Times Staff Writer

Robert Mangold is a Minimalist who has taken to using maximum color--shocking vermillions, greens and yellows so bright that they make your eyes swim. He's a reductive abstractionist who doesn't subtract but adds delicate lines to solid-hue canvases and sometimes continues the drawing with aluminum bars painted black. He's also a purist whose perfection often revolves around "mistakes" that push geometry askew, along with viewers' perceptions of his rigorous work.

In short, he doesn't fit the clinical archetype of his art-world niche. Though he weighs and measures each ingredient of his paintings like a fastidious cook, using nothing that doesn't add a distinctive flavor to the whole, he seems too eccentric, too quirkily inventive to carry on the legacy of Kasimir Malevich or to be in league with Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra or Donald Judd.

Mangold devises no systems for himself, let alone for anonymous workmen. As absolutists go, he has a fuzzy edge that leaves apparent gaps in his logic and lets in a breath of humanity. For all his Minimalist associations, he remains a prominent individual. That won't win him crowds of fans; bored respect is the most he usually gets from all but the cognoscenti. Still, the unpredictable quality of his work makes his retrospective exhibition (at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art through Aug. 2) a surprisingly lively affair--relatively speaking.

"Robert Mangold Paintings 1971-1984," organized by the Akron Art Museum and now on a nationwide tour, presents about 35 works, encompassing small, precisely contained squares and large open works constructed of multiple stretched canvases and metal bars. All are geometric abstractions that wed linear configurations to solid-color grounds, delicate drawing to rigid shape.

But within these strictly enforced parameters is an ongoing play between classical resolution and conflict. For every perfect circle neatly inscribed within a square (or square within a circle), there are rings pushed out of shape by polygons, run off the edges of canvases or made "incomplete" by their will to follow a spiral course. Mangold's order is an order subverted for the sake of sharpened vision and wit.

So prevalent is the studied unrest in this show that you find yourself questioning the veracity of the apparently "perfect" works. A couple of 1969 drawings set the tone by presenting three Xs that don't quite match and three rectangles of slightly receding size. Not much action, but enough to prove how eagerly the eyes generalize subtle inconsistencies.

Except for lovely, muzzy colors that are hard to name, there's nothing subtle about Mangold's "Distorted Circles" of 1972. Here, the match between drawn ellipses and their polygon supports is so even, you can't be certain which element is responsible for the odd shapes of both. These pieces have an organic pulse that causes them to stand alone, rather like fat misfits in an aerobics class.

The wayward circles don't burst out of their straight-edge constraints; they hold firm until they give way to more properly buttoned-up work. By the mid-'70s, Mangold has moved on to overlapping shapes whose contours are formed by combinations of canvas edges and both drawn and implied lines. In "Four Squares Within a Circle," for example, the four floating elements would form another square if connected. "A Line Arc Within a Square and a Line Right Angle Within a Quarter Circle" makes geometric segments allude to whole shapes.

And so it goes through two large galleries of his quietly involving art. In the third room, concentrating on the most recent work, comes an abrupt shift to hot color and open form. If this is a nod to the Expressionist fervor that has swept the land, the new paintings still stand on Mangold's familiar geometric base and maintain his art's characteristic tension between the mechanical and the hand-done.

Vivid red-orange Xs stretch across white walls, first in chunky, tilted shapes and later slimming down in taut, upright crosses composed of red and green canvases and metal bars. In the context of this retrospective, the latter look willful and too tightly strung. Their sizzling color and cross configurations seem to symbolize passion instead of dealing with the real thing.

More successful are two "Four Color Frame Paintings," composed of four solid-color canvases of different-size rectangles framing an open space. An ellipse swings penciled arcs through each canvas and locks the whole in a typically provocative variation on the square.

A canvas is a rectangular shape, a line and a building block. A black line is a perimeter, a connecting rod and an implied egg-shape. Mangold's version of the search to rediscover art by peeling it back to the bones is by now so complex that what you finally get is considerably more than what is instantly revealed.

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