who this person’s favorite artist or musician is? I mean, why should I be interested? Nobody wants to talk about art formally, or almost nobody. I read less and less of it, because I just don’t find very much there. It’s hard to get a sense of what your contemporaries feel about a body of work. You know everybody’s going to come to your show and say, “Terrific, really terrific show.” You may get a review in the paper, if you’re lucky. And maybe two months later you’ll get a review in a magazine. I’m always curious about what people think, because, after all, making paintings is about communication of some kind. Having a show is really about sharing a group of ideas with other individuals.
SK It seems to me that people walk in, take a quick look and if it’s not something that keeps their attention, they walk out. That’s endemic to abstract painting, because it doesn’t have a narrative. It has concepts, but they’re much harder to decipher.
RM Well, my belief about painting is that it’s the most difficult art to grasp. And abstract painting makes it even more difficult, because the person walking in off the street doesn’t have a place to grab hold of. But painting is particularly difficult anyway, because of the whole lack of time in relation to it. If you come into a room where there’s an installation or a sculpture, you know to walk around it, it exists in your space with you; there’s no way to kill time in front of a painting. So people get very self-conscious—like, “What am I looking at? What am I supposed to be thinking about?” In video, dance, or music, there’s an automatic time limit built into the work, the person can adjust as they go along. But it’s so easy to look at a painting and say, “I don’t want to look at that,” and turn around. I do that myself. (laughter)
SK In terms of the trajectory of how your work has developed and changed, you’ve always said that shape is very important, probably the basis for making the paintings. The shapes have changed over the years, from squares that had corners cut out to double triangles and polygons and half-circles, etcetera. They’ve gone through different permutations. But do they refer to anything other than structure and what they are? Could those shapes, the circles, the squares, have a metaphorical content?
RM Well, they could, but it’s not something I think about initially. The work is a shape, but it’s a shape in relation to the drawn figure in the composition; it’s the marriage of those two things that starts the work in motion—what’s going to be inside and what the outside is going to be, or how the outside works in relation to the inside.
SK When I see one of your paintings, I always think of the space that it elicits. Not only the space within the painting, but the space or the environment that the painting occupies, which sometimes has arcs and columns that seem to refer to and echo the edge of the painting. That becomes a very physical experience.
RM I’m glad you feel that. This is an important element in my work. I first saw this sort of physical relationship to the viewer in Barnett Newman’s work. One of the reasons I like working large is this sense of relative scale from the person who’s viewing the work to me, the person who’s making it. But this scale has a limit. A 24-foot square painting is not the kind of relationship I’m concerned with. I like the idea of painting being relative to human size, to human space and human walls, not something that is overpowering in relation to human scale, nor something that’s too small. I do small works, but as studies for larger works. To me the larger work is the culmination of the idea. I want it to be the best representation of the idea. So I work in three or four sizes. I’ll start it on paper, then maybe it’ll be a small painting, and finally it ends up as a larger work.
SK Once you actually start painting, you’ve said that you’re never that invested in the process of painting. And I understand what you mean, but what goes through your mind when you’re actually making a painting?
RM Well, I use acrylic paint and I have to work quickly in the large works. So in the smaller studies I try to work out the structural elements, figure out the color, and how I am going to apply the paint, its consistency, those sort of things are worked out ahead of time. Then when I am painting the large work I’m totally absorbed in trying to get all the coating even, if that’s my objective. In a sense I become the painting assistant when I’m painting. I’m not really making aesthetic decisions. I go back into the role of the artist when I put the roller back in the tray.
SK It’s very matter of fact. I actually like this physical activity where you’re almost unconscious, because you’re not really thinking about anything, you’re just doing, but the end result doesn’t necessarily reveal the process or become the subject as in the work of Abstract Expressionist painters.
RM There’s a certain type of work using a brush where you’re painting and thinking and working almost simultaneously. But that’s not the case with me. When I’m up close and I’m painting on a big surface, I’m just absorbed in the most technical of things and then I sit back and think about the work, look at it. The Abstract Expressionists didn’t make sketches or studies. They didn’t believe in it. So the process that was going on had to be very different.
SK But your work is no less intuitive. I never thought of your work as purely analytical, because it’s termed minimal or reductive. It’s a dialogue between the intuitive and the analytical, because you can step back from intuition.
RM I would say that I am an intuitive artist, but not an improvisational one. I plan out ahead, but the decisions I make, which become the plan, are intuitive choices. I make a series of sketches or studies and one thing somehow draws me in. And I can’t say that this is because it is the better idea. It has nothing to do with that. It has to do with something that contains a possibility that is more intriguing than all the rest for me, at that moment and juncture.
SK So how do the incremental changes, the ways the shapes have changed over the years, occur?
RM Well, working habits take on a pattern after a number of years. You observe yourself, you become your own witness. I don’t mean habits in the sense of habitually going back to something that is comfortable. But I find that if I have an idea that opens up into a series of works, that idea usually lasts a year or two, or at the most three. And at that point, I have used the idea up. Maybe I’ll go back to it in some convoluted way later on. It’s not that I have exhausted every possibility, but I’m not getting anything new from it so I’ve got to make a move. And at that point, the process usually becomes a little bit painful for me. I go to the studio every day and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do. I try this, and that, but I’m not happy with this or that. So these transitions are always a time of insecurity and turmoil. And then suddenly something opens a door and you begin to see a series of works taking shape, and you begin working again.
SK You’ve always worked with fragments and your work consistently has to do with the relation of parts to a whole. What interests me particularly is the fact that each part can function as a whole.
RM What struck me when I first moved to New York was that so much of what we see, we see in fragments. We see part of a truck going by, or part of a building. We never see anything in completeness. And the first wall paintings, 1964-65, were involved in that idea of sections; each work is a totality, but it implies that much more could be there. I started doing the circle parts in ‘66, ’67. A half-circle is a complete shape despite the implication that it’s not a complete shape. A quarter-circle can be a complete form in and of itself and yet its name implies that it’s a quarter of something more. This is very much a part of the content of the work, something that extended to different series in different ways, this sense of completeness and incompleteness—or perhaps the impossibility of completeness.
SK A lot of the paintings you made in the ’90s were diptychs; one side would be a dark color and the other side a lighter color, and then of course there would be the shape of the painting, which was never a rectangle but a kind of skewed rectangle. They seem very disjunctive to me, which your work sometimes is, yet united by similar colors, or with the line that connects the fragments.
RM I have done this several times in my work. In one series of paintings, titled Ellipses and Frames, I had two quadrilateral shapes, an ellipse on one side and an angular frame structure on the other. I wanted to have these almost opposing structures, joined at one edge or even at only one point, make a single work. It was this struggle between the separation and unity that interested me. One of my inspirations for this series was Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which contains this struggle of styles within one picture.
SK How do you make decisions such as color choice, for example?
RM I have no rational system for making those choices—there’s no way to justify why I made a painting green, I just did. Color is usually the last element I put into a work, after I have everything else figured out. Sometimes if the form is slightly eccentric, then maybe to play that down I might use a subdued color. Or there’ll be a certain shape that I don’t want to be really dark on the wall. But it could be any light color, and why I choose to make it yellow, I don’t know.
SK Do your colors refer to something that exists outside of the painting? Something in the world?
RM Yes and no. Very early on I used referent colors that came from file cabinets, brick walls, cement gray. I still sometimes think of school bus yellow. I go out into the natural world all the time, in springtime I’m absorbed in the multitude of greens, and yet I don’t go back into the studio and decide to do a green series for spring. I never have those direct reflections, but there are ways in which, when I’m working on something, the color will remind me of something else that exists.
SK Your colors reflect more of a mood; they induce reflection in the viewer.
RM Yes, I’m looking for the right feeling. Their effect is partially because the paint is more color than it is paint. The paint isn’t physical, it almost isn’t there. I don’t use a brush because it gives you this connection to the hand that I find problematic. My paint is not tactile, you’re not looking at a substance, you’re looking at color. Even when I do surfaces that are very uneven, I use a roller rather than a brush.
SK It’s very transparent, but at the same time there is such a saturation of color, it gives depth to the paintings. I’ve always been in awe of that.
RM Thank you. This quality is particularly true of the work since 1980. I wanted the sense of being able to see through the image; when you get up close, you can actually see through the paint, it’s a film. There’s something about that I’ve found very intriguing. After the application of color, the surface becomes less tangible. With the pencil and the act of drawing, I reconfirm the surface as a flat plane.
