1960s to the mid 1970s:
The Poetics and Problematics of White
Excerpt from Beatrice Mandelman: Taos Modernist, University of New Mexico Press, 1995.
Robert Hobbs, The Rhoda Thalhimer Endowed Chair of American Art, VCU and Visiting
Professor, Yale University. © The Mandelman-Ribak Foundation.
In this decade Bea Mandelman oscillated between art as social critique and as a sanctuary from current difficulties. At the beginning and the end of the decade she was making collages that related to the specific problems of first race relations and then the war in Vietnam. In these works Mandelman's old social realist attitudes reemerged. "Collage best represents my concern for the stresses and the shifting, transitory nature of human experience," the artist has reflected. "Art can be a powerful mirror of the qualities of life." In the early sixties she also made a few assemblages of found objects that may have been inspired by the Museum of Modern Art exhibition entitled The Art of Assemblage. She considers her assemblages as social statements, and even made the following observations about them: "Without the social statement there is not art. If there's any truth, it's in the artist's reaction to man's reaction to the social situation at any particular moment."
In the intervening years between her two series of collages, Mandelman created several series of constructivist works that she
herself has regarded as either social comment or an escape into the radiance of beautiful and satisfying forms. For example, in an undated typescript, Mandelman wrote:
The work IS hard-edged because the world is hard-edged now. The artist answers the time, projects, and makes an emotional statement about the period. It's not a soft feminine period. The fiestas are over. The celebrants have gone home. It is time to face reality.
Obviously, she was reacting against her own works of c. 1959—1960 and was creating pieces that she believed to be in sync with the changing temper of the times. But in 1967 Mandelman is quoted as saying "that the 'calm' of the geometric forms is her reaction against the hostile and disturbing currents that she finds in the world.” Her vacillation between these two attitudes may be explained in part by a desire to leave meaning open-ended and to trust the unconscious to be her guide [...]. In 1977, she explained, "My art is planted in reality....by allowing my inner being to be free.” The idea that art is a form of unconscious or intuitive communication is a legacy that Bea inherited from the Abstract Expressionists. Like them she has had problems knowing when a work is finished. [...] Mandelman has stated, "The painting tells me when it’s got it. Most of my work is unfinished."
Although Mandelman's collages are intended to be challenging political works of art as Why Choose Murder, Civil Rights and Vietnam attest, these pieces also participate in the artist's proclaimed goal to articulate negative space. Knowing that she was employing abstract forms that could easily become mere decoration, Bea avoided obvious designs. "I don't want to impose patterns," the artist later noted in her informal journal. "I want my painting to have not pattern but order and structure underneath—not on top—not what you see—hidden, covered—but felt." She has related that the two artists, in her opinion, who most clearly understand the power and subtlety of negative space are José de Ribera and Henri Matisse.
Working with negative space required contrapuntal thinking. The background with which an artist begins in this kind of art is neither neutral nor a void. Rather it is an already established presence that must be considered in relation to the colors and lines, which puncture, divide, and transform it into an entirely different kind of surface. The contradictory qualities of presence and absence elicited by a blank canvas have intrigued Mandelman for several decades, beginning with her paintings and collages of the early 1960s. The artist has noted, "I try to paint silence that speaks." At another time she asked herself the rhetorical question, "Are my paintings poems with absent words?" Similar to Matisse, Mandelman recognized that the power of the blank canvas needed to be respected and if possible enhanced through the creative act. Matisse stated early in his career, "If upon a white canvas I jot down some sensations of blue, of green, of red—every new brush stroke diminishes the importance of the preceding ones." [...]
While a preference for white develops naturally from Mandelman's work of the late 1950s, her use of it in the 1960s is consistent with the new emphasis on areas of unprimed and unpainted canvas in the Color Field painting of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, and Kenneth Noland and in the reductive aesthetic that became known as Minimalism. In many of Bea Mandelman's works the power of white in conjunction with a limited palette is integral to the completed piece. Beginning in the 1960s she often reduces her palette to primary colors used in conjunction with black and white. Recalling the discipline of many painters who were members of the American Abstract Artists association established in New York City in 1936 who held Mondrian's art
in high regard, Mandelman's rigor implies an interest in retrieving and expanding aspects of this vanguard current that she had ignored two decades earlier. The limitations of color were also a way to analogize her affinities with ancient, tribal, and folk art while remaining modern. In addition, these brilliant colors reflect major changes in tribal and folk art, which has been intensified in the twentieth century through the use of aniline dyes and commercial paints. [...]
To the question "Why does the artist choose to imply meanings through abstraction rather than depict them directly?" Mandelman has responded enigmatically, "White memories ...The painting should be more like a dream, disquieting and concealing....I don't preach at the observer."
But since Modernism has often been conceived as an unforgiving style, the radical amputation of form from narrative meanings
often causes the act of interpretation to assume the features of a snipe hunt in which both the artist and the audience are left holding the bag. As Mandelman herself recognized, forms can assume contradictory meanings in abstract art. [...] "I have a constant dialogue between opposites.” Poised on ambiguity, Mandelman's works at times rest on watersheds of difference.
