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With Robert Mangold, I enjoyed thinking about what autonomous art might entail. Beyond the routine social constructionist dismissals of this possibility, it obligates considerations more complex than an “Against Interpretation” kind of appeal to raw experience. With their internal sequences rooted in physical reality and construction details, Mangold’s paintings provide objective criteria by which to evaluate them. These criteria count for more than any individual interpretation of them.
Such an aesthetic autonomy would require that an artist have some kind of intuitive calculus for tacking against a continuously changing culture, for resisting what Richard Shiff characterizes as “generalized meaning” (16), or, what Robert Storr calls a case of an artist emphasizing “nuance [over] irresoluble ambiguity” (80). In addition to essays by Shiff and Storr, Phaidon’s richly illustrated monograph contains a reading of a recent series by Arthur C. Danto and a retrospective survey by Nancy Princenthal. Selections from Mangold’s writings are also included, as is a new interview conducted by the artist’s wife, Sylvia Plimack Mangold. Each contributor confronts the strong claim for autonomy made by Mangold’s paintings, an autonomy which affords the pleasure of testing methods, arguments, and conclusions against one another.
Richard Shiff claims that Mangold’s painting “does more than it knows and must always be re-evaluated,” arguing that its meaning involves three cultural values: autonomy, actuality, and expertise. His argument, anchored by 230 footnotes, is that the paintings resist anything but literal description, a contention bolstered by philosopher of science Michael Polanyi’s examination of experience and the more familiar writings of Paul de Man. In this sense, the art, as autonomous, belongs to the “first-hand world of direct experience” that sociologist C. Wright Mills (a colleague of Meyer Schapiro) opposed to the second-hand, banal world people inhabit (34). Such first-hand experience is visual, and in art is, according to Clement Greenberg, necessarily and essentially of a material nature. For Shiff, what distinguishes Mangold’s materialism from others of his era, is that it is “neither formalist (Greenberg) nor Minimalist (Morris), neither picture nor object. Rather, it is of a type that moves ‘outside’ by becoming ‘between’” (47). This between-ness is actuality—"blanks of immediate experience between moments of ‘meaning’"—a concept examined in George Kubler’s Shape of Time (47). Mangold’s actuality requires a “will to self-reliance,” an expertise set against broadly accepted cultural discourses (56). Consequently, Mangold rightly “regards his art as indeterminate”: his paintings are “neither his final answers, nor ever fully direct answers, to any of the lasting questions” (56).
Sylvia Plimack Mangold begins her curiously detached interview—she has been married to her subject since 1961—by asking about Mangold’s early experiences with New York School abstraction, yielding an interesting response that supports Shiff’s (and Storr’s) contentions: Rothko’s Orange and Yellow (1956) made him “realize what painting’s unique reality was: neither object nor window. It existed in the space in between” (60). Mangold also reveals the belief that—despite his groups of work being governed by rules—his art derives from an emotional wellspring; in addition, he acknowledges, in an understated way, that he does not make his art easy for viewers.
Robert Storr opens with an extended and urgent formal analysis of the Museum of Modern Art’s Blue/Black Five-panel Zone Painting (1998)—urgent because “abstract discourse about abstract art encourages the belief that the important things to be said about such art are general,” which is not the case (75). He traces Mangold’s career, invoking a litany of allegedly still-relevant touchstones of experiential “painting culture” (96): Newman, Rothko, Kelly, Still, Stella, Ryman, Albers, Katz, Held, Marden, Rockburne, Judd, de Kooning, Matisse, and Duccio. This live context—built to counter tenets of postmodernism—underwrites Storr’s emphasis on Mangold’s unfashionable, intuitive engagement with material concerns, a practice driven by discriminative looking, an emphasis on particulars, and the disruption of perceptual habits. He offers five overarching positions that Mangold’s art is between, since “‘between-ness’ is the basic condition of Mangold’s art and its basic metaphor” (113). The art exists between part/whole, formal stability/abnormality, matter/illusion, model/work, and discrete/unified. These between-nesses are quite different from Shiff’s, since they serve as a bridge from our own experiences—aesthetic, psychological, and spiritual—to those of others.
Like Storr and Princenthal, Arthur Danto has repeatedly published on Mangold. In the briefest of the volume’s essays, he argues that the series of Zone Paintings (begun in 1996) assert their autonomy by holding the architecture they evoke at bay. In reaching this conclusion, he deploys two extended analogies and two discussions of architecture: the diptychs and polyptychs included in the series have zones of color that are not coextensive with the physical borders of the panels. Often, two zones of identical color flank a central one of non-color. Danto likens the resulting unease caused by the discordant zones and panels to the tension that surrounded the partition of India: should Pakistan be one country with two distinct regions (zones) or instead be split into two sovereign nations? Furthermore, as is always the case with Mangold, the rules for these works are antecedent, and thus each work within the group is internally related in a sequential manner, just like children in a family. None are instantiations of an ideal, as in, Danto ventures, series by Motherwell and Diebenkorn. Since geopolitical entities and families misbehave, so to speak, the paintings contain asymmetries that mitigate their initial classical impression. This distinguishes their effect from that of, say, Alberti’s façade of Santa Maria Novella, where the architecture is shaped by classical demands. But, since Mangold held Matisse’s mural La Danse for the Barnes in mind when he made the Zone Paintings—which “project a kind of Zoroastrian cosmology” (156)—they suggest their own architecture, the converse of Matisse’s made-to-fit work (156). Hence, they are autonomous.
In the middle of the book is a selection from Mangold’s writings, including the previously unpublished “Flat Art” (1967), catalogue statements from 1988, 1992, and 1993, and studio notes from 1993-94. Though he previously withheld “Flat Art” from publication, it would have been useful in the 1960s (and is interesting now) to hear a rare defense of painting from a young vanguardist: “[F]lat art can be seen instantly, totally. This could be called its natural advantage” (162). The scantiness of the selections, however, is disappointing. Did he write nothing between 1967 and 1988? I suspect the untrendy Mangold holds engaging views on our culture-in-flux, and I would have liked to have read them.
Nancy Princenthal’s “A Survey of the Paintings” is the final entry, save for the chronology and selected bibliography. She presents a much needed—if necessarily incomplete and Mangold-centric—intellectual history of abstract painting after the New York School. Beginning with preliminary biographical matters such as Mangold’s education (he did not work with Albers), the study proceeds decade by decade. She commences with the broad concerns of the 1960s and narrows to close with Mangold’s recent works, including the Zone Paintings, which she understands quite differently from Danto. Shifting from geopolitical to musical analogies, she sees them as “sonorous orchestral compositions” (276). Her ending is apt for a volume such as this, allowing the more speculative contributions to be judged in light of the hefty biographical and historical information.
A delightful book for modernists, Mangold’s paintings are refreshing in their extremity. They prove how tough it is to write about an art so fully resistant to translation. While any art can acquire ‘meanings,’ Mangold’s shows that there is a difference between making art about something and making art.
Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago