Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “Absent Image” (1972) (all images copyright the artist)

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

Before writing about Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s shift from interiors to landscapes, I think it is useful to once again consider the floor paintings, which she worked on for about a decade, beginning in 1967. It is in these paintings that the artist defines an approach to subject matter from which she has never wavered. She will paint only what she observes, but with more rigorous parameters than simply investigating her immediate circumstances. Her subject matter will never suggest an elsewhere or material plenitude. She will make no allusions to fantasy, leisure, or social status. It is incumbent on us to reflect upon what she does and doesn’t do.

The domestic, as Plimack Mangold defines it, isn’t just an alternative to the heroic; it is also resistant to any form of escapism, consumerism, appropriation (which is a form of consumerism) or anything else that would set the artist apart as an especially sensitive or privileged individual. Plimack Mangold’s definition of the domestic arises out of her conscious joining of the aesthetic and ethical.

Among the other observational artists for whom the conjoining of the ethical and aesthetic is central, I would point to Lois Dodd, Catherine Murphy, Rackstraw Downes, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Isabel Quintanilla and Peter Dreher. For all of their so-called conservatism, attributed to their commitment to direct observation and meticulous painting, I would advance that their work is radical for the following reasons.

The art world doesn’t have a place for their work and so constantly tries to stick it in a ghetto, such as “realism,” which hasn’t been considered modern enough since Cubism. This term ignores the conceptual implications of their approach to subject matter. And to make matters worse, Hal Foster and other influential art historians have repeatedly reiterated that since the artist cannot possibly beat a consumer-driven society, he or she must join it (a la Andy Warhol) by celebrating (or reveling in) its love of materialism, celebrity, spectacle and theatricality, which by some logic becomes an institutional critique.

But the idea of either beating or joining a group is a masculine view of the artist’s options. As all of the above-listed artists prove in their work, one can choose to do neither. Each of them has declined to be a leader or a follower, which isn’t to say they’ve dropped out or somehow become eccentric.

Among younger artists, which is to say those born around 1960 or after, who are interrogating the possibilities of direct observation, I would single out (in addition to Josephine Halvorson, whom I mentioned in my earlier post), Ellen Altfest, Sangram Majumdar, Joshua Marsh and Richard Baker, particularly his gouaches, in which he equates the work of art with a used book cover or record jacket (collectible or cultural detritus?).

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Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “Nocturnal Ellipse” (1981)

Plimack Mangold’s floor paintings can be roughly divided into three groups: those with parquet patterns and with a heap of laundry, 1967–71; those with mirrors and light cast from a window, 1971–76; and the ones with rulers and masking tape, 1975–77. Done over the course of a decade, each group was determined by where the artist lived. She is a diaristic painter who focuses on the domain of seeing rather than privileging the “I.” During this ten-year span, she and her husband, the abstract painter Robert Mangold, lived in Manhattan before moving in 1971 to Callicoon, north of the city. In 1977, they moved to Washingtonville, where she and her husband have lived for the past thirty-five years.

In 1971, Plimack Mangold introduced a new element, a full-length, wood-framed mirror, into her work. The mirror’s vertical shape suggests that it can be read as a surrogate for the viewer. In “Absent Image” (1972), the floor continues in the mirror, which reflects two rooms, the one in which it is situated and an adjacent room, which is literally behind where the viewer would be standing. Within the mirror’s narrow view, the space recedes until it intersects a wall, with a part of a window visible in the upper right hand corner.

Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “Carbon Night” (1978) (click to enlarge)

Our eye travels back to the wall, and to the small section of the open window with the world outside. The view is partial. Floor, mirror, window, and walls — everything is interconnected, though there seems to be no underlying symbolic order to the connections; their placement is, in fact, largely the result of chance.

The mirror is leaning, which indicates its placement is impermanent — it will be moved. In the painting, nothing is fixed. The viewer senses that the room is incomplete, and still uninhabited, underscoring the larger fact, which is that the conditions of reality are provisional. Change and disruption are both inevitable and unavoidable. The artist absorbs this state of wakefulness into her work without resorting to drama or theatricality. Instead of hectoring us, she believes that we too will see what she sees, which grants us our autonomy.

In the mirror paintings, none of which reflect a human presence, the artist seamlessly folds a new level of meaning into the painting. We may shape our immediate circumstances, and even fill our rooms with all sorts of stuff, but the material world is indifferent to our existence. The rooms we move into will one day be clean and empty, waiting for the next tenant, as if we had never been there. Not reflected by the mirror, the viewer and the artist become the absent image. Mortality is what we have in common. Beginning with the mirror and floor paintings, the tension between surface and space gains in complexity. Completeness and incompleteness embrace, becoming inseparable.

The tension between the body’s location and the eyes’ movement, between our bounded physical being and the space we occupy, becomes a deeper, more abiding preoccupation between 1977 and 1983, when the artist focused her attention on the rural landscape surrounding her house.

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Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “Anatomy of a Painting” (click to enlarge)

Plimack Mangold introduced “tape” into her work in “My Studio” (1975). In “Four Coats (1976) and “Anatomy of a Painting” (1976), she incorporated “tape” along with her “rulers.” This required her to build up a swath of paint, so that viewers initially believe they are looking at a piece of masking tape attached to the painting’s surface.  In addition, its presence in the painting underscores the difference between the physical and the visual, and between apprehending reality through touch and through sight.

In “Anatomy of a Painting,” the rulers and tape are located along the painting’s physical edges, defining a square, which Plimack Mangold has painted a pale pink. Presumably, the artist will make a painting on this ground. But, in fact, she seems to be asking, when is a painting done?

The artist’s monochromatic fields fit in with Minimalism, as well as share something with Mark Rothko, Ralph Humphrey’s frame paintings, Jo Baer’s “edge” paintings and Robert Ryman’s paintings in which the edges of the linen support are left bare.  However, in contrast to Rothko’s paintings, where the weightless clouds of pigment evoke both the sublime and a sense of crisis, paintings such as “Four Coats” and “Anatomy of a Painting” embrace both the artist’s tools (ruler and tape) and the joy of starting out.  In this regard, her work argues with the paintings of Rothko, Humphrey and the others I have cited because it is simultaneously finished and unfinished, complete and incomplete.

“Anatomy of a Painting” conveys the artist’s conviction that, historically speaking, painting isn’t at the end of something, but still in the beginning stages; that there is — both literally and metaphorically — so much more ground to cover.

(Theorists and art historians understandably reject a view of history as an open-ended, not necessarily logical group of disparate narratives and counter-narratives, none of which summarizes all the others, because it unseats them; they aren’t controlling the story. They will agree that reality is contingent only as long as they hold jurisdiction over the contingency.)

The unfinished state of “Anatomy of a Painting” is the opposite of the fixed status embodied in much Minimalist art and, as such, offers an implicit critique of that which is finished. But beyond that, it underscores painting’s changing state — that it is never done, even after the artist stops working on it. A painting exists in the world and is therefore vulnerable to its vicissitudes. The other issue that the “ruler and tape” paintings raise is the shift between our immediate physical environment and the immensity of our surroundings, between solid ground and the abyss.

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Sylvia Plimack Mangold, “January 1977” (1977) (click to enlarge)

Starting with “January 1977” (1977) Plimack Mangold began to slowly move toward the landscape. It is a view through a window, which has been cropped. We see only part of it. The incomplete window and the cold white wall are framed by “masking tape,” which sets them off from the slightly mottled, whitish ground of the painting. The left and bottom edges of the canvas are demarcated by rulers, with the top and right edge demarcated by “tape” over which some paint has spread. No matter how much we see, reality exceeds our capacity to fully comprehend it. At the same time, we recognize that both the painting and the view through the window are going to change, but the artist at least has control over the painting.

In “Carbon Night” (1978), done in acrylic and oil, one sees evidence of the artist’s decision to not fit in, to step away from received ideas about landscape painting. Instead of focusing on the landscape during daylight hours, or at an extreme moment of light (sunrise or sunset), as the Hudson River School artists often did, she choose those hours where the darkness (after sunset and before sunrise) threatens to absorb the landscape and blunt its detail.

It is in the nocturnal paintings that Plimack Mangold not only switched from acrylic to oil but also changed her approach. Instead of using a style — a fixed way of seeing — to depict the landscape, she looked to art history in her efforts to bring diffuse light into her work. As Cheryl Brutvan pointed out nearly twenty years ago, in her catalogue essay, “Collision”:

Plimack Mangold studied especially the paintings of James McNeill Whistler, whose “Nocturnes” guided the exploration of her new palette.  His compositions also appealed to her for the paradoxical relationship between the deep space of the subject and the artist’s fine attention to the canvas’s surface.

Formally speaking, Plimack Mangold’s paintings of nocturnal landscapes are juxtapositions of light and dark, form and light, solidity and diffusion, surface and deep space. The layers of tape, which both frame and define the boundaries of the landscape, serve multiple purposes beyond their functional one.

At a basic level, the “strips of tape” are physical things the artist has incorporated into the painting, reminding us that seeing is only one of the ways we apprehend reality. The tape underscores our perception of the painting as being unfinished and therefore incomplete, or rather, it challenges our notion of completion

Sylvia Plimack Mangold,v “Nocturnal Field” (1979)

In “Nocturnal Field” (1979), the landscape is so black that we can barely see into the painting, certainly no more so than we can see into a black painting by Ad Reinhardt. At the same time, the black field becomes an endless space, something we don’t want to enter into because it is unlikely that we will be able to extricate ourselves from it.

By framing the abyss with a solid form (tape), which separates it from the blue ground (surface) surrounding it, Plimack Mangold punctures the painting with a black hole.  In doing so, she acknowledges that diffusion can intervene at any moment, that we cannot control time’s passing, even as we shape it into something to reflect upon. The artist recognizes that there is no sanctuary from time, no elsewhere that we can take refuge in.  As much else about the social world, materialism is a distraction full of false promises.

The night skies in “Schunnemunk Mountain” (1979) and “Nocturnal Ellipse” (1981) are portals leading to infinite space and thus infinite time. (A curator should put together a small show of Plimack Mangold’s nocturnal paintings and Jasper Johns’ Catenary paintings, particularly “Bridge” [1997].) Plimack Mangold has framed the night sky in tape, but she has not turned away from the glimpse of infinity, which awaits us all.  The calmness in her looking is breathtaking and joyful.  She doesn’t want to miss a thing.

Next weekend: The conclusion …

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...