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Art In Conversation

Robert Mangold with John Yau

While preparing for his new exhibit, Robert Mangold: Drawings and Works on Paper 1965–2008 (on view from March 6th through April 4th, 2009 at PaceWildenstein, 32 E 57th st), the painter welcomed the Rail’s Art Editor John Yau at the gallery’s conference room to talk about his relationship between painting and drawing, and this particular body of work from his own archives.

John Yau (Rail): I’ve always been struck by the fact that drawing is essential to your paintings, and that your paintings have drawing in them. You once said that each series of paintings come from drawings. Is drawing a way of finding something and honing in on it?

Robert Mangold's studio, 2009. Photo by: G.R. Christmas/ Courtesy of PaceWildenstein, New York. © Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.
Robert Mangold's studio, 2009. Photo by: G.R. Christmas/ Courtesy of PaceWildenstein, New York. © Robert Mangold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Robert Mangold: 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 or I’ll do some thumbnail sketches and then I’ll go through a process of picking and choosing or deciding if it’s a good idea or not a good idea, and making larger drawings and finally drawings with color so that basically I have a pretty strong idea of what I’m going to do. That’s pretty well established in the drawing state. Because I work in shaped canvas, I have to have the idea worked out so that I can build the stretchers, because there’s a cost commitment when you build a stretcher. You want to get it figured out ahead of time so you don’t waste too many stretchers, so there’s a sense in using the drawing in that way. Drawing is central to the work.

Rail: One form that you’ve explored since the seventies is an ellipse or a variation of it; it is a form that other artists in your generation avoided.

Mangold: Yeah, it’s true. I’m never sure how I got into doing the circle paintings. One story I tell, and I’m not sure if I just elaborated on what happened or if that was really the source: soon after I came to New York, Sylvia [Plimack Mangold] and I spent a summer at Al Held’s farm in Boiceville, NY. He was going to Europe for the summer and offered us his place to stay in exchange for painting some of the buildings or something. I had been doing negative architectural spaces between buildings. There were my wall paintings and there were the area paintings. Up there I was sitting there looking at curved hills and I started doing some funny kind of landscape works that had a slightly atmospheric rectangular top and then a curved bottom. I think it may have come from that summer where I was just looking at that space in nature, but when I got back to the city I started working with a compass curve, in a sense, and did a series of paintings that were parts of circles, a half circle broken in different ways.

Rail: Later, when you get to things like the oval, it’s very evocative, and calls up a lot of associations.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Mangold: Yeah, they look like heads. I had done a couple of things with ellipses in the early 70s, but they were horizontal. They were like an ellipse going around inside of a rectangle with a slight shift to the axis of it. The idea didn’t come back into the work until, I guess, the 80s, and I wanted to use it vertically, but if you stand an oval up vertically it kind of looks heavy on the bottom so I decided to make it in an egg form, with the ellipse fatter at the top and narrower at the bottom. This gave buoyancy to the form. In the frame paintings it was a way to link the four sections of the frame together. These were some of the earliest paintings that I did in several colors. Most of my paintings, if you trace the history of the work, are one color until then. If there’s a painting in several colors, it’s because several canvases are bolted together.

Rail: I thought that show at Paula Cooper’s was a breakthrough show for you, each panel was a different color, and they were held together visually by the line running through them, as well as being physically bolted together. The oval invited, or evoked, a metaphorical possibility and yet it wasn’t a metaphor.

Mangold: Yeah, you couldn’t really call it a face but there was an obvious suggestion. Also, the center was empty so that the panels created a whole different idea of a boundary. The curve went, depending on the work, from corner to corner in a certain way; it had to be continuous so you had a sense that there was one line that tied the rectangles together.

Rail: It occurs to me that in your work the drawing and the painting go together, but they don’t go together. There’s always a tension. Even with the early work, it’s which came first, the drawing and then containing shape or the containing shape and then the drawing. You can’t say it is this or that. There is no sense of cause and effect.

