Robert Mangold invited Alex Bacon to his Manhattan pied-à-terre to discuss his upcoming show of new paintings at Pace Gallery (April 4 – May 3, 2014) in the context of the arc of his five-decade long career.
Alex Bacon (Rail): What was it like working in New York in the ’60s?
Robert Mangold: It was a very live art scene then, there was a lot going on. Pop Art had just happened and Minimalism was forming, but hadn’t really taken off yet. By 1965 things were really changing.
I’d spent four years at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and two years at Yale, and I wanted to get out of the student syndrome. A lot of us came to New York at the same time from Yale, so there were people we knew, and we quickly met others. For example, I knew Sol LeWitt and Bob Ryman really well. We were all living at 163 Bowery, which had been a factory that made political buttons, “ban the bomb” and such, and they were moving out—$180 a month for all three floors. The critic Lucy Lippard, who told us about these lofts, lived on the second floor with Ryman, her husband, and me and my wife, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, had the top floor.
Rail: Did you know LeWitt and Ryman first, and best, because you were all guards at MoMA?
Mangold: Yeah. I wasn’t guard at the same time as Ryman, but that’s where I met Sol. Being a guard was a good deal in those days. You got union wage, and even health benefits. The museum didn’t open until 11 a.m., and it was over at 6 p.m., so it was a short day and it left you a lot of time to work, and you got a chance to just stand around looking at paintings and sculptures. I think there was a big Picasso show while I was a guard, but I wasn’t one for that long, just for the summer while the other guards were on vacation. I was a replacement, and then when fall came I got a job up in the library, which was also neat because you got to spend time looking at all the publications and the things that they had on file.
Rail: In your first couple of shows you were doing work that was somewhere between hard-edged abstraction and Pop.
Mangold: I was trying to assimilate the Pop position with what I really liked about Abstract Expressionism—the kind of monumental quality it had. Barnett Newman was probably the most important figure for me at that time, especially because he was very friendly and came to openings. He was very involved in the younger generation. Ad Reinhardt was too, but I wasn’t connected to him. I was more directly involved in what Newman was doing. Reinhardt was a little too much of a geometric artist, and I had turned my back on that idea. Not that I didn’t, and don’t, like Mondrian and so on, but that seemed so European, and Reinhardt seemed to come from that.
There was something in Newman’s work, and in Rothko’s, that presented a very different idea of an image. In a Newman there’d be all this blue, say, with one white stripe, which established a relationship between you, the viewer, and the field as a whole. In fact, calling it a field is a mistake in language. It was more like a wall of color. Rothko was a different kind of stimulus, one that was so full of emotion, and that interested me too, but I didn’t know how to deal with it. I just put it aside for the moment, because I didn’t know how to fit it into what I was doing.
Rail: Did you get anything else out of living in the city at that time? Other than being exposed to the great artists of the preceding generation?
Mangold: At that time New York was a very exciting place in general. I grew up in the country, and then went to school in Cleveland and New Haven, so moving to lower Manhattan, which was so industrial, was a big change. You’d go outside and smell soot from the trucks—there were no anti-pollution devices in those days. Even in the subways there was a kind of grit, nothing was genteel.
In a sense New York wasn’t very cultural then. I mean, we were living on the Bowery and there were quite a few artists down there, but there wasn’t much, certainly not an art scene. You knew a few people who would come and look at your work, or stop by your studio, and you would stop by and see what they were doing, but you could see everything fairly easily. There weren’t that many galleries. A few were downtown, but basically you could get started at 57th Street and walk up to 86th Street and see everything in one day.
Rail: Maybe experiencing the industrial landscape of ’60s New York was even more important for you than seeing what was at the galleries.
Mangold: Oh yeah, at this point I was doing letterforms that were akin to the sides of trucks and other such things. I was very involved in the idea that in New York you never saw anything complete. Everything was a fragment, whether you were looking at a bus or walking down the street, there was no way to see the whole of a building. Essentially, you’re always looking at the spaces between buildings, and parts of trucks going by. I was also very inspired by the colors that were used in the industrial buildings where everyone had lofts, by the way paint was used in the city in general. For example, you’d have this brick wall and then you’d have this illusionistic image painted over it, a sign, or whatever it was. All of that was fascinating to me. The way a subway platform was divided into dark down below, and light up top, cutting through the posts and along the walls. For practical reasons the whole space was sliced at a certain level, since most of the dirt accumulated in the dark sections close to the ground.
