Why There Are Great Artists (Part 3)

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, "Winter Maple" (2010) (all images copyright the artist)

Editorial note: This is the final in a three-part series titled “Why There Are Great Artists.” Parts one and two were published in previous editions of Hyperallergic Weekend.

The rigorous parameters that Sylvia Plimack Mangold established in her earlier bodies of work (the floor paintings and the landscapes framed by “tape”) continue to inform her paintings of individual trees (specifically the maple, elm, locust, and pink oak), which have been focus of her attention since the early 1980s. Year after year, in different seasons and subtly changing light, the artist has returned to the same handful of subjects seen from the same tightly cropped viewpoint.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, "Summer Maple 2010" (2010) (click to enlarge)

The implicit challenge is to see the same subject fresh, to discover it anew through the use of a particular medium. For Plimack Mangold, seeing and touch are inseparable. One senses that she feels her way across the surface, as she did in her floor paintings. When she draws in graphite, she is conscious of the tension between contour and volume. In her watercolors, she registers different kinds of light, and their interaction with surfaces and rounded volumes. And in the paintings, she explores the various stresses between surface and depth. From the linear to volumetric, from light and transparency to opacity and surface detail, each medium emphasizes different requirements on her alertness to a set of particularities.

By 1992, the “tape” was no longer present in any of her work. (Although covered in paint, the “tape” is still visible along the painting’s edges in “The Maple Tree” (1992).) At the same time, the artist was moving closer to her subjects, eventually focusing on a single tree, rather than a group of them. In addition, Plimack Mangold began employing a frontal viewpoint in which it seems as if we are not standing on solid ground, some distance from the tree, but hovering in the air like a hummingbird, avidly gazing at the upper portion of a fairly common tree.

The recurring framing of the tree’s upper portion, with neither the main trunk nor the end of the highest branches visible, may be (practically speaking) impossible from a human point of view, but it is also, as I see it, absolutely integral to the artist’s intentions. There is nothing casual or arbitrary about Plimack Mangold’s decisions. By refusing to work within the conventions of landscape painting, particularly those that convey an omnipotent vantage point (a sign of ownership), she was able to define a radical perspective, which I would advance is simultaneously aesthetic and ethical.

Like her views of the maple tree, in both winter and summer, we too are in the middle, unable to see either the beginning or the end of a constantly growing and changing form. The elevated viewpoint also makes us more conscious of our bodies, implicating us as surely as the viewpoints we encountered in the artist’s floor paintings.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, "The Maple Tree (Summer)" (2011) (click to enlarge)

In the paintings of the maple in winter, the tightly cropped space is paradoxically compressed and vast, while the paintings of the same tree in the summer convey a complex space that viewers must intuit because it is hidden by the splays of leaves pressing up against, as well as hanging at different angles to, the picture plane. The leafy branches become, in effect, slightly bending, protective planes made of distinct, mosaic-like units.  We are on the outside, but we cannot look in, while with the paintings of the leafless maple we both look at and through.

Meticulous in her attention to each floorboard and section of linoleum, Plimack Mangold has brought this same degree of concentration to the trees, to the bare winter branches in winter and to the multifaceted, overlapping and intersecting patterns made by their leafy branches in the summer.  Her sensitivity to the interplay between light and surface, which we first witnessed in paintings such as “Floor with Light at Noon” (1972), has become particular to the point of being preternatural.

By repeatedly exploring the same viewpoint, and registering the tension of surface and depth as it plays out on the picture plane, Plimack Mangold has been able to slow down and to some extent shape time, even as she acknowledges that she lives in its continuous passing.  As evidenced by the way she frames her subjects, she recognizes that reality always exceeds what the individual can apprehend of it.

While observers have pointed out that the paintings of the maple in winter are calligraphic and the ones of the same tree in the summer are all-over in their composition, I think it diminishes her work to see it as art about art. In her floor paintings, she was in conscious dialogue with the work of her peers, particularly the Minimalists, but that certainly wasn’t all that was going on. More than forty years later, she has moved into a territory that is more particularly her own. She has folded her understanding of the individual’s relationship to the everyday world into her circumscribed views. In this regard, her paintings are philosophical and self-reflective, and have been since the beginning of her career.

