One Tree Is Enough

Sylvia Plimack Mangold



Just one line in a one-paragraph writeup in The New Yorker, but it stopped me for ten minutes. “For the past decade, her sole subject has been a maple tree that’s growing outside her studio window.”

Seriously? How does any artist focus that calmly, and that narrowly, for that long? Who is Sylvia Plimack Mangold? I was conjuring Emily Dickinson with a paintbrush, but Mangold married young and happily—a fellow art student at Yale—and they hung out with important artists in New York before moving to the countryside. A sociable Emily, then, with the same quiet powers of reflection and concentration?

I wanted to know what sort of work preceded the maple tree decade, what path led her there. Did she, like someone learning to meditate, work her way down?

First, I learn, she painted apartment houses. Then furniture. Then the spaces between the chairs and tables. Finally came the floor paintings that drew the art world’s attention. The fine-grained parquet floors of her home in the late 1960s, or its plain hardwood or linoleum. A three-dimensional world suggested in two dimensions. Sometimes a crumpled white rag lies on the floor, casually tossed, but more often there is no focal object at all. She is, one critic says, “rebalancing visual hierarchies,” giving us paintings as calm as Brian Eno’s ambient music.

In the 1970s, Plimack Mangold began including rulers in the floor paintings, measuring the space, playing the occasional trick on us. A 30 by 36 canvas shows intersecting yardsticks that pretend to measure 36 by 36. In a painting named for her dad, the ruler breaks off at 66, his age when he died.

“She will paint only what she observes, without suggesting the world beyond the canvas or the alternative worlds of the imagination,” notes one critic. Yet she will paint “with more rigorous parameters than simply investigating her immediate circumstances”—and that takes imagination. Her husband, minimalist artist Robert Mangold, put it more succinctly: “Sylvia paints what is right in front of her. Sylvia is very selective in what she paints.”

She once wrote that she wanted to create a space that invited you in—and then escorted you out. She has no intention of trapping you there, greedily, gleefully, like a vampire in his castle. Her work is a generous, extended meditation on space. “I liked thinking about space a lot,” she told the Smithsonian in an oral history, “but I didn’t especially want to fill it up.”

The trompe l’œil of Plimack Mangold’s 1970s paintings was playful: how real could she make the masking tape and rulers look? Photographically real, it turns out. Yet photography never interested her. “I don’t like using anything that’s in between me and what I’m working on,” she explained. “I like to have, like, directness.” She liked the contrast between her rulers—fixed, orienting, and measuring—and the elusive changeability of light slanting through a window. She also introduced mirrors, a philosophical wink at the viewer.

The subjects of these paintings are snippets of reality that feel random, yet connected. When she begins painting masking tape around an image, she shifts her gaze from interiors to what is outside them. She “frames” small landscape paintings with “tape,” leaving plenty of white space around the smaller rectangle, preserving her process so we can see what she is seeing and see her seeing it.

Sometimes she lets paint spatter the tape, spilling over, reminding us that reality can burst through any of our categories, our attempts to contain it. The work feels finished and unfinished at once, realistic and abstract, conservative and radical.

Next, Plimack Mangold went dark, producing a series of nocturnal paintings that did suck us into a black hole at their center. Some are ominous; others console us with their promise of infinite space and time. Then, in 1983, she and her husband moved to a farmhouse overlooking the Hudson River, and in time she dropped the tape framing and let trees fill her canvases. From groupings of trees near a pond, she moved to individual trees. Often she did a triptych: the view from a distance, the middle view, and a close-up she saw as a portrait.

A mini-doc on YouTube sums up her “fifty-year period of slowly looking up from the floor and then craning her neck to the treetops.” She is not minimalist in any reductive sense—her work is sensuous and has a touch of wit—but she refuses trend or drama. That takes courage, in this attention-hungry world. But she has been charting her own path since childhood.

Plimack Mangold’s parents had no real interest in the arts. Her mother “had a desire to supervise my existence…to know everything about what I was doing,” she says wryly. Her father took her to art museums now and then, but they did not talk about what they saw. “I don’t think he understood creativity at all,” she said years later. “He had this idea that there was a solution. That something was better. That his idea might be better than mine, or that he could say something better than I could say it…. He was so overbearing in these ways, I think I would—I learned to block this out. I mean, he would correct everything I did for school, or try to….”

In the same interview, she describes her childhood as dramatic.

“Traumatic?” the interviewer asks eagerly.

“Dramatic,” she corrects him. “Tension became very problematic for me. Tension in the house between people…. We grew up in a very tiny house, and with three children and two adults. And there was not very much space.”

Space—her lifelong fascination. Creating it, honoring it, not wanting to fill it. Art—her escape from parental intervention. Tension—tolerable only artistically: between surface and space, reflection and illusion, immediacy and immensity, the physical world and the abyss.

But to pursue those tensions through a single tree, for a solid decade? In my twenties, I was obsessed with the tensions between nature and nurture, mind and body, until the apparent oppositions proved inextricable. I am still caught by the tensions between personal freedom and social obligation, fineness and simplicity (by which I mean, loving luxury and feeling guilty about it). The tensions that wire our lives do not go dead. Every time I try to look away, they crop up again, disguised or insidious.

But Plimack Mangold fixed her gaze and stared them down.

“I didn’t want to just—I didn’t want to paint anything that was grandiose,” she told the Smithsonian. “I wanted to paint something that was very specific.” A maple tree. Were there any other trees? I find the prospect comforting, and when a hunt turns up a Plimack Mangold painting of an elm tree, I am absurdly relieved. Why, though? William Blake could see infinity in a grain of sand. Monet got stuck a while on haystacks. A maple tree is a microcosm of the universe, and any work of art contains all of art’s history.

It is my problem that I bore so easily. And it is a failure of imagination.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.