Why There Are Great Artists
Editorial note: This is the first in a three-part series titled “Why There Are Great Artists.” Parts two and three were published in others editions of Hyperallergic Weekend.
The current exhibition of paintings, watercolors, and prints by Sylvia Plimack Mangold atAlexander 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.
(It is worth noting that in 1967, around the same time that Plimack Mangold started doing the floor paintings, Al Held began working on his illusionistic black-and-white paintings, which have often been credited with, as Robert Storr recently put it in his catalogue essay, “muscl[ing] painting back into three dimensions without betraying its character as painting or his own long-standing commitment to the primacy of gesture.” While I don’t wish to dispute Storr’s assertion, I do want to broaden the accepted perspective on the reintroduction of a constructed space in painting. I am suggesting that men get too much too credit, and we need to rethink our assumptions.
In a conversation that I had with Robert Creeley about Hart Crane and William Carlos Williams, he said that, for him, Crane was the exemplar of the heroic poet, while Williams represented the domestic poet. Rather than attempting heroism in his poetry, Creeley chose the domestic—he wrote about love, friendship, family, and things close to home in plain language, without metaphors. I find an affinity between Creeley’s unadorned compressions of the everyday and Plimack-Mangold’s intense, self-reflexive awareness, a quality shared by the other artists I will mention in this essay, all of whom happen to be women.
This leads me to advance that Held chose to work in the heroic mold, while Plimack Mangold elected to work in the domestic mold, and that these possibilities should be regarded as equals, rather than hierarchical. Bigger may not be better; it may be bombastic and corny. Accordingly, an intimate or modest scale need not be precious and meek, but in fact, profoundly ambitious.)
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In retrospect, it seems to me that Plimack Mangold’s early investigations of space should be credited with initiating a dialogue in opposition to Frank Stella’s stripe paintings, which squeezed space out of paintings altogether, and the flat, grid-like floor sculptures that Carl Andre began after 1965.
In focusing her attention on the tight geometric patterning of a parquet floor, or the skewed rectangles of light cast by a window onto a wide pinewood floor, she literally cleared a space for herself. By using nothing but paint to build a believable space on a two-dimensional plane, thereby openly critiquing work widely regarded as upholding a narrative of progress that was implicitly patriarchal in its telling, she also challenged the received viewpoints and well worn tropes that dominate (and continue to dominate) art history.
As long as we subscribe to the mainstream story, which culminates in the death of painting, aren’t we upholding a patriarchal view that denies both women’s achievements in painting and painting in general? Aren’t the exclusions of women and people of color from the mainstream narratives about painting reason enough to reject any and all of them? Isn’t there, as John Ashbery titled one of his poems, “The Other Tradition?”
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By the mid-70s, when Plimack Mangold began depicting rulers lying on a linoleum floor, she was offering a viable, non-literal alternative to Minimalist sculpture, Stella’s hard-edged brand of Minimalism, and Mel Bochner’s conceptual practice, in which measuring the width of a window within a gallery space was integral to the project. At the same time, rather than “muscl[ing] painting back into three dimensions” while underscoring it as a purely visual experience, where forms such as Held’s geometries could deny gravity, Plimack-Mangold made paintings that alluded to the viewer’s presence, as well as recognized the tension between the painting’s surface and the subject’s depth. With Held’s paintings, you are the observer, while with Plimack Mangold’s you are a participant. It is the opposite of Stella’s pithy summation of painting, “what you see is what you see,” because it is concerned with what you are.
In other words, there is a conceptual complexity to these paintings that critics often deny is possible in all painting, as if somehow painting is all just a matter of hand and eye coordination, with no thinking.
In addition to pushing back against the flatness that Clement Greenberg insisted was absolutely integral to painting, Plimack Mangold also distinguished herself from the painterly realists, such as Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz, whose work the poet-critics associated with the New York School championed. Like Porter and Katz, Plimack Mangold was an observational artist, but she never became a social painter or a portraitist — there are no people in her work. In addition, her preoccupation with exactitude led her to become meticulously attentive to the grain, knotholes, and coloring of a wooden floor, the slight color shifts in linoleum, and the effect of diffuse light on white walls. Moreover, in both the wooden and linoleum floor paintings, Plimack-Mangold went a long way toward dissolving the boundaries between representational and abstract painting.
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Plimack-Mangold’s wooden and linoleum floors tilt back in space. Their low viewpoint conveys the sense of being on one’s hands and knees, stopping now and then to look up, and survey the immediate surroundings. Although it is never clear why the viewer is in this position, the inclusion of the two long metal rulers in “Exact and Diminishing” (1976) suggests an equation between painting and labor, in this case the laying of linoleum panels. In each practice, one covers a surface with modular units that result in a grid. Painting and making a floor are not only equivalent, but foundational — each become the ground on which we walk, in our culture and in our home. Rather than transporting the viewer elsewhere, as Held’s painting started to do in the late 1960s, Plimack Mangold’s merging of subject matter and viewpoint opened up a space for self-reflection.
In Exact and Diminishing the artist depicts two vertically-oriented rulers, one abutting the painting’s left edge, and the other dividing the composition’s wide horizontal format in half. They are Plimack Mangold’s “zips.” The ruler on the left lies flat against the painting’s two-dimensional surface, while the middle one tapers upward, suggesting that it is tilting away from the painting’s surface, and moving back in space.
Meanwhile, behind the rulers, the square linoleum tiles are rendered to appear parallel to the top and bottom edges of the painting, while converging inward. Their adherence to the logic of single-point perspective further suggests a backward spatial movement, this one more conspicuous than the dividing ruler. Historically speaking, Plimack Mangold’s tilting linoleum tiles date back to the exploratory period of Early Renaissance, when rudimentary perspective was in the process of becoming codified.
Instead of being outside the scene and looking in, as we are in a genre picture like Gustave Caillebotte’s “The Floor Planers” (1875), we are literally brought inside the space — a condition even more precisely articulated by Plimack-Magold’s “Two Exact Rules on a Dark and Light Floor” (1975), where our physical presence is acknowledged by the position of the rulers, which suggests that we might be checking whether the tiles are correctly aligned.
The idea of being inside the painting — that there is a personal rapport between the viewer and the subject — goes back to Édouard Manet. And Sylvia Plimack Mangold is central to a strain of meticulous observational painting that not only acknowledges but also implicates the viewer.
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While Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Pop Art, Painterly Realism, Photorealism, Conceptual Art, Neo-Expressionism and Neo-Geo have all come and gone, the observational artists devoted to decidedly plain views, beginning with Lois Dodd, have persisted in going their own way. A classmate and longtime friend of Alex Katz, Dodd makes paintings based on things she sees in or near her home, without resorting to anecdote or any of the other obvious visual hooks that might seduce us into looking. Highly formal, quirky, and interested in that which is generally overlooked or never noticed, Dodd’s paintings anticipate those of Plimack Mangold, Catherine Murphy and Josephine Halvorson.
This tradition, made up of women artists who exert a high level of meticulousness in their work, and who to varying degrees eschew style, has largely flown under the radar for more than half a century. Other artists I think of as being part of this strain, in which meticulousness and exactitude are inseparable from seeing, include Yvonne Jacquette, Julia Fish and, more obliquely, Louise Belcourt and the sculptor Anne Arnold. The other connection is their insistence that one’s engagement with painting is never a purely visual experience, that the body living in time is also present. Their engagement with subject matter opens up a reflexive space in which we connect with their paintings or, in Arnold’s case, sculpture, both visually and physically.
Perception, memory and time are all linked, though never in ways that seem didactic. Central to all of their work is the edge — the carefully established boundary that determines what the viewer encounters.