Installation view of “Robert Mangold: A Survey 1965-2003” (2017), Mnuchin Gallery, New York. Left: “Plane/Figure Series G (Double Panel)” (1994), acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 84 x 98 inches. Right: “Plane Figure Series A” (1993), acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 112 x 168 inches (all photos by Tom Powel Imaging and courtesy Mnuchin Gallery)

Robert Mangold makes you aware that a painting is a flat fragment mounted on a wall, with further tensions expressed through the relationship between interior line and container. He has alluded to architectural structures, such as a column, or used the open interior of a multi-panel painting to frame an empty rectangle on a wall, with a continuous oval line  contributing an additional framing element. For Mangold, more than any other artist of his generation, painting is contingent, rather than self-sufficient. It is part of an active relationship.

Over the years, I have noticed that the dialogue between the work and the wall is often the first factor of Mangold’s work to hold my attention: it prompts me to look for other dialogues. At times, there is a feeling of lightness that is counterbalanced by a sense of weight. For instance, the bottom edge of many of his works is wider than the top. Gracefulness and awkwardness often become indistinguishable. In the best works — and there are many — the stress is exquisite.

The dialogue that Mangold initiates between painting and wall raises the issue of vulnerability, which is not a state we necessarily associate with large abstract works. In contrast to many similarly scaled paintings, his work never comes across as authoritarian. No matter how large they are, they don’t sit on the wall like “an 800 pound gorilla,” as Thomas Nozkowski characterized the monumental works he saw in the 1970s. There are too many tension points running through the work — from the line’s relationship to the painting (or container) to the painting’s relationship to the wall — for it to come across as self-satisfied or controlling.

Installation view of “Robert Mangold: A Survey 1965-2003” (2017), Mnuchin Gallery, New York

This sense of a painting as a portable fragment with pressure points along  graphic and actual seams becomes readily apparent when we look at works the artist has done at various points in his career, which is the case with Robert Mangold: A Survey 1965 – 2003 at Mnuchin Gallery (February 14 – March 25, 2017).

In an early work,  “½ W, V, X Series (Orange, Green, Blue)” (1968), three semicircles are at once complete and incomplete. The artist has cut and fitted four vertical pieces of masonite to create each semicircle, as well as used a black pencil to draw either four or six diagonal lines within the masonite sections. Each of the drawn lines intersects the cut edge of the masonite at one corner or the other. The logic feels intuitive, something discovered within the parameters the artist has set for himself.

Robert Mangold, “Pink Area” (1965), sprayed oil on Masonite on plywood, 96 7/16 x 96 7/16 inches

At a time when many considered drawing and painting to be separate and distinct activities, Mangold united them in a way that must be called Mangoldian. This means that he has united them while simultaneously giving each its own place, creating another site of tension.

In “Circle Painting # 4” (1973), Mangold draws a square in white pencil on the circle’s violet ground. The lines of the square, meet the circle’s circumference on the left, but do not do so on the right, extending instead beyond the outer edge. This simple fact is visually arresting. The square’s missing right corners introduce a note of instability into the circle’s otherwise stable form. Nothing, you might conclude, is secure or permanent. Although I do not think this was Mangold’s intention, his work seems to incorporate the quiet doubt running beneath everything we undertake, the sense that whatever we plan to do, we might very easily have miscalculated. For all of their coolness and classicism, this is what makes the work feel deeply human to me.

Robert Mangold, “Four Color Frame Painting #13” (1985), acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 94 3/4 x 72 inches (left) and “Red/Green X Within X #2” (1982), acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 67 x 75 inches (right)

In “Four Color Frame Painting # 13” (1985) — which is from one of my favorites series by this artist — Mangold brings together four narrow, monochromatic rectangles of different lengths and widths to frame a rectangular space on the wall. While the canvas on the top rests on those making up the sides, it does not fully span across the vertical on right. In fact, there is something misaligned about the whole structure. At the same time, Mangold has drawn an oval line that goes through each of the four rectangles. This line holds the canvases in place (literally instructing the installer  where the sections should be aligned). The line touches the  exterior edge of three rectangles, but not the pale green one on the right. By using the line to unite the four sections  while avoiding the outer edge of  the right panel, Mangold makes the viewer conscious of balance and imbalance. Meanwhile the oval — or head-like contour — adds another consideration into our experience. What are we to make of this absence palpably present before us?

In paintings made of two and three panels, the drawn ovals within them contract, expand, and intersect. In “Curved Plane/Figure VIII (study in three parts)” (1995), an oval on the right leans against  a second, erect one situated between the painting’s middle and left sections, evoking a classical head resting against another. The ovals are abstract, and we are projecting this reading onto them. And yet Mangold invites this projection, with its suggestion of tenderness, without devolving into sentimentality. This is why Mangold is such an important and necessary artist: he always finds a way to inject feeling into his work.

Robert Mangold, “Plane Figure Series A” (1993), acrylic and black pencil on canvas, 112 x 168 inches (left) and “Circle Painting #4” (1973), acrylic and white pencil on canvas, diameter 48 inches (right)

It seems to me that Mangold has extended something he probably first saw in Barnett Newman, in paintings such as “Black Fire 1” (1961) and “Vir Heroicus Sublimis” (1951), which is the intuitive sectioning of the surface through line and colored planes. In Mangold’s work, the relationship between line and container reaches an even more acute pitch. By establishing a dialogue between the painting and the wall, he also reminds us that relationships are the basis of being, and that nothing achieves self-sufficiency, not even abstract art. At the heart of this is an awareness that everything is subject to change. Mangold is not a reductive artist, but one who found a way to work with basic elements (color, line, and shape) that could not be reduced any further. He infused these elements with an unmistakable sensibility that is open and humane. In this regard he stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from Frank Stella’s aggressive materialism.

Robert Mangold: A Survey 1965 – 2003 continues at Mnuchin Gallery (45 East 78th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through March 25

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...