Mondrian died in New York, the city where he had been happiest, on the first of February 1944. A memorial meeting held two days later was attended by many of the most distinguished figures in the American art world and by virtually every single one of the famous European expatriate artists who formed a community within this world. And yet basically Mondrian died as he had lived: in near poverty, in solitude, and with that spare elegance and sense of personal style that was his alone, inimitable. Given the restrictions that he imposed on his own work, he was a remarkably open man, and he inspired admiration and affection in others; but friends, though trusted and cherished, were also gently kept at arm’s length. Of lovers, as far as we know, there were none. By the mid-1920s Mondrian had become a fixed pole in the evolving story of modernism, and subsequently his reputation grew steadily if slowly, but only in informed circles; he never became a popular artist, nor would he have wished it. And yet his influence was incalculable.
Today his name is a household word, but his work is still not fully appreciated, and frequently it has been misunderstood. No critic would contest the fact that Mondrian’s greatest work was produced after his evolution of a totally abstract idiom, between 1917 and 1919; but the abstract canvases are extraordinarily hard to write about. The works say it all for themselves. H.L.C. Jaffé’s pioneering monograph of 1970 devotes less space to the abstract works than to the background and the works that lead up to them. Carel Blotkamp’s fine, recently issued Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, which expands upon and updates Jaffé’s researches, is better balanced; but once again, having seen Mondrian into abstraction, the pace of his narrative accelerates. John Milner’s monograph published in 1992 is the best introduction to Mondrian and contains some of the most lucid passages of visual analysis ever to have been written on him; but to avoid repetition he deals with the later years in a some-what summary fashion. The problem is compounded by the fact that of all great twentieth-century artists of his generation Mondrian is possibly the one who suffers most in reproduction. Even good color plates make the works look flat and silky and deprive them of the physical and psychological depth and weight that give the originals their great power.
The superb Mondrian exhibition being shared between Holland and America is the most comprehensive yet to be undertaken and is a corrective to the inevitable imbalance in the literature on him. The organizers, under the guidance and leadership of Angelica Zander Rudenstine, have chosen to present Mondrian as he would have liked to be presented: as a truly modern artist. And the particular modernity of Mondrian’s art and vision is the subject of the brilliant and original essay contributed to the catalog by Yve-Alain Bois, one of the exhibition’s curators. The essay explains, indirectly, much of the thinking behind the exhibition. The organizers clearly reject the commonly held view that Mondrian’s early, “naturalist,” painting is deeply prophetic of things to come. They have rejected, too, the paintings that reflect most directly Mondrian’s involvement with Theosophy, presumably on the grounds that Mondrian himself later so totally rejected the use of symbols. Scholars may quibble over these omissions, but the exhibition, quite apart from its scale, is unlike any other Mondrian exhibition there has ever been.
More than half of Mondrian’s total output belongs to the years between 1890 and 1907; but it was only after that that he began to hit his stride—he was not a naturally gifted artist and he was a slow starter. A highly selective but deeply telling group of early, naturalistic works are, however, included. Similarly, the exhibition treats the years between 1908 and 1912, when Mondrian received a somewhat belated baptism in the waters of turn-of-the-century modernism and in certain occult systems of thought, as a prologue of things to come. But after that, and with Mondrian’s very personal investigation of Cubism, the exhibition lifts off. Inevitably Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism, the reductive style which he initiated in 1920 and for which he is best known, is at the hub of the display, and I will return to its origins. But the revelation of this selection concerns the extensive coverage given to the work executed between 1932 and 1940, when Mondrian moved to New York, years that have hitherto been much neglected. Almost half of Mondrian’s finished canvases of the period are on view, and they shine forth as never before. The exhibition destroys many of our preconceptions about Mondrian: he was not the cold perfectionist of popular imagination; rather he is shown as being an open-ended painter, obsessed with processes, and questing, innovating to the very end.
Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (he dropped the second “a” when he first moved to Paris) was born in Amesfoort in 1872, the son of the principal of a Protestant elementary school, and he grew up in an atmosphere of Calvinism that was liberal but still imbued with a strong Puritan heritage. Art was encouraged, and through his uncle Frits, who had taken on the family barber shop in The Hague and who was also a painter, Mondrian came into contact with the school of art that bore the city’s name; among its artists were Josef Israels, Jacob Maris, and Anton Mauve. The Hague School combined traditional Dutch principles with the influence of the Barbizon School and other Pre-Impressionist French art; and by the time that Mondrian encountered it, it was becoming increasingly conservative in outlook. Amsterdam, where Mondrian registered at the Rijks Academie in 1892, was livelier and more receptive to contemporary trends from abroad; but although Mondrian absorbed some of the current interest in Symbolism, he still stood apart from progressive trends, just as he belonged to and yet stood apart from the city’s bohemian community.
The truth is that Mondrian was ultimately an autodidact, struggling against his own severe technical limitations; in 1898 he failed the entrance examination for the Dutch Prix de Rome competition because of the weakness of his figure drawing. During the Amsterdam years (1892-1912), which last year were the subject of an instructive, quasi-documentary exhibition held at the city’s Gemeentearchief, Mondrian moved about a great deal, from studio to studio and around the surrounding countryside. There were frequent visits home to Winterswijk, where his father had moved to become headmaster of a Protestant primary school. Two of the earliest paintings in the current exhibition set the scene there. A view from the back of the family house’s garden, painted in 1898, shows the Reformed church of the town across gray-green fields; the sullen, off-white sky, caught between the skeletal branches of the bare foreground trees, presses forward to the surface of the picture. A complementary work, The Weavers’ House, shows the textile mill that stood directly across the street from the Mondrian house; the geometry of the mill’s windows and shutters, seen frontally and squarely, dominates the composition.
Most characteristic and interesting among the early works are perhaps the views across the water of a solitary farmhouse glimpsed through a row of trees. These are not notably accomplished, but they catch and hold the eye because they have about them a bold, reductive quality and because of the feeling of expectancy they generate. The light, which comes almost invariably from behind, is caught into pockets by the trunks and branches of the trees, and it is always about to sink or rise. Although the pictures are devoid of movement, there is a sense of drama: something is about to happen. The reflections in the water, echoing and reversing the imagery above, negate recession, and they also challenge the hierarchies of perceived reality. To this extent, they prefigure the later abstract work, as does the fact that Mondrian clearly saw these works as a single, coherent series. As Bois points out, Mondrian’s early habit of working in series sets him apart from the academic tradition even when his work was still conservative in appearance.
In the fall of 1908 Mondrian paid a short visit to Domburg in Zeeland; he was to return often. The circle of artists working there under the unofficial leadership of Jan Toorop, who produced his own, very radical branch of Dutch Symbolism, was possibly the most avant-garde to be found in Holland at the time. It introduced Mondrian to Neo-Impressionism, and it is likely that Mondrian had also visited the van Gogh retrospective recently mounted at the C.M. van Gogh Gallery in Amsterdam, which high-lighted his French work. The first Domburg visit transformed Mondrian into a modernist. He heightened his palette and yet altered and restricted it from painting to painting in such a way that harmonies of color glow and generate an intense, at times unnaturalistic sense of light, a mystic light with symbolic implications.
While all scholars recognize the importance of Theosophy for Mondrian, the extent and depth of its influence on him has become a matter of controversy. Mondrian may have been aware of Theosophy before he actually encountered the writings of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, which by his own account was in 1908. She had founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. The Theosophists’ attempts to do away with boundaries between all religious beliefs and organizations past and present must have consoled many troubled consciences; and this helps to explain the movement’s wide, if relatively short-lived, popularity. At the time Mondrian encountered Toorop and his Domburg circle, they were becoming increasingly interested in Theosophy, and it was then that Mondrian saw that its cosmology was what he had been looking for. Blavatsky’s two major comparative studies were “Isis Unveiled,” which appeared in 1877, and “The Secret Doctrine,” of 1888. On two separate occasions, Mondrian was to assert that he had “got everything” from the latter.
Today the lack of intellectual rigor which is one of the chief characteristics of Blavatsky’s writings makes them hard to read. But to artists who saw themselves as being in a period of acute transition, the tenets of Theosophy must have seemed marvelously suggestive and adaptable. Blavatsky was receptive to art, and she sought common meanings and hidden, occult truths in the symbols and signs of art in all its manifestations. One of Mondrian’s greatest debts to Theosophy was his subsequent abiding belief that all life is directed toward evolution and that it is the goal of art to give expression to that conviction. From Theosophy he also derived the idea that progress toward ultimate revelation came through the balance and reconciliation of opposing forces and that this reconciliation was often achieved through the destruction of any principle or belief that was becoming too dominant.
Rudolf Steiner, who was to found the dissenting Anthroposophical movement in 1913, also played a part in Mondrian’s new intellectual interests. Mondrian may have attended lectures Steiner gave in the Netherlands in 1908. Mondrian subscribed to his proposition that the exalted knowledge sought by the Theosophist could be drawn from the observation of ordinary, day-to-day visual phenomena through “conscious observation.” Mondrian also subsequently made use of the terminology of M.H.J. Schoenmaekers, a former Catholic priest and occultist who was thinking on similar lines in his attempt to found “a new, theology-free religion”; the two men met frequently during 1915–1916.
There are indications that Mondrian came to find Steiner doctrinaire and remote; Schoenmaekers he came to see as a charlatan. His initial fealty to Blavatsky can perhaps be explained by the fact that she saw religion and art as being on parallel paths and acknowledged that the aim of both was to transcend matter. There is a sense in which Mondrian was to go beyond Theosophy when he entered his fully evolved abstract style. By 1919 he was beginning to reject Theosophical doctrine, and soon he was complaining that the Theosophists “never achieve the experience of equivalent relationships” and hence never feel “real, fully human harmony.” In short, for Mondrian art was to become a substitute for religious experience. With his rejection of Theosophy, Mondrian left behind a world of vast, intangible, and amorphous ideas to reenter one of the most constricted of all worlds, that of the self-contained, small-scale easel painting. But there is no doubt that it was his contacts with Theosophy that turned him into the painter-philosopher he was to become; and he kept his membership card to the Theosophical Society with him until the day of his death.
I myself feel that, contrary to the emphasis in the catalog, almost all the work of 1908–1912, which can be broadly classified as Post-Impressionist, speaks eloquently of the Theosophical experience. In Woods near Oele of 1908, a key work, the trees have become animate; the setting sun behind them is offset by cooler, orb-like shapes to the left of it: Mondrian was beginning to think in terms of the reconciliation of opposites. The windmills that had appeared in earlier landscapes are now depicted as isolated entities, often haloed by a nimbus of light; they stand as sentinels, waiting to be activated. Their sails at rest on the diagonal implicitly describe a square; poised on their vertical and horizontal axes, they also imply a diamond shape or lozenge. Two new themes are introduced: the towering, cathedral-like lighthouse at Westkapelle soaring into infinity, and, most important of all, the paintings of sea and dunes which reconcile water and land, surge and stability. These are all beautiful paintings, and yet their visual presence fails to match the magnitude of the Theosophical concepts that I for one sense they are seeking to embody.
But it was the contacts with Cubism that produced Mondrian’s pivotal, or truly transitional, work. As a prelude to these he had been looking at Cézanne, and through Cézanne he learned how to give equal pictorial weight to every single area of the picture surface. According to the new findings of Joop Joosten, Mondrian visited Paris for ten days in the early summer of 1911 and must have seen Cubist works at the Salon des Indépendants; a work of his own was on show. That autumn he helped to judge submissions to the first Moderne Kunst Kring show at the Stedelijk Museum; the exhibition included twenty-eight Cézannes and examples of the early Cubism of Picasso and Braque, hitherto unknown in Holland. A few months later, Mondrian moved to Paris. He had come to see that his art must meet the challenge of what was going on there. Basically Mondrian wasn’t interested in travel, but he always knew instinctively where his art required him to be.