Mangold: It’s always a dual thing. It’s always a kind of container and then an image in the container. When I first started doing them, I didn’t know if you could take a drawn line and make it function on a large-scale canvas in a kind of equal way, but I found out that if you just take a graphite pencil and make a line you’re not going to see it, but if you go over and over it again, it thickens and can assert itself in relation to almost any size. It was a revelation to me, in a way, because I wasn’t involved in painting where the line is looser. Also, the idea of drawing in paint didn’t interest me. It was uniting drawing and painting in a way that I wasn’t aware of existing before.

Rail: It unites drawing and painting, but also gives each its own place. That’s the tension. It’s like they need each other, but they don’t overwhelm each other.

Mangold: Right. They have a certain kind of existence within their tension, their combination.

Rail: This tension separates you from minimalism because you’re not a literalist. It’s not a “what you see is what you get” kind of thing.

Mangold: After some early paintings in the 60s, I was really committed to the idea of working on the surface. I never painted around the edges of the painting. I didn’t want the sense of it being anymore of an object than it had to be. I like the panels to be as thin as possible. Newman and Rothko were kind of my goal posts in terms of my playing field. Rothko’s surface and Newman’s architecture inspired me in certain ways.

Rail: But you brought drawing into it, and drawing didn’t play a role in their work.

Mangold: The earliest paintings I did by just sawing the work. The line was
really the collision between panels, but then once I started actually doing drawing on the canvas, I made drawing an equal partner. There are still paintings where there’s a division. A lot of times I make paintings in sections so there’s a divided line and a drawn line.

Rail: Also, you don’t explore paint’s materiality the way so many others do.

Mangold: Yeah, one of the reasons I started using a roller was I didn’t want to get into the kind of surface incident that comes with a brush. I wanted it to be matter of fact, establishing a plane, and not involved in the touch in the same way as if I had done it with a brush. Later, in the frame paintings, I did use a brush for most of the work. I’ve used a roller because I really like that. I don’t want to say it’s impersonal, but it’s sensitive in a different way than if I were actually brushing it on and having that tactile relationship. With a roller, you also have a tactile relationship.

Rail: It’s not personal, but it is not impersonal either. Picasso, when he talked about working with Braque, said they wanted to become an anonymous artist. There is something anonymous and yet not anonymous about your surfaces.

Mangold: When I first came to New York I was living in lower Manhattan and I was amazed by the way paint was used in loft buildings—the separation. When you enter a loft building, the lower half is a dark color and the upper part is a light color. It’s also true of the subways, and this amazes me about the stations; the columns are cut in half by paint. I got very involved in the way paint is used on the sides of trucks and over brick walls. Even paint that’s put on the street; you could almost trip on it. I got involved in the industrial commercial look rather than more traditional art sources of color. So in the early paintings I thought of material. I thought of brick color, the color of cardboard, or of a manila envelope. I had a stapler that was a kind of greygreen and I lifted the color off of that. I was interested in the color of filing cabinets and other unassuming things. I didn’t want color to take over because I didn’t want people to walk in and see a red painting or blue painting, which a lot of minimal or hard edge painting or whatever that was going on at that time was very strong about, color playing that kind of role.

Rail: Your color is very particular, and it’s also nameless.

Mangold: I was making a print the other day, and a person wanted to know what color I wanted because he was going to mix some of the color samples. I said, well, think of a faded denim blue, not light but a little gray, a little blue, and I sometimes think of like a school bus yellow. References like that come in, but it’s not always like that. I think I like this shape and then I think it should be blue, darker rather than lighter. It just becomes a personal choice. But in the beginning I used to lift a lot of color from my environment, what was around me. Pop Art was a very strong influence at that time too. There was a sense of that change from the Abstract Expressionist viewpoint of the world to the Pop Art viewpoint that everything is suddenly subject matter.

Rail: You said that the curve might have come from sitting looking at hills and now you say that the color in your early work comes from industrial things. Your art comes from observation, and not from art theory.

Mangold: That made me very nervous in the beginning because I realized that it separated me from most of the minimalists. Of course minimalism was a sculpture movement at that time, but there were painters who thought of in relation. I realize that this referential idea separated me from other people in terms of things. I wondered, should my color be coming from file cabinets?

