‘A lot of the distorted paintings that I did in the early 1970s were based on something that looked like a perfect circle even when it was a distorted circle. If someone looks at the painting and sees that the square and the circle don’t fit, then he or she has to think about it and figure out what is off. They’d have to spend time and look to see it. I think that often people look too quickly’ – R. Mangold
In the early 14th century, legend has it that Giotto painted a freehand circle so perfect that it appeared drawn by a compass. This complete and flawless shape was enough to convince the Pope of Giotto’s artistic mastery. Some 600 years later, Robert Mangold created a perfect circle only to confound it: subtly warped and broken at a quarter point by its irregularly shaped canvas, the graphite ring of Untitled (1973) questions the very relationship of drawing to the picture plane. Our expectations of shape and space are disrupted, forcing a reassessment of the fundamental nature of these specifics. The refreshing tension is played out on a field of muted green, which allows a keen focus on the play of line: ‘I was attracted to generic or “industrial” colours; paper bag brown, file cabinet grey, industrial green, that kind of thing’ (R. Mangold, quoted in R. Shiff, ‘Autonomy, Actuality, Mangold’ in A. C. Danto et al., Robert Mangold, London 2000, p. 29). Mangold’s finely calibrated asymmetry opens new visual possibilities to the viewer through an objective, material logic that overpowers any subjective interpretation; this is a pure and powerful work that demands to be taken at face value. It was on first seeing Rothko’s 1956 painting Orange and Yellow that Mangold recognised the potential for absolute and unique treatment of the medium. ‘I realized what painting’s unique reality was: neither object nor window. It existed in the space in between’ (R. Mangold, quoted in S. O. Mangold, ‘An Interview with Robert Mangold’, in A. C. Danto et al., Robert Mangold, London 2000, p. 60). His timeless and placeless works exist outside speculative moments of meaning, resisting anything but literal description and direct apprehension; Untitled occupies this liminal space with captivating, challenging and total presence.
Although Mangold emerged in the 1960s at the vanguard of Minimalist painting in New York, his works retain a compelling separateness from the rest of the art world. This autonomy is reflected in his personal life: early in his career he escaped the city to the Upstate countryside, where he continues to make art today, refusing in his practice as in his works to submit to generalisation. The paintings’ first-hand impact – what Mangold calls ‘seeing-viewing-experiencing’ – is what is important, and their apparent simplicity belies a considered discipline that is far from merely contemplative. While non-referential in any direct sense, the works exist and resonate in relation to art history and Mangold’s own oeuvre. The artist explains that ‘I want the work to cause me to drop everything and then slowly pick up the pieces and enter into a dialogue with it … I think that the work itself generates more work; the work itself suggests possibilities. It’s funny that I often talk about the work as though it were something someone else did, separate from me. And in a way it seems that way to me’ (R. Mangold, quoted in S. O. Mangold, ‘An Interview with Robert Mangold’, in A. C. Danto et al., Robert Mangold, London 2000, pp. 60, 65). This uncanny sense of separation echoes the startling experience of seeing works like Untitled for the first time: with his quiet mastery of the two-dimensional field, Mangold presents painting as never seen before.