Rail: In 1964 there was a major shift in your work. You began making the Walls and the Areas, in which you took sections of a given basic architectural unit—most often windows and walls, and yet, in itself, each of these paintings feels like a whole of sorts. It’s a fragment, but it’s also complete like an object.
Mangold: Yes. At different points in my work I have played with the idea that a part is not only a part, but a complete thing, even if there is an implied continuation. At the time I was actually thinking of making that work even more object-like, but I’ve always been very serious about not painting around the edge.
Rail: Like Frank Stella.
Mangold: Yes, so that you have this sense of surface and that the side of a painting is the side of a painting. There was a period where I was thinking of pushing it farther into three-dimensions—making things that would come out into the room more. I had stopped working on canvas, and I was using lumberyard material, plywood. It was also where I started using a roller, since up until that point I was using a spray gun. I wanted to switch to acrylic paint, which rolls so beautifully. It was the easiest way to cover a surface without getting waviness, and at that point I wanted a painted field that was very uniform, like a wall. But I never let the means, spraying say, become an end in itself. I originally went to spraying just because I didn’t want my touch to be involved. I wanted a way of putting on the paint that left me a little removed.
I was using a four-by-eight sheet of masonite as an idea and, even though a lot of other people were working that way in terms of sculpture, I was following through in a different way. I can remember going to see shows at Park Place, a lot of which were of sculpture, and I remember this one show with Robert Grosvenor, and this one big piece that came down the center. Seeing it I thought, “I can’t compete with this, I’m not interested in engineering.” It suddenly made me very aware that what really interested me was flatness, the two-dimensional plane, the idea that you could see a painting, for example, completely, while you could never see a sculpture completely. You can walk around it, but it doesn’t have one view. Even a six-foot-square cube has different views. There was something unique and dramatic about that, and something that I could go on with. Instead of seeming like a dead-end, it seemed to be filled with possibilities.
Rail: In the late 1960s your work began to be understood as aligned with Conceptual Art.
Mangold: Yeah, in the late ’60s I was trying to figure that relationship out for myself. How involved am I in Conceptual Art? I did quite a few pieces that had many permutations, for example. Then at a certain point, even though I never did, I wanted to go back to making singular works that were not a variable of an idea, but that were a total idea in themselves.
Rail: If one looks at your career one of the issues that took you a long time to work into was color. For example, at the beginning of your career, the kinds of industrial colors you favored, drawn from everyday objects like manila envelopes and staplers, were a way to solve the problem of color without having to invent it yourself.
Mangold: Right. I was taking in the industrial quality of what was around me, and making that the color of the painting. Also, I had a sense that the color didn’t matter. I could make it blue, or orange, and it would be the same thing. It would be a different color, but basically it just gave the work an identity.
Rail: Like a title?
Mangold: Exactly. It was a way of demarking this painting from that one. For instance, in the series of works I’m doing now, they present a kind of color dilemma because I want you to be able to see the line; therefore the color can’t be too dark, or too bright. There has to be a quietness to the surface to allow the line structure to play out. So sometimes what you’re doing dictates the color idea you have to use. Most of the paintings in the last couple of years have been light colored because the linear aspect is such an important part of the work that I don’t want it to be lost. I don’t want it to just be a color-shape.
Rail: Right. It seems like it has always been important to you to have a kind of unity between all the parts.
Mangold: There are three parts to every painting—line, color, and shape. In terms of the drawing, sometimes I do it on a ladder, sometimes I lay the painting flat, but in each case, I’m swinging my arm. You have your points that you want aligned, and then you put it on the wall and you see that it’s bulging over here, so you’re moving the line, the line is moving all the time.