Rail: Or should it be straight from the can? [Laughs]. That’s interesting because it’s really about you finding your own way and thinking maybe it is separate and even if I have a doubt about it, I’m not going to go back on it. Instead, you kept going further and further down that road, wherever it was taking you. It seems that fairly early on you decided that your work had to do with line, shape and uninflected color. The work is not reductive, but made of basic elements.

Mangold: Shape is always the starting element but along with the shape there is the idea of what’s going to go in it. It’s always a combination, I’m trying to think of a time when I picked a shape that I was going to work with and I didn’t know how I was going to use it. As I got older, often the connection to things became historical and ancient in some case or referential to not the outside world, but more art historically referential.

Rail: Right, references to Greek architecture and things like that.

Mangold: I felt stuck at one point in terms of what my next step was going to be, and what shape I wanted them to be and what was going to go in them. I saw a drawing show at the Vassar College Museum of Italian drawing, and it had a Pontormo drawing of a semi-circle; there were these figures in it, and that sprung a whole group of work. I would say in the latter half of my career I feel more connections to history than nature, whether it’s commercial or the natural world.

Rail: There is a classical, as well as a contemporary sensibility, in your work.

Mangold: Well, a lot of classical art is very linear so there is a connection that way. I feel connected to Greek vase painting because the vase is a particular shape. In a lot of the urns and things like that, there’s something going on in the front and something else going on in the back. I also feel connected to Pueblo pottery.

Rail: Forms with shapes on them.

Mangold: Yeah, I don’t know, I guess because traditionally pottery is a fairly simple form on which there is something, a design or drawing, that’s applied; and then there’s color that’s put on in one way or another; and all of it together makes this union that I have in my work.

Rail: And celadon is a color that you’ve used. In recent years there’s been an earthy feel to your color.

Mangold: I have this theory that it has something to do with water-based materials because pottery is a porous surface. I connect more to that and watercolor than I do to oil paint. Except for the very earliest paintings, they have all been acrylic. When you think of fresco paintings, they’re water-based, and water-based mediums penetrate into the materials. The material and the color become one, while oil-based paints lay on the surface and become another material. I’ve always been less interested in oil painting as a material than these other avenues.

Rail: One of the legacies, say, of Pollock, is that you had to figure out what your material was and how it interacted with the thing you were putting it on; you had to invent your own way. It seems to me that you have invented your own way of putting the paint on, and yet it never gets talked about.

Mangold: There’s something about the water film as supposed to the oil film that has really always interested me more. For instance, a Turner watercolor; I love that sense that the paint is there but also the light somehow goes through the paint. In the beginning I did very opaque painting through the late 70s up until the frame paintings and the x paintings, which I did from 1980 until 85. It started, oddly enough, from using the brush, which I was doing for my studies for the frame and x paintings. I would paint sheets of paper, kind of like Matisse, and I would cut them out and put them together; that’s how I would do my studies and that opened up the idea of seeing through the paint film. It’s been something that I certainly concentrated on more since the 90s.

Rail: Yeah, the surface does feel solid but also porous.

Mangold: I’m trying to think of a reference because initially my paintings were like a brick wall seen out the window or something. They were very much there even if they weren’t textured, but I began to get interested in the idea that this plane could also be seen through, that it was a film of some kind, that it was there and yet not there.

Rail: And within this film that is there and yet not there, there are lines, which, over the past decade, establish all different kinds of relationships with each other.

Mangold: In the column paintings, which I start around 2000, it was really the first time I started using grids in painting.

Rail: Wait, yeah! You didn’t begin using grids until 2000, long after you started exhibiting.

Mangold: I introduced grids in the column paintings. I was working with the idea of a section of a continuous column, like Brancusi’s Endless Column. This much is visible, but the lines go out the top and bottom, rather than being contained, which is how they are in most of my paintings until then. In order to make these paintings, I had to introduce a grid because the column was divided both into three sections and four sections, and one curved line was hitting the points of the four sections and the other curved line was hitting the points of the three. In order for this not to look like a beanstalk that was growing, and so that it would look as though it were actually a mathematical relationship, I drew the grid in. In the first couple of paintings I tried erasing the grid. I realized that the grid gave a structure to these curved lines and reassured the viewer as to what they were seeing because it gave them a framework. Otherwise these curved lines can look like they’re moving, shimmering in a way, and I wanted you to see that it is actually hitting this line in a very mechanical way. Every beat is consistent in that line.

