BY BRUCE ADAMS
Curled Figure XXII (Version 2), 2002
PHOTOS BY KC KRATT
“The more stuff in it, the busier the work of art, the worse it is. More is less. Less is more. The eye is a menace to clear sight. The laying bare of oneself is obscene. Art begins with the getting rid of nature.”
–Pioneer minimalist painter Ad Reinhardt
Less is more.
Everyone has heard this oxymoronic axiom, but how many of us really embrace it, especially when it comes to reductive abstract painting? At the Albright-Knox visitors routinely rush by the monochrome plainness of artist Robert Mangold’s deadpan take on geometric logic, Four Squares Within a Square #3, on their way to the pink ruffled excesses of Tissot’s The Political Lady. That these extreme opposites happen to currently find themselves hanging within spitting distance of each other is ironic.
Mangold’s art belongs to the movement known as minimalism, begun in the 1960s as a reaction to the subjectivity of abstract expressionism. Its focus is the elemental: art stripped down to its fundamental essence. Mathematically precise, intentionally impersonal, minimalism avoids any hint of artistic preciousness, favoring neutral surfaces over painterly flourishes. Early minimalist leaders like Frank Stella, Barnett Newman, and Kenneth Noland, asserted that their work was not a form of self-expression, essentially making it the opposite of everything we’re taught to appreciate about art in school. Minimalism favors the intellect over the eye, yet when approached with thoughtful consideration it reveals its own transcendent beauty.
If developing an appreciation for the subtleties of reductive painting is the lesson to be learned, then the temporary exhibition of Mangold’s drawings and paintings now at the Albright-Knox titled Robert Mangold, Beyond the Line: Paintings and Project 2000–2008 might be the test. Mangold was born and raised in North Tonawanda and went on to make a very successful career based on a single narrow artistic formula: geometrically shaped, flatly colored canvases with drawn-on linear configurations. Line, shape, and color: it doesn’t get much more elemental than that. Yet Mangold reworks this equation into a myriad of serialized permutations. The current exhibition is limited to an eight-year period when he was working with four basic elements: the ring shape, curled line, column, and variations on the column he calls “column structures.” How you feel about this show depends to a great extent on how you feel about reductive art in general, and how patient you are at getting to know this work specifically. It took two visits for this critic to settle into comfortable familiarity, and then the work began to grow on me.
To help visitors get oriented, the Albright-Knox includes a videotaped discussion between Mangold and exhibition curator Douglas Dreishpoon in which the artist details his process. It begins with quick sketches where, according to Mangold, the important decisions are made. Successful ideas are bumped up to larger works in graphite and pastel on paper. Many of these are on display, and in my view they benefit from the immediacy of their small scale and are often more potent than the larger painted versions that come next. For these, Mangold creates his trademark shaped canvases, on which he inscribes a penciled grid pattern. Using the grid as a guide, he then draws bolder graphite lines that weave and interlace like precisely choreographed aerobatic maneuvers or, as in the columns pieces, spiral downward like strands of DNA. The finished lines appear mathematically precise, but on close inspection reveal evidence of the artist’s hand adjusting its course along the way. When he’s satisfied with the drawing, Mangold applies a thin coat of color over the surface with a roller, embedding the lines under transparent paint. The artist consciously employs commonplace colors: autumn orange and yellow, melon green, brown, gray, and so on. The finished surfaces often have the appearance of a wall poorly painted, with visibly overlapping roller marks. My preference is for the ones like Curled Figure VIII in which the surface carries some aesthetic weight with a dappled reddish brown patina over olive green base.
In contrast to his drawings on paper, the monumentality of Mangold’s large canvases encourages viewing from a distance. His ring images, inscribed with their circular grids and curved linear paths, can be somewhat mesmerizing, especially when contemplated meditatively from the bench in the center of the room. They signify rational order while imperceptibly evoking the structure of the eye itself. The columns and column structures employ as their basic unit of design the square, from which numerous variations are derived through reconfigurations of this component. The main gallery contains a number of these, which have their greatest impact when perceived as a gestalt of the entire room installation. The key here, as elsewhere in the exhibition, is to take time to entertain various modes of perception. First glances won’t do.
Mangold’s works became the basis for a stained glass installation the artist was commissioned to create for the United States Courthouse now under construction downtown. One room of this exhibition is dedicated to drawings and display models for that project. In another room, Mangold’s curled figures incorporate lines that twirl like giant filigree scrolls contained within colored rectangles. They call to mind the geometric precision of cornu spirals used in engineering, but also evoke ornamental decoration. They are perhaps the closest the artist comes to whimsy in these otherwise subdued works. But that’s how it goes with minimalism: nuances assume significance; details convey meaning; small becomes large. Less is more.
Bruce Adams is an artist, educator, and writer. Robert Mangold, Beyond the Line is on view through January 31. Visit albrightknox.org or call 882-8700.
Mangold images courtesy of the artist, PaceWildenstein, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.