From 1984 to 2012, printmaker and professor Nancy Campbell ran the Mount Holyoke College Printmaking Workshop, where women artists like Kiki Smith and Vija Celmins produced remarkable prints.
I cannot think of another artist devoted to nature who chooses such unlikely, decidedly plain, almost unsightly views, but never makes that act the point of the painting.
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.
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects is a long and narrow space, somewhere between a bowling alley and a railroad apartment, on the Lower East Side. It is within this rather confined space that Marshall Price, curator at the uptown National Academy of Art, installed eleven paintings by artists committed to working from observation. Chronologically, the artists span five decades (or generations), with Lois Dodd and Lennart Anderson, born respectively in 1927 and 1928, being the oldest. The youngest include Gideon Bok, Anna Hostvedt, Sangram Majumdar and Cindy Tower, with Bok and Tower born in the 1960s, and Hostevedt and Majumdar born in the 1970s. The other artists are Susanna Coffey, Rackstraw Downes, Stanley Lewis, Catherine Murphy, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, who were born between 1938 and 1949. Together, these artists — a number of whom have been influential teachers — suggest that observational painting is a vigorous, various, and imaginative enterprise that continues to fly under the radar.
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.
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 current exhibition of paintings, watercolors, and prints by Sylvia Plimack Mangold at Alexander and Bonin (March 16–April 28, 2012) got me thinking once again about the different kinds of spaces she has constructed in her work, beginning with the tilting planes in her early paintings, such as “Floor 1” (1967), “Floor with Light at Noon” (1972), and “Two Exact Rules on a Dark and Light Floor” (1975), all done in acrylic on canvas.