Mondrian never became a Cubist. He particularly admired the work of Picasso, but he was never interested in the use of multiple viewpoints which was central to Picasso’s Cubism, enabling him to render his painted subjects in what might be described as sculptural plenitude. Mondrian made full use of the grids or scaffoldings of high Analytic Cubism, but he put them to new ends right from the start. He was not concerned with opening his subjects into the space around them and then in exploring the tactility, the palpability of this space. He wanted on the contrary to destroy the distinction between figure and ground, between matter and nonmatter. He dissolves the image into planes, and these planes and the space that surrounds them are invariably strictly frontal, and they reaffirm the flatness of pictorial support. Although the planes hover and hang in front of and behind one another, they do not slide in and out of space as they do in contemporary canvases by Picasso and Braque.
Similarly, lights and darks are not tangled against one another to produce a sensation of volume and depth; and the blacks of Mondrian’s scaffoldings already begin to read as dark elements in their own right. The Cubists loved to paint on oval-shaped canvases when they could afford the expensive oval stretchers made to hold them. Mondrian never painted on these, but often his canvases imply oval organizations, and occasionally he inscribed a painted oval within a rectangular format. By keeping the edges of his canvases blurred or indistinct, he was able to explore the internal relations between lines and planes more independently and to experiment with varying relationships between the vertical and the horizontal.
Mondrian eased himself into a monochromatic Cubist palette gently, by the use of tinted grays. Subsequently, during the latter part of 1913 and 1914, when color begins to creep back into his paintings, he makes use of tinted primary colors: radiant yellows, often derived from earth pigments; silvery blues; and pinks—reds reduced by the admixture of a lot of white. The pinks almost invariably weaken the impact of these canvases. When the pinks finally assert themselves as reds, in 1920, we recognize immediately that one of the major battles in the creation of a new, Neo-Plastic style has been won. The term “Neo-Plasticism” is an awkward and in some respects even a misleading one, suggesting as it does a reversion, a return to some earlier style or idiom. The original Dutch “nieuwe beelding” is virtually untranslatable and means something like “new image making” or “new structuring.” For Mondrian Neo-Plasticism meant, quite simply, the creation of a new pictorial vocabulary based on purified, reductive visual means.
In Theosophy red was seen as earth-bound and sensual. Mondrian was not, or was no longer, concerned with color symbolism. But his letters make it clear that he always saw red as the most physical and least spiritual of the three primary colors; and because his art continued to have spiritual concerns, it cost him a great effort to reaf-firm red’s identity. Henceforth his blues are invariably tied to his blacks, while the yellows are married to the whites and pale grays. But the reds assert only their own presence.
Mondrian always acknowledged his debt to Cubism. But he felt that Cubism hadn’t gone far enough in divorcing form from content; he himself was out to obliterate this duality. In a letter of 1914, he talks of his desire to convey on his surfaces “nothing specific, nothing human.” Much later he said of Cubism: “Thus the foundation was laid upon which there could arise a plastic of pure relationships, of free rhythm previously imprisoned by limited form.” It is in the tree paintings of 1912 and 1913 that subject and pictorial structure begin to become confounded; as the series progresses, the configurations become increasingly abstract, and works like Tableau No. 2; Composition No. VII,” for example, cannot be “read” figuratively without the help of preliminary studies or sketches.
Then, in 1914, Mondrian turned his attention to the urban scene, using as his starting point the forms of half-demolished buildings on the street on which he lived, although once again these paintings appear to be totally abstract at first glance. Interestingly enough, they have about them some of the same breathless, expectant quality of his much earlier depictions of trees and water.
In July 1914, Mondrian returned to Holland to see his father, who was ill; and there he was caught by the outbreak of war. Times were harder than ever and he had difficulty in finding places in which to work and live; to survive he produced portraits and copies of old masters. But in retrospect one can see that it was beneficial, and indeed necessary, for him to reassess the discoveries that he had made in Paris in the light of his earlier sources of visual inspiration. In the autumn of 1914 he revisited Domburg; he was drawing a lot, thinking out loud in black and white, and there he produced his “plus and minus” series, in which he rendered church façades, dunes, and the ocean by small, calligraphic linear markings—some resembling plus and minus signs—that relate, at a distance, to his earlier experiments in Divisionist and Pointilliste techniques. The earlier paintings of dunes and ocean had emphasized the horizontal, and because of this, Schoenmaekers, for example, would probably have seen them as being imbued with the female principle.
Theosophy was still on Mondrian’s mind, but he now knew what reductive visual conclusions he wanted to extract from it. The horizontal notations indicating the ocean and sometimes the starry sky above it are now balanced and bisected by verticals, which become increasingly pronounced when he conceived the idea of introducing strong upward thrusts suggested by a pier projecting out into space over the water below; the balance between opposing forces and principles was thus carried a stage further.
The works on paper culminate in Composition No. 10 in Black and White; Pier and Ocean, of 1915, one of the most profound and magical paintings he ever produced. A rough oval is described within the horizontal canvas and within it a network of vertical and horizontal lines, subtly and infinitely varied in length, touch, cross, or hover independently to create a feeling of perfect equilibrium; but they also pulse and shimmer as does the ocean itself when at rest. Perceived reality—the pier, the ocean, the sky—may stand behind the configurations conveyed by the lines, but it is the lines themselves and their relationship to the white ground onto which they are imposed and embedded that have become the subject of the painting: their pulse, their rhythm, have become the pictorial image. When the artist and critic Theo van Doesburg saw Composition 10 in an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in October 1915, he wrote:
Spiritually, this work is more important than all the others. It conveys the impression of Peace; the stillness of the soul. In [Mondrian’s] methodical construction, “becoming” is stronger than “being.”
The review provoked a correspondence between the two men, and after some hesitation Mondrian agreed to collaborate on the publication of a new periodical, De Stijl, which soon acquired a subtitle, Monthly Review for New Art, Science and Culture. The first issue, which appeared on November 1, 1917, presented Mondrian to the public as a theorist by printing the introduction to a book that had developed during several years out of notations scribbled in his earlier sketchbooks.
Mondrian’s book, entitled New Plastic in Painting, consisted of twelve chapters, which came out in installments in De Stijl over a period of a year, with a supplement in the December 1918 issue. It makes turgid reading, and despite the transparent, somewhat dogged sincerity of tone, it is at times contradictory. Mondrian claimed that his theory followed from his practice. This is not always the case; his obsessive subsequent arrangement of his studios, for example, arose out of ideas about architecture that he formulated through his contacts with other members of the group around De Stijl. But essentially the book is an attempt to justify conclusions that he had reached laboriously but intuitively in his painting. One of the most remarkable and telling features about New Plastic is that it contains only one, indirect, mention of Theosophy, and this is in connection with a reference to Kandinsky’s “On the Spiritual in Art,” when Mondrian suggests that Theosophy is simply another expression of the same spiritual movement that is being seen in painting.
In the first chapter of his book Mondrian says of style what he had previously said of religion, although his early references to religion had at times had about them a satirical ring: that there is a single universal content, which is embedded in a series of different forms that are the product of their particular age. He restates or makes implicit the parallels between art and religion in other later writings. In De Stijl he writes, “Art—although an end in itself, like religion—is the means through which we can know the universal….” After a long evolution, Mondrian claims, painting is now able to depict “pure relationships, through straight line and colour…the absolute harmony of contrast, concepts demonstrating the essence of life itself.” It is the reductiveness and purity of the new art that is particular to our time: “The whole of modern life, which continues to grow in depth, is mirrored in the painting.”
Discussions between Mondrian and van Doesburg and the painter Bart van der Leck, the two figures associated with De Stijl who during the years 1917–1918 meant the most to Mondrian, concentrated on how far it was possible to go in restricting and purifying the means of painting and on whether it was desirable or indeed permissible for the new art to have a starting point in the natural world. Mondrian kept an open mind on the latter issue. Earlier, in a letter of 1914, he had written: “Nature (or what I see) inspires me, provides me…with the emotion by which I am moved to create something.” But inevitably, as his art came to feed increasingly on its own processes, he distanced himself from perceived reality: “When art does not describe or depict anything human—then through complete negation, a work of art emerges that is a monument of Beauty, far above anything human, yet most human in its depth and universality.”
Mondrian was influenced by van der Leck, an example of an artist of genius who was prepared to learn from an infinitely lesser talent. When the two men became friendly in 1916, van der Leck was attempting to revive an interest in monumental, muralistic art, and had evolved a schematized, almost cartoonlike style that reduced figures and their surroundings to flat, bold-colored cutouts. After his contact with Mondrian, he sometimes further reduced and concealed his imagery in a diagrammatic manner, so that his art appeared at times to be totally abstract. Mondrian must have found van der Leck’s work coarse, and he disagreed with van der Leck’s assertion that color should always be used at full strength or hue, as if out of the tube. But he was impressed by the boldness of his younger colleague, and van der Leck’s example helped Mondrian to eliminate the last vestiges of Cubist syntax from his work. It was probably also because of his theoretical discussions with members of the De Stijl circle that in some of his works of 1918 and 1919 Mondrian experimented with a modular grid structure based on a division of the canvas into eight sections.
One of these, Composition with Grid 1, 1918, was the first of Mondrian’s “lozenge” paintings, square canvases rotated through forty-five degrees or placed on one of their corners. Total symmetry is avoided or destroyed by the way in which the interacting black or dark-gray lines are of different thicknesses, widened to left or right, above or below. This is another key picture for Mondrian, and despite the “doctored” symmetry—or possibly even because of it—it throbs and pulses mysteriously; and in this respect it has deep affinities with Composition 10, executed three years earlier. The lozenge pictures punctuate Mondrian’s career. Mondrian insisted there was no radical distinction between the diamond shapes and other, more conventional formats, but he seems to have used them to verify or to question successive visual conclusions, by, so to speak, standing things on their heads. Because of their positioning, these paintings cannot be viewed as windows onto nature; horizontals inscribed on them cannot be read as implied horizons; and, as on oval canvases, the juxtaposition of vertical to horizontal becomes starker because their relationships cannot be related to the paintings’ edges. Of Composition with Grid; Checkerboard with Dark Colors, 1919, Mondrian wrote:
At the moment I am working on something which is a reconstruction of a starry sky, and yet it is without a given in nature. So he who says one should start from a given in nature can be just as right as he who says one should not.
But Mondrian also emphasizes that even if he was inspired by the infinity of the night sky the work was conceived of as an abstract painting right from the start.
Despite the fact that Mondrian derived obvious stimulus from his association with De Stijl, I suspect that he no longer felt completely at home in Holland. Its landscape continued to haunt him but he was by now anxious to turn his back on nature as completely as possible. Relations with van der Leck had cooled. Mondrian endorsed whole-heartedly van Doesburg’s attempts to widen the perspectives of the journal, to embrace as wide a variety of art forms as possible; for example, after his return to Paris, he collaborated on a literary manifesto published by De Stijl and he sent van Doesburg two essays on futurist music, jazz, and social dancing. But secretly he must have resented the fact that painting wasn’t being given the supremacy he felt it deserved. When he eventually broke with van Doesburg, it was because of personal disputes between the two but also because he resented the increasing importance that van Doesburg’s ally van der Leck was according to architecture. Mondrian agreed that painting and architecture should advance hand in hand, always provided that it was acknowledged that painting must point the way forward.
On June 22, 1919, Mondrian returned to Paris. His old studio in the rue du Départ was unavailable, but after a few months he found a new one, in the rue de Coulmiers. He had always been conscious of the appearance of his working spaces, and now he created the first of his interiors, which mirrored very directly his pictorial concerns by attaching rectangles of card-board painted in primary colors, and in gray and white to the off-white walls of the studio. His two easels and the few pieces of furniture, mostly made by himself out of abandoned crates and boxes, were similarly painted. He moved back to a new studio in the rue du Départ in 1921, and this became the most famous of his working and living places. Strangers, often foreigners, would knock on the door and ask to have a look. A reconstruction of this studio was set up in Amsterdam as part of the Dutch Mondrian year. It looked a little too “new,” just slightly artificial and glossy, but it was nevertheless deeply evocative and strangely heartbreaking. It was minuscule, yet in it Mondrian not only worked but lived. One pictures him of an evening, sitting in the only comfortable chair, studying the walls and the colored shapes imposed on them, getting up from time to time to adjust one of them. Conditions were Spartan, to say the least, and his only indulgence was a phonograph (played almost continually). We all live in our minds to a greater or lesser extent, and the surroundings of many of us reflect our concerns and natures; but the environments Mondrian created for himself were diagrams of his mind, and he lived in them in spiritual comfort.
Already, before his return to Paris, Mondrian had evolved his characteristic method of composition, although he was to alter it subtly from painting to painting so that by the end of his life he had rung an astonishing number of variations on a basically simple formula. Composition with Color Planes and Gray Lines 1, of 1918, is a pivotal work. An irregular grid of relatively thick lines organizes the picture surface; all of them are either vertical or horizontal—some extend to the outer edges of the canvas, some do not, thus ensuring that the picture doesn’t look like a fragment of a larger whole. The rectilinear shapes or planes created by the grid are of an ocherous yellow, a tinted cobalt blue, and faded roses or pinks, offset by others of white or of the palest gray; some of these are in turn cut off by the picture’s outer edges, affirming that the colored planes could be continued outward and exist independently of their linear corset. Only in one instance are two areas of the same color placed adjacent to each other; and the individual colors call to their counterparts across the picture surface. Here the yellows appear to stand forward from the picture surface, but some do so more than others because the size of the planes that they describe are unequal, and so condition the optical effects of coloristic saturation. The blues are distributed in such a way that some appear to hang behind the linear grid, while others advance. The rose-colored planes are the most passive and static.
Contrary to accepted notions, the exhibition demonstrates that Mondrian’s art invariably gives a sense of activity within space and indeed of experiments with space. It is true that the artists associated with De Stijl were obsessed with flatness. True, too, that the scaffoldings Mondrian was evolving, reminiscent of the leaded armatures of stained-glass windows, stress the two-dimensionality of the picture plane more insistently than any other artist had hitherto done. This two-dimensionality is reinforced by the fact that the individual rectangles or planes defined or imprisoned by the linear framework invariably exist parallel to the picture plane. We are always aware of being confronted by objects that are rigorously flat. In 1920 Mondrian began exhibiting his pictures without frames; he soon realized that this exposed them to damage, and he then attached white strips of wood to the edges; subsequently, in the late 1920s, he began suspending the canvases or affixing them and the wooden strips attached to them onto rectangular wooden bases.
These devices again reinforce the flatness of the pictures and their status as objects. Yet as we stand in front of the paintings we become absorbed into the spatial interplay between their pictorial parts. It is this that distinguishes Mondrian’s art from that of van Doesburg and van der Leck and from the followers he was to acquire in Paris, painters like César Domela and Jean Gorin, whose work is flatter in every sense of the word. The spatial tensions give Mondrian’s art that sense of rhythmic pulse and vitality that he consciously sought. Having achieved it, he can hold the spectator’s eye in thrall almost indefinitely.
