I did not expect to write about Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s celebrated paintings of floors and rulers, which she made at the outset of her career. After all, it was only four years ago that I wrote a three-part article, “Why There Are Great Artists,” for Hyperallergic Weekend (March 31, April 7, and April 15, 2012) that pretty much covered her entire oeuvre. I went to the exhibition Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Floors and Rulers, 1967–1976 at Craig F. Starr Gallery (February 5 – March 26, 2016) because I did not want to miss this rare gathering of works, many of which are in private collections. The other, more primal reason was because I have always gotten a tangible pleasure from them.
Plimack Mangold’s floor and ruler paintings are smart, tough, assured, direct and, more than forty years after she did them, they remain challenging: works in which she literally and figuratively cleared a space for herself in ways that have yet to be fully recognized. Looking at them again, I realized the extent of their staying power. Many artworks made just a few years or decades ago have not aged well; they look like period pieces. That’s not the case with Plimack Mangold’s floor and ruler paintings.
In the late 1960s, when the art world was riddled with doctrinaire attitudes and exclusionary hierarchies, young artists felt pressured to join in the eschatological search for truth. To her everlasting credit, Plimack Mangold took the Groucho Marx approach – she refused to join any club that would have her. For this and other reasons, Plimack Mangold, along with Lois Dodd, Catherine Murphy, and a handful of others, occupies a little acknowledged position in American painting: determined independence.
Walking across the floorboards of this Upper East Side gallery, I realized that Plimack Mangold’s paintings of floors do much more than what has been attributed to them, by myself and others, which means they do a lot. First, she equates craft with unadorned necessity – the floor on which I was standing was made of planks fitted together, stained and varnished. A similar wooden floor is featured in many of the paintings that I was looking at. If Minimalism was about getting down to irreducible essentials, the limit – Carl Andre placing bricks or sheets of lead on the floor of a pristine white cube – Plimack Mangold went one step further and got down to the floor itself. By doing so, and remaining true to the pattern of the floorboards, she incorporated aspects of Minimalism into her painting without succumbing to its flamboyant rhetoric about keeping the paint as good as it was in the can. Having attitude was of no interest to her.
By placing the painting of a floor on the wall, Plimack Mangold in effect leapt from one place to another without disguising her origins – something many Americans try to do. In making that leap, she advanced that the division between life and art might not be as great as various commentators and artists have repeatedly posited, and that the bond between them might be more important than the division.
The earliest painting in the exhibition, “Floor 1” (1967), looks back to Gustave Caillebotte’s great painting, ‘The Floor Scrapers” (1875), which is one of the first representations of urban workers. In her painting, a geometrically inscribed plane of tightly fitted vertical and horizontal floorboards tilting backward from the picture plane as the eye rises rises from the bottom to the top edge. There are no workers in Plimack Mangold’s painting and the angle of the view does not come across as proprietary, as it does in Caillebotte’s painting. We could be the people about to move into this space, the ones who have moved out and are about to hand the keys over to the next inhabitants, the ones who just finished staining and varnishing the floor, the ones who just mopped it clean, or children sitting up to survey the floor on which they have been crawling about – renters, owners, workers, or children. The viewers inhabit a spectrum that stretches toward the past while facing toward the future.
In addition to having its own distinct wood grain pattern, each floorboard is “stained” a discrete tonality. There is a constant tension between the individual boards and the uniformity of their appearance – which echoes the individualized stars in the canton of Jasper Johns’ “Flag” (1954-55). In the floorboards, Plimack Mangold alludes to monochromatic painting, geometric abstraction, Minimalism, and Color Field or stain painting, which is to say the aesthetic environment in which the work was made, without resorting to citation or parody.
Moreover, the viewer would not be wrong to remember that Jackson Pollock made his poured paintings on the floor. Instead of trying to do the next cutting edge thing – which is what the Minimalist and Color Field artists and their champions claimed they were doing – Plimack Mangold undoes that narrative of progress by going back to the beginning without rejecting what was happening around her (abstraction, geometry, stain painting). If anything, she acknowledges Pollock’s precedent by shifting the unadorned necessity of the floorboards’ pattern into the domain of painting, where, according to those writing about Abstract Expressionism, paint became paint. Moreover, by having the repeating pattern of the floorboards pressing against the painting’s physical edges, Plimack Mangold establishes a tension between expansion and containment, recalling the criticism among some that Pollock didn’t deal with the painting’s edges.
The emptiness of the floor – the fact that there is nothing on it to indicate anything about the room’s inhabitant – evokes the indifference of time. Eventually, the traces of our daily life will be wiped away, hopefully replaced by another. This is why I think these early paintings are great: they give me so much to think about that I would be remiss not to say so. And yet, perhaps what is equally important to remember – in this age when people are famous for being famous – Plimack Mangold does not claim to make a big statement, does not resort to sturm und drang theatrics, does not make a post-easel-sized painting, does not declare that some aspect or occurrence in her early life has made her special.
The challenge for Plimack Mangold and other perceptual painters was how to absorb developments in art in a thoroughly novel way without becoming reactionary or succumbing to fashion. It’s a line that few artists walk and most museums ignore. Her paintings, watercolors and drawings of floors and rulers seem deeply motivated by her devotion to get the plainest facts right – this includes a patch of sunlight on a wall or floor, the different tonalities of each stained and varnished floor board, and linoleum’s matte surfaces. Despite all the changes her work has undergone since the mid-60s, an unwavering devotion to the interaction of light, atmosphere and form continues to run through everything she does.
This is what is so smart about these paintings: they comment on lots of cutting edge art going on at the same time that they were being made while remaining faithful to something as seemingly old fashioned as perceptual realism, which – while the basis of modernist art, starting with Claude Monet and Paul Cezanne – was said to have run its course with the rise of Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. Plimack Mangold proves this telling to be just that – a fiction.
In the painting, “Exact Ruler II” (1974) – which was completed seven years after “Floor I” – Plimack Mangold depicts a stainless steel ruler that spans just beyond its stamped 17 inches – an odd length – lying on a wooden floor of tightly abutted vertical planks. If everything can be measured, and brought into man’s domain, as Mel Bochner’s Measurements series (1968-69) suggests, with the results of knowing a measurement becoming an empty meaning, Plimack Mangold’s placement of her ruler on the floor offers another viewpoint: we are on the cusp of infinity and our measurements remind us of how little we actually experience. “Measureless to man,” as Samuel Taylor Coloeridge wrote in his great poem, “Kubla Khan.” In a world undergoing ceaseless change – both small and cataclysmic – there is something remarkably refreshing about an artist devoid of attitude. This absence is even more striking so many years later when attitude of all kinds fills the airwaves and seemingly everyone in the art world – from artists and collectors to curators, critics and dealers – wants to let the world know how special they are. Perhaps we can be inspired by these paintings and get to a place of unadorned necessity.
Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Floors and Rulers, 1967–1976 continues at Craig F. Starr Gallery (5 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 26.