… “I have to trust my nervousness.”
This is from the essay ‘Betwixt and Between’ by Robert Storr in Robert Mangold (2000):
… At a certain point … artists destined to be major round out their education, selectively sort through their affinities, and bear down hard on the primary aspects of their aesthetic project. At that point the individual artist knows most of what he or she needs to know, and has taken possession in his or her own name of whatever useful ideas they have gleaned from those around them. In essence their painting culture becomes almost wholly assimilated, an inner resource rather than an outer context, and, as such, inseparable from the daily practice of painting.
[line break added] De Kooning’s whimsical description of this self-regenerating reservoir of sensibility and know-how is the best we have. “You’ve developed a little culture for yourself, like yogurt; as long as you keep something of the original microbes, the original thing in it will grow. So I had — like most artists — this original sensation, so I don’t have to worry about getting stuck.”
By 1970 Mangold had reached that stage, and was ready to remove himself from the midst of the New York fray. … To the countryside where he resettled went his ‘yogurt,’ and what followed was the incremental and always painstaking realization of the potential implicit in the five years’ worth of mature work he had produced while in New York. From that time forward the fundamental components and dynamics of his work are markedly consistent. The works generated by them, however, differ significantly.
Figurative artists develop subject matter; abstract artists like Mangold develop ‘object matter.’ His basic themes have been the fragment in relation to the whole (how, for example, can a pie-slice shaped painting be read both as a section of an invisible circle and a form complete unto itself?); formal stability in relation to formal abnormality (an exploration begun with the distorted squares and circles of 1969-71); the tangible concreteness of painting in relation to the illusionism to which it lends itself (how does a surface assert its materiality while suggesting transparency?); the effect of image-scale upon image reception (what, for example, distinguishes a model from a work, and how does a small work function in comparison to a larger one of the exact same configuration?); and above all the desire to keep painting whole, with all its elements clearly legible yet fully reconciled with one another.
The constancy of Mangold’s concerns defies conventional notions of artistic growth and change. There are no radical breaks in his work; instead there is a process of gradually shifting focus, coming on the heels of long periods of intense concentration on a limited set of variables. “What happens to me,” the artist has explained, “is that I seem to go back and forth. I go a certain distance this way, then I have to go back and reconnect with what I lost.
[line break added] Things are always going in and coming out and going back in funny ways. I have to trust my nervousness. Then I just have to go back and check and figure out whether it’s a real thing I am feeling.” The consequence is paintings that are ‘timeless’ not in a metaphysical sense, but in the sense of being hard to correlate with any identifiable cycle within the artist’s career or any particular turn of the stylistic wheel in the art world generally.
[ … ]
Robert Mangold, Untitled, 1995
… Simultaneously categorical and conditional, actual and exalted, something that takes us beyond our ordinary awareness of the world and something that is only accessible through acute attention to immediate sensory particulars, painting is an exception to quotidian reality while being the fullest expression of ‘the real’ in all its physical concreteness and experimental contingency. As Mangold practices it, painting opens a parenthesis in consciousness and occupies that ‘zone’ on terms which keep it open
[line break added] To insist that this realm is aesthetic is not, however, to deny its psychological impact or spiritual importance. Certainly, Mangold does not. To the contrary he is forthrightly on the side of those who affirm art’s power to communicate. Surprisingly, given the programmed ambiguity of so much of what one sees in his paintings, the basis of his claims for abstract painting is the lack of ambiguity in its fundamental address:
I think of abstraction as being the most direct way of making a statement, because you’re least likely to be misread in terms of what you are saying … I think that abstract painting can be just as emotionally charged as whatever kind of painting. It’s just that I choose to eliminate references. To me that makes the painting more direct, and so I can read it better. It’s about the way it’s done and what it is and what its parts are. And it’s all revealed.
This directness answers a specific human longing, for in Mangold’s view the greatest spaces ‘between’ are those which separate us, those which open up or maintain distances and make people mysterious to one another. In that context art’s specificity and clarity — the paradoxical transparency of its riddles and the wholeness of it fragments — is the opposite of our opacity and incompleteness.
My most recent post from this book is here.