Robert Mangold - Biography and Legacy
North Tonawanda, New York
Biography of Robert Mangold
Robert Mangold was born in 1937 and spent most of his childhood in Buffalo, New York. He has described himself as coming from a "rural factory background", noting that most of the men in his family worked at the Wurlitzer factory in North Tonawanda, which made organs and jukeboxes. His mother worked odd jobs, including wallpapering and stock-buying for a department store. Mangold would accompany her on occasional trips to New York City, and also used to go with her to the library, where he would borrow books on art and drawing. Mangold remembered being told by people in his elementary school that he had a lot of talent, and as most of his family worked in factory or on farms, art seemed an attractive career choice.
In high school Mangold decided he either wanted to be a commercial artist or study illustration. Though his family recognized his abilities, they hadn't immersed their children in the art world, and Mangold admitted to an interviewer that "I don't actually think I knew there were contemporary artists...I knew there were people who would park their car and set up an easel and do a picture of something, but I didn't think this was a career choice." After high school Mangold cobbled together money from various small jobs to attend college.
Early Training and Work
In 1956 Mangold enrolled in the illustration department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, but transferred to the fine arts division, where he studied painting, sculpture, and drawing. He graduated in 1959 and attended the Yale Summer School of Music and Art on a scholarship. In the Fall of 1960 he entered Yale's graduate school program in Art and Architecture, where he befriended artists such as Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, and Richard Serra. It was at this time that Mangold began to experiment with large abstract canvases.
Mangold married his classmate, the artist Sylvia Plimack, in 1961, and after completing his M.F.A. in 1962 they moved together to New York. The aesthetics of the city, with its skyscrapers, bridges, and plazas, permeated Mangold's mind: particularly the way that modern architecture created sculpted in-between spaces. He would later describe the city as containing "[p]ieces of architecture that are both solid and atmospheric. A similar form in one way could be a gap between a building and in another way could be a building." He was also interested in the fragmentary quality of these forms: "[w]hat struck me when I first moved to New York was that so much of what we see, we see in fragments. We see part of a truck going by, or part of a building. We never see anything in completeness." He was invigorated by the grittiness of the city, which, though it presented "an image-rich situation, a material-rich situation", was "not [rich] with natural color - you were not looking at sunsets, or feeling gentle shifts in the breezes - but the scale and color of industry and commerce surrounded you."
Mangold took a position as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, where he met fellow artists such as Sol LeWitt and Robert Ryman who had taken up similar jobs to immerse themselves in the world of modern art. Mangold loved chatting with the other guards on breaks, and then going back up "[to] be with the works and watch people, which is what you did most of the time." The Conceptual Art critic Lucy R. Lippard, who was married to Ryman and researching in the museum at this time, dubbed the three men "The Bowery Boys," because of the cheap but spacious flats they had taken in the Bowery district. The sense of creative community in that part of New York was strong. Mangold later commented: "[i]t was important to have friends and be able to visit their studios and have them visit yours, because you need others who are sympathetic and interested to show your work to."
Mangold started displaying his work in commercial galleries while still a guard at the Museum. His first solo exhibition was held at the Fischbach Gallery in 1965. He attained art-world status surprisingly quickly, when he was included in an exhibition of Minimalist art at the Jewish Museum in 1965, and in Peggy Guggenheim's Systematic Painting show the following year. Not long afterwards he began working as an instructor in the fine arts department of the School of Visual Arts.
Mangold had created his earliest works in oil, but he moved away from this medium in 1968, opting instead for acrylics, which he applied with a roller - rather than spraying as he had with his previous work - onto Masonite and plywood. From here he moved to canvases, experimenting with shaped canvases and incorporating an increasingly vibrant color-palette into his work during the 1970s.
After Mangold received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1969, he and Sylvia took a house in the Catskills, where they spent an increasing amount of time. Mangold explained that "one reason for living the city was economic, but there was also a lot of disillusionment in the late '60s, partially political, the assassinations and so on. And there was a lot of art world craziness." He had been initially unsure about the effect of moving to the countryside on his art-making, but he soon found that the fragmented patterns and shapes he had admired in the urban environment were present here as well, albeit in simplified forms.
Mangold continued to paint his bright, minimal works throughout the 1980s-2000s. He featured in the 1993 Venice Biennale and in four Whitney Biennials, the most recent in 2004. He still paints, though he recently told an interviewer that, due to his policy of working alone in the studio, stretching all his own canvases and performing all drawing and painting himself, he was "getting to a kind of crisis in my life... 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 the studio doing this with me, or whether I want to cut down the size a bit, or make it in parts."
Mangold and Sylvia continue to live in upstate New York. Their son, James Mangold, is a renowned director and television writer and Sylvia is a successful artist in her own right.
The Legacy of Robert Mangold
Robert Mangold is one of the most significant painters in a movement, Minimalism, that was primarily concerned with sculptural objects. His 1960s-70s monochromatic paintings, with their slender graphic lines limning shapes offset against the exterior shape of the canvas, inspired artists including Frank Stella, Jo Baer, Robert Ryman, and Al Held, all of whom were unwilling to forsake the application of paint onto canvas in an era when painting was deemed to be over. Like the Minimalist sculptors, however, Mangold held fast to the "objectness" of his art, refusing to assign any meaning to it external to the artwork itself. In this sense, his contribution to the genre of Minimalism was both exemplary and exceptional.
Mangold's turn during the 1980s to bright, bold colors and playful shapes, such as his X and + canvases, is reflected in the work of a younger generation of artists such as the neo-Conceptualist artist Peter Halley, the painter Robert Kelly, and Mangold's contemporary the sculptor Joel Shapiro. In the 2010s, Mangold's commitment to the manifold possibilities of line, shape, and color might seem to have found a dubious legacy in so-called "Zombie Formalism", though the work associated with that term tends to lack the cerebral elegance of Mangold's best pieces. A range of artists working with the legacies of Minimalism, including Daniel Gottin, Richard Caldicott, and Jose Keerken, continue to benefit from what Phillip Barco calls Mangold's "legacy of freedom."