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Sylvia Plimack Mangold, "Summer Maple" (2010)

Each maple leaf is oriented toward the picture plane. Some seem to be almost pressing against it, as if against an invisible windowpane. Others are parallel to, but at some distance from, the picture plane. And still others are tilted away from the surface or are pointing at it. It is impossible to determine if there is an underlying pattern or axis towards which all the branches are oriented. There is a pleasure that is to be gained from getting lost in the painting, from following it wherever it takes us. More than offering us a space for looking, it is also offers us a space of contemplation. Among other things, one is likely to notice the different degrees of finish in the leaves. Some are outlined in a darker green, turning them into ghostly silhouettes. Others seem to hover between precise shape and a smear of paint. Change, rather than stillness, is at the heart of the summer paintings, a sense that they are both complete and incomplete. Plimack Mangold may have gotten rid of the tape, but that doesn’t mean she changed her philosophy.

Looking at these paintings requires us to constantly refocus our attention, to  move across and in and out of the implied spaces. Along with making the position and repetitive shape of each leaf distinct, Plimack Mangold registers the shifts of light and shadow on the leaves’ surfaces. Some areas, almost always near the painting’s edges, are more abstract — a spread of paint, for example.

Within a relatively small area, the leaves can change from outlined silhouettes to planes in the distinctive shape of a maple leaf. And within a single painting the light can shift from crisp to hazy. Clearly, Plimack Mangold has decided to be precise and meticulous without using photographs. One reason she might have rejected using mechanical means, such as a camera, is because it intervenes, taking some of the responsibility out of her hands. Using her eyes alone also enables her process and image to exist outside of a specific moment.

The space we intuit in the summer maple painting, but cannot see, evokes a vision of the self as having an exterior and interior, a public presence and a private space, which are distinct but connected. The leaves don’t form a perfect armor, so to speak. The surface (or skin of the painting) is made up of parts that form clusters. It is vulnerable to light, air, and weather — the everyday world.

On looking at ordinary things and suggesting that they possess inaccessible spaces, Plimack Mangold makes a subtle but important distinction between the personal and the private, which runs counter to a media-glutted world in which reality TV and confessional memoirs are popular. Reality TV collapses the personal and private. It tries to convince viewers that there is no difference between reality and fiction, and that ultimately one wants to expose everything because there are only surfaces, that we live in a house of mirrors in which there is no self, only reflections and projections of our material desire.  By neither joining nor fighting mainstream culture, Plimack Mangold proves that another choice can be made.

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Sylvia Plimack Mangold, "Winter Maple" (2007)

The winter maple paintings are a tangle of upward reaching, tan branches pressing against a muted blue sky, the concrete and the limitless. Tonally, each branch changes as it rises up. Sometimes the artist registers the change from shadow to light. Other times, the brushstroke stops and becomes a different color. As a rule, the branches tend to be slightly lighter at the top, because they are closer to the light.

There is a tension between the edges and the spreading, rising branches. The fact that we cannot see the tree in its entirety underscores our own desire to see and experience more, as it acknowledges that there will always be a limit, which we bump up against. In this regard, the rising branches mirror the viewer’s desire to see and know more. At the same time, by tightly cropping the view, the artist introduces a note of discomfort and unease.

Looking at Plimack’s maple and locust trees, we are not sure where we are. There is literally and figuratively no ground on which we are standing. It is also true that we cannot see everything we want, and certainly have no access to either the beginning or the end of the very thing in front of us, much less something larger and more comprehensive. And yet for all the possible frustration and gloom such consciousness might produce, that is not what comes across in the paintings.

There is the artist’s quiet devotion to the everyday, with no sign that she is discontent or wishes to be elsewhere. There are the brushstrokes that change as they move up the painting’s surface, registering subtle change. There is her evident openness to the commonplace, to sunlight and sky. It is apparent by everything we encounter in the painting, from the slight tonal shifts in the muted blue sky to the sturdy brushstrokes that we read as branches, that Plimack Mangold welcomes the ordinary facts of the material world, as well as surrenders to the pleasures of seeing beauty in change and the everyday. Recognizing that time has dominion over her, she repeatedly refuses to look for sanctuary.  Together, both what she does and doesn’t do become the hallmarks of her greatness.

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