SK It’s amazing how much a simple rectangle, a shape or a flat canvas can emanate. I think Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aura” in a work of art is precisely what interests me about painting. Somehow it doesn’t stay within the bounds of what it is.
RM I agree. Painting that I’m interested in has a dematerialized relationship to itself. I like that quality; it’s there, but you don’t think of it in terms of physicality. It’s part of our world and it’s not part of our world. It exists in this odd state.
SK Do you find it harder to make a painting now than when you were younger?
RM It is not any harder for me to make a painting now than it was 20 or 30 years ago except that I’m getting a little older and a little slower. I get the same pleasure out of seeing the outcome and existing in relation to it or going to see somebody else’s work or works from another time in history as I always have. It doesn’t seem to me like these ideas are ever used up. But as a young artist you’re totally in the flow of the moment, and it takes a little time to filter out what’s really important to you and what’s just a part of the flow. You find ways of separating yourself and pretty soon you don’t know what the flow is doing anymore, because you have found your own avenue that becomes so intriguing, rich and personal, that you feel totally disconnected from that other flow. That’s how people begin as artists.
SK In terms of other artists who jumped into the flow with you, such as Frank Stella, how did you see yourself in relationship to him, for example?
RM Well, Frank Stella was ahead of me, he was a model. When I first came to the city, like most young artists, I went to see Frank Stella’s work. He was already showing at Castelli and his works were very important to most of us. We sometimes overlook how important his work was to a lot of us whose ideas were forming.
SK You mention how artists grow and develop their own world and move in different directions. Stella has moved in contradictory ways. And your development has stayed more within your original premise. Shifts have taken place, but they’re not as extreme as Stella’s shifts.
RM That’s probably true. Although I always think that each time I make a change, it’s an incredibly big change. One of my fears when I first had a retrospective was that it was going to look like a group show. (laughter) I’ve always been jealous of work that is really consistent from beginning to end, that seems to be totally about one thing. I’ve wished I could do that. So I’m glad you think there is consistency.
SK It’s a consistency that expands on itself and transforms the premise as it goes along.
RM This is not to say that if someone makes radical shifts in their work it’s negative. Stella’s breakthroughs in the ’60s, which to me came out of Barnett Newman, produced a brilliant group of paintings.
SK Do you think those kinds of achievements are still possible today? Art that can extend its definition without dissolving itself?
RM I don’t know. I assume they must be taking place today. When I go to certain galleries in Chelsea, they’re filled with people. Nobody’s missing this or that show, people who are really topical at the moment, like Damien Hirst and Lisa Yuskavage. People are flocking to those shows. I think Warhol is in ascendance at the moment. That part of the contemporary flow is dominant. It almost prevents other kinds of breakthroughs from happening, because it’s about the edginess of subject matter in relation to the spectator. Whereas the early Stellas were all about a discovery of how you could make a painting that was totally different from what had come before. And when Morris Louis poured paint down, that was another new way of making an image that came out of Pollock. All these different things happened at that time, it was a great period for that kind of expansion, and we’re not in that period at the moment. I still believe in the possibility of making great paintings, and I think the dilemma for an artist is the same as it’s always been. When you go into the studio the question is: What can you do to make your day meaningful? When you go back to your studio the next day and look at what you did, if you’ve got a good feeling about that, it’s great, because you can say, “That was good what I did yesterday.”
SK It gives you such optimism and certitude, a sense of continuity. Your paintings were associated with Minimalism. Is that term still used in relationship to your work today?
RM Minimalism was considered more or less a sculpture movement. As you say, my work and other painters’ works were associated with Minimalism, but we were not really considered part of it. Sculpture was where all the focus was. But people still use the term. I think it’s more useful than saying I’m a “geometric painter.” “Minimalist painter” makes a useful reference, it connects to a time and place, the 1960s in New York. As far as the appropriateness of the term—it’s not really important. When I meet someone who asks what I do, I say, “I’m a painter.” And they say, “Well what do you paint?” And I usually respond with, “I do big abstract paintings.” And they don’t usually say anything after that, because there’s nowhere to go with it. (laughter) But it gives them an idea.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee