Robert Mangold, “Two Merging Squares” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 44 × 80 1/2 inches (© 2020 Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

Robert Mangold has long worked with three elements: a drawn line, the shape of the canvas, and muted color, usually one per shape. For more than 50 years, the different and surprising visual dances he has established within this circumscribed vocabulary have engaged both the eye and mind.

Accepting that a painting is a flat surface projecting slightly from the wall, Mangold has never turned his work into an object, as did many of his contemporaries, from Jo Baer and Robert Ryman to Frank Stella and Dorothea Rockburne. His work is also distinguished by his constant recognition that the painting needs a wall to be complete. Finally — and I think this is the most important aspect that separates him from the artists I cited — all of his work starts with drawing.

This is how Mangold described his method in an interview I conducted with him for The Brooklyn Rail (March 2009):

Drawing for me is a process. It’s true that my paintings in a lot of ways are as much drawing as they are paintings. I think my involvement from the beginning has been very linear in terms of how I work, and I’ve never been involved in paint the way a lot of painters are. It’s been a way of coloring a surface or a step, but drawing is the starting point. It’ll start with little sketches where I get an idea about fitting one form within another […].

For those — like me — who have followed the artist’s work, his current exhibition, Robert Mangold: Paintings 2017–2019 at Pace Gallery, is full of surprises. While there are works in this exhibition in which Mangold fits one form inside another, in other works, such as the muted red monochrome “Three Square Structure (2018),” there is no drawing in the painting.

Installation view of Robert Mangold: Paintings 2017 – 2019, Pace Gallery, 540 West 25th Street, New York, September 18 – October 24, 2020 (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

In “Three Square Structure,” Mangold has overlapped three squares to define an irregular composition that is neither symmetrical nor asymmetrical. With the middle square rising above the two flanking ones, the three overlapping squares form a door-like opening. Meanwhile, the flanking squares are set at different heights from each other, undermining the symmetry that doors need to function correctly. Mangold’s structure results in an uneven architectonic presence that imperfectly echoes the room it is in. As our mind’s eye extends the edges of the middle square, to see if we can discern its perimeter, we become engaged by the structure’s off-kilter state.

For an artist who has made some of the most elegant and nuanced large-scale works in recent memory, the asymmetry of “Three Square Structure” and absence of drawing is unexpected, as it has long been a central feature of his work. In this work, the irregular structure vies with the three overlapping squares for attention, with neither overwhelming the other.

I assembled and dissembled “Three Square Structure” in my mind’s eye, trying to uncover what propelled Mangold to decide on this configuration and not another. My feeling is that he got sick of the tyranny of the square and rectangle, and of fitting one thing inside another. At the same time (and to his credit), he did not do variations of this work and make more monochrome paintings in which he overlapped three squares to attain an irregular structure. Having reached this point, it seems that Mangold decided he did not need to repeat it, and moved in another direction.

Robert Mangold, “Plane Structure” (2019), acrylic on canvas, 45 1/2 × 82 1/4″ inches (© 2020 Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

With two later works, “Two Merging Squares” and “Plane Structure” (both 2019), Mangold does something he has never done before. In “Plane Structure,” the top and bottom edges of the trapezoid on the right tilt inward, creating the illusion that its plane is at an angle to the square on the left. Are they the same size or is trapezoid on the right slightly larger than the square on the left? The fact that its outer edge is higher than the outer edge of the square on the left prompts this question.

The two abutting, overlapping squares in “Two Merging Squares” are not identical (or are they?), as what we see of the left and right edges of the right-hand square are tilted at the same left-leaning diagonal, suggesting a plane tilting back in space.

Each time I looked at “Two Merging Squares” — which was my favorite work in the exhibition — something unsettling happened. The painting’s flat surface seemed to bend. Or was the right side starting to fall back, as if the wall was unable to hold it up? Some might prefer to read this as purely an optical phenomenon. However, I found “Two Merging Squares” emotionally wrenching and brimming with feeling, while at the same time self-contained and reticent.

Installation view of Robert Mangold: Paintings 2017 – 2019, Pace Gallery, 540 West 25th Street, New York, September 18 – October 24, 2020 (photography courtesy of Pace Gallery)

This tension made me circle back around the gallery and look at the other paintings differently. In “Three Square (Light Brown)” (2017), the square on the left is lower than the one on the right. While the drawn square overlaps both of the overlapping squares, its placement raises questions. Why is its bottom edge closer to bottom edge of the square on the right, while its top edge is closer to the top edge of the square on the left? Is this drawing floating, rising, or sinking? It joins the two squares together, while at the same time conveys the shift in their placement.

This has long been Mangold’s unique, undeniable strength. Working with the elementals of color, structure, and drawing, he engages us optically and intellectually. The tensions and pressures exerted by each of these elements results in a captivating visual dialogue.

In these works, especially the ones with square apertures punctuating the surface, as well as the drawn squares and rectangles, Mangold has fit forms within forms, as he had done before. However, it seems to me that the subject of these works is not purely formal, and that, with their misaligned squares, feelings of slippage and falling underscore a consciousness of mortality that Mangold meets with a gracefulness that is breathtaking.

Robert Mangold: Paintings 2017–2019 continues at Pace Gallery (540 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 24.

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...