The drawing is very laborious; it takes the most amount of time to get right. I start out with a white canvas, and then I do the line, then I keep drawing it until it’s pretty solid. I start out with this very hard pencil and very thin line and it gradually becomes quite thick depending on the work. I began to get more and more interested in this idea of more than one trip around the block, in terms of the looping line. The line that starts looping and looping. The more you limit things—in a way—the more you notice them.
And then at a certain point I think, “Well, I’m going to have to paint it.” And I’ve usually made up my mind about the color. Color is the last thing I figure out. I’ve got a canvas in my studio now. I haven’t really started on the drawing yet, but I know what’s going to go on there, but I don’t know what color I’m going to use. And as I’m doing it—each step takes a certain amount of time—I’ll come to some conclusion, which way I’m going to go.
Rail: The work seems to be about that unity of different elements.
Mangold: The thing is that, the paintings—my paintings anyway; I don’t know how everybody works—lead you. They almost give you answers. You’re working on something and it suggests taking it someplace else. I always talk about this idea of a dialogue between you and the work. I do it all by myself. And I’m not bragging about this, it’s not a big thing, but I don’t like having other people in the studio. I like stretching the paintings myself. I like drawing them myself. I like painting them myself. There is a kind of relationship to the making. So at one point I’m the maker, and then I sit down and I become the reader of what I’m doing, and then I go back to being the maker again. There’s almost this schizophrenic relationship.
I’m getting to a kind of crisis in my life because I’m getting to the age where I can’t do everything myself. I can’t handle the size of paintings I once handled. So it’s a question of whether I want to have somebody in my studio doing this with me, or whether I want to cut the size down a bit, or make it in parts.
Rail: It will be interesting to see what will happen because, as you’re saying, your work so far has been based on that intimate connection.
Mangold: It’s a very private relationship between you and what you’re doing. I mean, once you get used to a certain person, maybe—but just the idea of conversation, or of being aware of them breathing is distracting. But I’m sure if you’re writing it would like be that too. Creativity, making something, is a very private activity. And, whatever you’re doing, you need to zone some things out, or zone into others. Or you can just take a nap, or do whatever. But there’s a kind of total freedom you have in your studio that doesn’t involve other people that’s very important to me.
There are all these complicated things, but they are the most exciting part of the painting. When I’m going to the studio and I know I’m going to paint that day, and I know I’m going to put color into this painting or that painting, it’s very exciting. It’s something I want to be a part of. I wouldn’t want to come in and see it finished for me—that would be like a cheat. Not that the viewer would be cheated, but as the maker, I would be cheated out of that part of the making.
Rail: In the interview in the catalogue for the last series of Ring Paintings (2011), you were asked if you thought the series was coming to a close, and at that time it seemed that you thought it was. You said, “I do think it will come to an end.” And then you said, “I don’t know what route the next works will take.” Basically, it all seemed to depend on whether there were some ideas that you wanted to pursue. In fact, it has happened that you had ideas that were related to extending the Ring Painting series, and these are the works that will be shown at Pace in April.
Mangold: Well I made some of these compound rings. Which are part ring, part geometric shape. They’re angled and chiseled. This goes back to an old idea where I did circles that changed into octagons and other things from the late ’70s. I thought that I was through with the rings. I didn’t know how or where I was going to go with them. But I was interested in this idea of the empty center, of the center being missing. That was the part of the project that I wanted to pursue in another way. So then I did a square format with a whole round hole in the center, and the last ones were the square frames with an open center. Then I thought of extending a square to a double square, and then having this line—which before, could loop around neatly, but which you couldn’t loop around anymore. When I first started out doing it, I wasn’t sure whether they were going to be vertical or horizontal.
I also loved all the references that came from them. They made me think of the Cubist paintings of Juan Gris, and guitars, and Henry Moore sculptures, and all kinds of things that were seemingly very unconnected to the work. I mean one of the aspects of doing things, or pursuing a new idea that takes you somewhere, is that it has all of these references. Suddenly in your head you see, “Oh my God, that’s like a Juan Gris drawing.” Suddenly you’ll be thinking of it in all different contexts. “I have to look at Henry Moore”—those reclining forms with the hollow inside. So it’s wonderful in a way. Not that you’re really thinking about Henry Moore or Juan Gris, but that the ideas bump into them, into their history.
Rail: So in a way the paintings are evocative without being referential. It’s not as if you were asking, “What if I painted a fully abstract Juan Gris, or reduced Henry Moore to his essence?”
Mangold: I mean, you think about all kinds of stupid things when you’re making work—not that Juan Gris is stupid. But you’ll think of things like cowboys swinging a lasso around, or of ice skaters going around a rink. You think of all kinds of ways of dealing with line and space. Some of them are humorous, and sometimes someone else will come up and say, oh, that looks like this or that. Sometimes it will really bother me. If it makes a reference I really don’t like, somehow, I might change the work. If there’s something that I’m not going to get by, that every time I look at it I’m going to think of. Certain things become part of the content of the work, in your head, and no one else will ever see it that way. They’ll probably see something else.
Rail: It also seems that there’s an important bodily relationship in the making of the paintings. As you were saying, if you were the one that has to make it, then the dimensions become very much what you can handle. Even if color is flatly applied, or line drawn in a non-expressive manner there does become a kind of human content, in the sweep and extension of the arm that does the drawing, say.
Mangold: Absolutely. One of the things I like about the empty center is that you have to deal with it. It becomes a very physical expression of the body’s limits.
Rail: We talked about the beginning of your career, and how you were part of an artistic community that was very important to you, and about how the work was supported by the conversations you had with your peers. But I wonder, over time, have you felt like you’ve had to turn inward to keep the work going?
Mangold: I think it happens automatically. When you’re starting out, trying to find your alphabet, what you’re going to work out of, where you’re going to take it, other peoples’ opinions are very important. It’s another set of eyes. How do they see what I’m doing? What’s their reaction when they see it? Though I can remember telling Lucy Lippard, very early in my career, after my first show, “It’s very good, the ideas that I’m working through now, but how many years am I going to be able to do this?”
Later on it’s kind of like you’re running out of your own context. I don’t know if you have more of a sense of yourself, or anything. You’re always pushing against the limits of yourself. You set these limits: I do it this way, that’s the limit. But then you’re always pushing against them in some way, because nobody wants to repeat themselves. It’s a lot of work alone in the studio. To go out there and do something where you know how it’s going to end up I think is boring for any artist. You want to be trying something that is a little bit unknown in terms of what it’s going to do.
Rail: You’ve been married to another artist for a very long time. So in that sense one artist in particular has been very intimately engaged with your work over the years.
Mangold: That’s true. Sylvia and I have seen practically every work the other has ever done—I met her at Yale. But, even so, we’re very careful around each other. Sylvia is very solid about what she’s doing, and I don’t understand it sometimes. I think, “Why is she still working on that painting?” And what she’s going after I have no connection to. She might have the same response when she’s in my studio. Like, “He should quit now.” We don’t say it. Or we do it in a kind of joking way. I will say, “I want you to come out and see what you think of this.” Because sometimes after I put the color on, say, I’m curious what the response is. And Sylvia’s there.
Rail: Do you feel the need to be part of a larger conversation?
Mangold: When you’re young and starting out, it’s as though you’re all swimming in the same pool. You’re all paddling away like crazy, and you’re never alone. Community is very important, because it’s very important to go to other people’s studios and see what they’re doing. But at a certain point you really start running on your own, and you almost don’t need anybody. You like to see what different people are doing because you have personal connections with them. You’ve seen their work over a long period.
When I was starting out, in the ’60s let’s say, I would go to a show and I’d see something I thought was really great. I couldn’t wait to get back to my studio to look at my work in that context, to carry what I’d felt then into my studio. At a certain point you’re really working out of the context of your own work, and your own experience. When I go and see somebody’s show—I have friends that are showing all the time—and I go see their work, I find it interesting in the context of what they did before, and what they’re doing now. It’s like following their journey. For myself, I don’t know if I have the energy left to break off in some new world. But as long as I have an image in the back of my head that I want to see realized, as long as there is somewhere to take my work, I will pursue it.
ALEX BACON is a critic, curator, scholar based in New York. Most recently, with Harrison Tenzer, he curated Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100.