Walking into the Sylvia Plimack Mangold exhibit at the Norton Museum of Art is like walking into a forest, one that is simultaneously experiencing a summer's birth and a winter's death. Though you can hear the clip-clop of heels on museum floor, the sights are that of the Hudson River Valley. It's a poetic moment.
Sylvia Plimack Mangold: Landscape and Trees opened to the public on December 9, and is on display through March 3. As the second installment in the Norton's RAW (Recognition of Art by Women) initiative, the exhibit illustrates the great skill of a female landscapist operating during the time of male-dominated minimalism. This collection of 60 paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints highlights Mangold's ability to apply minimalist concepts to nature painting.
"Nature is comfort - it is liberating to be surrounded by fields and sky and trees where sound also comes from the wind or the birds...For me it is important not to be imposed upon - so I seek this refuge to work in and because of my personal need to concentrate on a subject that embodies these qualities. That is why I do what I do. It is all very subjective. But my adherence to what one sees is not." —Sylvia Plimack Mangold
This description, which Mangold penned in a 1989-1992 collection of artist's notes, embodies her artistic philosophy and progression. Born in 1938, Mangold studied at Yale and first commanded attention in the 1960s for her painstaking portraits of floors, walls and mirrors. Later, her trompe l'oeil depictions of measures and tapes garnered her praise for her artistic prowess.
In the late 1970s, Mangold fell in love with the landscape of the Hudson River Valley, where she had purchased a home. The acrylic painting "January 1977" marks a transition in Mangold's career. A small rectangle outlined in tape (created by layers upon layers of paint) houses a winter landscape and occupies a portion of the massive white canvas. This piece holds all the remnants of Mangold's early work as well as the promise of her future compositions.
The majority of pieces in the exhibition focus on a single tree. Mangold, whose studio looks out upon the amazing New York foliage, chooses to paint outside, adjacent to her subjects. A maple tree, with branches resembling embracing arms, is one of her favorite subjects. Walking between the three gallery rooms of the exhibition, you see the tree transform throughout the years and seasons.
When looking at the work in this exhibit as a whole, you can see the transformations in Mangold's artistic sensibilities. By 1992, she'd forsaken the trompe l'oeil tape, turning her attention solely to her trees. Though the trees add a string of consistency, Mangold often employs different painting styles. Where one depiction may be done in a loose-hand watercolor, the next will be a tightly realistic bundle of leaves. This variety excites the eye and propels you from one piece to the next. It also keeps in step with Mangold's appreciation of space and materials.
Her exploration of the limitless nature of materials extends to her prints. Though they make up a large chunk of the exhibit, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out the prints from the paintings; they are all that good. During a private tour, Norton's Curator of Contemporary Art Cheryl Brutvan noted the seamless transition from portrait to print in Mangold's work. "Not often can you take a group of prints and hang them with paintings," Brutvan said.
It would be easy to dismiss Sylvia Plimack Mangold's work as a grouping of landscapes. To do this, however, trivializes her subtleties as an artist. Mangold understands the freedom found in becoming intimate with one topic. In her maples, oaks, locusts and elms, she finds a voice that speaks to the process of painting. She needn't search for the grandiose to make a statement; she simply looks outside her window.
For more information about Sylvia Plimack Mangold or the Norton Museum of Art, visit norton.org.