Rail: You say that’s the first time that you used a grid; and you do so in order to figure out where the line’s going to touch the edge. In most cases, the grid becomes the dominant structure, but not in your work.

Mangold: They were guidelines for how the curve was going to function and it was a joke to me that here I was, year 2000, doing a grid forty years after everyone else was doing them.

Rail: Your grids go beyond the way that everyone was using them because they indicate that you can only see part of something, and the rest isn’t the same as what you see.

Mangold: Right. This is an element that has come into my paintings at various times. In the zone paintings for instance, there would be a certain kind of elliptical structure that would start and then it would be interrupted and then it would be picked up on the other side of the interruption. I used to think of this as lost information, similar to what happens way when we look at Greek friezes. There’s area where something is missing, with a warrior on one side and something else on the other.

Rail: And the missing information is part of our experience.

Mangold: Yes, there is this idea of continuity and discontinuity that comes and goes in the work. The rings in the recent work actually came from the idea of taking two columns and bending them so they make a totally continuous image.

Rail: In all your work going back to the beginning there is a fusing of the logical and arbitrary.

Mangold: You’re right. There’s a logic, but it’s a made up logic. When I start a group, I don’t know how many works are going to come out of that group, but I like the idea of working an idea again and again, because it allows me to carry an idea further than just doing one-shots. When I work within these groups, I set up a series of you could say arbitrary rules of what the line is going to do, and what shape the form is going to take. It could be that the top and bottom are going to be parallel to the floor and ceiling so there’s going to be a horizontal on top and bottom and let’s say it’s a quadrilateral of some kind. That sets the logic about the shape, while there is another logic informing the line; it is going to touch all four sides or something. Within that interaction there’s always variation and possibility.

Rail: Somehow you manage to be matter-of-fact and metaphorical without being didactic, emotional or personal. I mean the idea that the line continues beyond the edge and you can see only part of something is also about how we live in the world; we can’t see everything.

Mangold: I think I have a thing about the idea of incompleteness; that there’s almost a kind of longing in the work for completeness, for a kind of impossible resolution since you’re always given only certain amounts of information. I don’t know where I’m going with this. [Laughs.]

Rail: Well, it resonates with your work; there’s the tension between completeness and incompleteness.

Mangold: Upon first seeing the work, it looks totally at rest, resolute and complete, but then when you look at the structure and what’s actually happening, you notice open-ended things and directions.

Rail: Your work invites scrutiny, as well as enables you to reflect on something; it is a vehicle for reflection.

Mangold: Well, when you make an object, art or painting or something, you’re the maker and also the viewer. You almost can’t look at the thing while you’re working on it.

Rail: When I saw the paintings at John Weber, I remember thinking, “How did he get there?” It’s a shape and a line; it seemed logical and illogical at the same time. I thought, “How was this made?”

Mangold: [Laughs.] Why is it made? [Laughs.]

Rail: Well, I never asked that because I think you made looking perplexing without being obscure or hermetic.

Mangold: One of the reasons I think it’s great assessing an artist’s work, less in a retrospective, but in gallery shows is that you get to see more of a body of the last year or two years of something, so that you can follow the artist’s thinking. It’s much more difficult in a big retrospective exhibition because you see other things and you’re comparing different time periods. Going to galleries is such a great way of seeing art. I even think it’s better than going to artists’ studios.

Rail: It seems to me that the work has become more eccentric, that you’re willing to have that happen.

Mangold: I think I’ve become more that way over time. Initially the things I was trying to fit inside each other were much more about the idea of fitting a circle inside a square or a triangle. Now all these references come into my head. I was already working on the Attic series when I happened to go through the Met’s rooms and suddenly made this connection. I hadn’t given them a title at that point because I hadn’t made a connection for the first three or four paintings. Your art opens these other doors that have always been there.