Meanings trail in different directions, bifurcating content into polar opposites, making one a mockery of the other, or at the very least an inverse mirror. Too often we expect Modernist art to resolve contradictions and offer solutions that can be described in a discursive fashion. But what these works of art do best is to keep the contradictions in suspension and allow viewers the opportunity to view them aesthetically. Meaning in Modernist art is not subject to straightforward ratiocination as in philosophy, but is a poetic construction of possibilities that can easily devolve into seeming contradictions of slipping signifiers. Not just propaganda, this art manifests or symbolizes a range of feelings and is not simply a vehicle of persuasion.
Art may be most effective as a political tool when it allows us to come to terms with the ideological construction of reality. Since ideologies are special ways of masking contradictions according to the needs and attitudes of specific groups and since artists may be marginal to their public, ample opportunities exist for both subtle and blatant contradictions between the ideologies of artists and their public. In Mandelman's art this rift is manifested formally in terms of her use of white to bridge a number of binary oppositions including presence/absence and space/wall. The polarities are indicative of unresolved tensions in modern society—tensions which are exacerbated in Mandelman's work because of her desire to belong to the fashionable realm of the international vanguard in which the major formalist critic of the 1950s and early 1960s Clement Greenberg was championing Color Field painting for its way of forging an inextricable bond between painting and support (such as canvas or linen) and for permitting this support an eloquent role in the completed work. At the same time that she wished to keep abreast of changes in the art world, Mandelman wanted to remain true to her early liberal upbringing and need to regard humanity as an extended family. These contradictions in her art function as artistic koans—contradictions that allow viewers to come to terms with the contradictory nature of reality.
Although it is impossible to assign a specific iconographic meaning to the drips in Mandelman's paintings or to the color white in her art, one can defend their high import by pointing to the fact that the Modernist style is an elevated discourse even if a mysterious and at times confounding one. While Modernists originally intended to distill a host of associations into an essence that could be understood in the then supposed universal languages of color and form and found instead that their works were open to a host of interpretations, the serious and committed tone of this style indicates its significance, even if that import cannot be channeled into one unequivocal meaning. […]
In Mandelman's work the poetics of white depend upon its plethora of references. White might be associated with clouds, light, snow, purity, the canvas itself, the void, with beginnings and with endings—meaning death— with mysterious signs painted on rock walls centuries ago, with the background of many Native American pots and Hispanic santos, and with the flesh color of the Christ figures from Arroyo Hondo. White can be a symbol of the primordial, which is reenacted in art by the awesome and immutable canvas or sheet of paper facing an artist before her first mark is made. [...] Mandelman equates white with the mystery of the unknown, which might be the yet uncreated force of the universe or its ultimate end.
After initiating the discourse on the poetics and problematics of white in her works of the early 1960s, Mandelman began in 1964 to investigate the formal problem of replacing a clearly articulated background with oscillating planes of color. She undertakes this problem in such works as Blue Moon, which appears on first inspection to be colored forms placed against a white background, but on prolonged examination reveals subtle overlapping shapes that shift between foreground and background. [...] Given Mandelman's interest in both form and political content, one might hazard an idealist interpretation to the effect that the lack of a definite ground affirms a new sense of doubt pervading the country in the 1960s when old values and attitudes were beginning to be seriously questioned. But the formal characteristics of these works do not necessarily convey such a political content. More to the point is the manner in which Mandelman's work participates in the ideology of progress that in the 1960s affected even the arts, an ideology that assumed the glamour, the element of surprise, and the planned obsolescence of high fashion. [...] Even though they might take on the spirited quest for novelty and change of fashion, Mandelman's works do not promote the values of industry: their assertively handpainted edges reinforce the artist's connections with handmade objects.
Occasionally during this period, Mandelman undertakes a critique of other artists' work. An example of this vying with tradition is
her Black Cross, which reconstitutes George O'Keeffe's paintings of crosses by placing one in a rigorously geometric format. While Mandelman's painting might appear to reject the religious overtones of O'Keeffe's art, it in fact serves as a Rosetta stone for her interests in New Mexican religious art, the austerity of the landscape, and the intensity of the light in the Southwest. More than most of her abstract paintings, this work underscores the way that Mandelman has abstracted from nature rather than rejected it. Even in such a seemingly nonobjective piece as Birds, the artist indicates a desire to perpetuate a dialogue
In addition to nature, memories of Russian Constructivist utopianism pervade Mandelman's collages. An excellent example is Vietnam, a descendent of the elegant abstracted posters undertaken by several Russian artists who had exceedingly high expectations for the intellectual curiosity and openness to change of an unimpeded proletariat. Unlike Russian Constructivists who thought their work would be as suitable for posters as for painting, Mandelman's work does not become an
effective forum for political persuasion. [...]
Rather than turning art into propaganda, Mandelman transforms the raw material of life into art. The result is a collage that is more satisfactory as art than information because the reference to current events have become highly aestheticized. Vietnam indicates a major problem for political art, which can become a means for dignifying conflicts and aggrandizing war rather than undermining it.