Rail: Yes, reference, but not citation or appropriation. Drawing is your way of exploring something, and things occur to you during the exploration.

Mangold: Yeah, I’ve always called myself an intuitive artist, because of the way the elements come together, there’s no way to justify it in terms of expressive or emotional means. It just somehow is what I end up doing for a certain period. And what somehow seems really interesting to pursue, to see where it will take me.

Rail: The color is also intuitive.

Mangold: I started thinking about painting in the 60s, and it could be any color. Like I did a structure and I could paint it this or that color—one would be as good as the other. So I started out by putting color on this low shelf of painting. Gradually, color began to play a stronger role. In a way it was because I didn’t know how to deal with color. I mean if you’re going to make an impact, is it going to be expressive, is it going to be personal color? Is it going to be red, blue, green, yellow? Or is it going to be symbolic? Color is so erratic. It’s a wild card in painting. Your attitude towards color is the hardest thing. And now I think of myself as much a colorist as a structuralist.

Rail: Your color has definitely changed over the last 25 years. It would be interesting to see how it has changed.

Mangold: The reason I decided to do this show of works on paper is that a lot of the works haven’t been shown, at least not in New York. A lot of them haven’t been shown at all. I had been talking with the gallery about doing a bit of a retrospective, at least with the works on paper. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. How far back was I going to go? Also, I had a minor heart problem last summer so when I came back from the hospital, I decided I should go through my drawers. I kept thinking, half of this stuff is fine, half of this stuff should be destroyed. Or a third should be destroyed. And the rest of it should be saved. We’re just scratching the surface in a way, but it was a sense of getting my shit together. Putting some order in my drawers: making decisions about things because I wouldn’t want to let someone else to do.

Rail: Drawing is so essential to what you do, that a retrospective works on paper show would be a revelation.

Mangold: There are different types of drawing that I’ve done. I mean there’s one type that is all working drawings; they’re studies, sketches, all building to a painting. And there are drawings that become complete, where you set out and you’re just doing a drawing. It’s not going to become a painting. And then there are all these other little categories. For a while I did drawings when I was doing the paintings and I had the paint; I would make the drawing as a record of the painting, because I was dissatisfied with slides I would take or Polaroids in those days. It was a way of keeping a record of the actual color in my studio, I don’t know for what purpose. So there are all these different ways to use drawing, but the only real separation between drawing and painting is that one is on canvas or board and the other is on paper. There is a size difference. I can make bigger paintings.

Rail: I want to go back to the oval. I remember people saying heads and eggs, but their scale is related to the body, not the head.

Mangold: The frame paintings, in particular; there was a sense of the arm as a kind of compass in the drawing of it because the sections are put together on the wall. So the drawing is done on the wall. If it’s a big solid piece I can work on it horizontally but the frame paintings are made of four separate canvases bolted together, and you have a couple of points where you want the curve to go. There is a circumference or portal that you relate to and it is very much about the standing figure that is the viewer.

Rail: It’s interesting that you say portal because the paintings don’t imply transcendence. They say portal, but they don’t say there’s something on the other side. I think that’s important to recognize, because it says the desire doesn’t go away. And you live with that desire and make it a pleasure rather than a defeat. That is one aspect of what your work is about. It’s dealing with this desire but not providing an answer.

Mangold: In my work there is a continuing effort to collide with something. For me creativity is like this. If you’re a scientist and you’re trying to solve whatever it is, you have a specific problem and there’s a way of working with it. I think creatively, maybe there are people who work like that, but to me it always seems like you’re questioning something. There isn’t a destination. You set up a perimeter and you push against it.

Rail: I am reminded of the hermit poet Basho, who wrote: “The journey itself is the home.” No destination, but you’re still journeying.

Mangold: Yes, and how was it that so many people, friends of mine and people I am associated with, came to New York and all had the idea that they had to start over in a way, that art had to be started over again. Maybe each generation has that.


John Yau


The Brooklyn Rail

MARCH 2009

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