The first work finished by Mondrian in Paris in 1920, Composition with Black, Red, Gray, Yellow and Blue (the work now in Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna), pleased him, and he felt it surpassed anything he had yet produced. It is here that red emerges as a color in its own right. Because the colors, now true primaries, are brighter and purer, the whites and grays are made to look more luminous. Colors and non-colors (blacks, whites, and grays) find an exact equivalence. Most of the linear gridding is rendered in black, but some lines are gray. Scientific analysis has revealed that although the linear compositional frameworks of this period underwent alteration, they remained the most constant element in the paintings, whereas the colors of the shapes defined by them were being constantly altered. In a slightly later painting of 1920, Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray, all the linear elements are rendered in black and have been thickened so that they become more insistent and achieve a pictorial importance equal to that of the colored shapes they define. With this work, Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic style reached its full expression. The painting is relatively small but radiates an extraordinary presence.
In his catalog essay, “The Iconoclast,” Yve-Alain Bois suggests, or at least implies, that it was through Mondrian’s discovery of Hegel that he reexamined his earlier intellectual influences and got rid of a lot of the wolliness of Theosophical thought; and Bois seems to be suggesting that with the rejection of his now redundant Theosophical baggage Mondrian emerges as a supremely modern artist of a new order. Mondrian came to Hegel through the philosopher’s Dutch popularizer J.P.J. Bolland, who was professor of philosophy at the University of Leiden. Through a Hegelian dialectic, Mondrian pushed his view of opposing forces or elements as complementing or reinforcing each other to arrive at more dynamic conclusions. The balance that he now sought was one of dynamism: there is no such thing as ultimate repose but rather a ceaseless renewal of tensions aimed at producing an absolute, but, in Mondrian’s system of thought, incapable of achieving it. I believe that this accounts for the fact that every single one of Mondrian’s canvases from 1915 onward is so strongly individualized. Although Mondrian continued to work in series, there is a sense in which each new work he produced superseded or canceled out the one that had preceded it. And there is one respect in which Mondrian’s art parallels the processes of the natural world he believed he had by now so totally rejected. For if nature appears to reproduce itself endlessly, it is incapable of duplicating itself in even its smallest individual manifestations.
The years 1929–1932 represent a high point in Mondrian’s achievement; by now he had evolved a formal vocabulary of total clarity. Each of the compositional types that he had created within the rigors of his Neo-Plastic principles had been honed down and refined to its purest expression and then altered or put onto a slightly different track in order to open up new lines of inquiry. Having become a master in his use of grays, Mondrian now rejects them. The whites that replace them appear to be infinitely varied, and before 1930 they are subliminally tinted (an effect that can hardly be reproduced and that makes an exhibition such as the present one all the more valuable). After 1930 they are no longer subliminally tinted, but Mondrian’s control of optical effects had become so sure and skillful that he could personalize each white shape, just as each of his canvases appears to possess a personality all its own. Because of their variety, and because they read differently according to the size and placing of the planes they define, the whites also recede or advance in spatial interplay.
Mondrian had seen his work as belonging to the urban environment for some time now. In 1917 he stated, “The truly modern artist sees the metropolis as abstract life given form: it is closer to him than nature and it will more easily stir aesthetic emotions in him.” On his return to Paris, he was stimulated, somewhat late in the day, by the ethos of Italian Futurism. It is in the 1920s when the grays in his works are replaced by whites (although the odd, small gray plane continues to put in a rare and somewhat apologetic appearance), that Mondrian’s art becomes harder, sharper, more abrasive in feel. And it is now, for me at least, that the last psychological vestiges of his formation by the admittedly largely man-made Dutch environment are totally obliterated. The feeling of expectation that I experience in front of virtually all his work hitherto vanishes and is replaced by a more immediate scintillation.
These sensations are reinforced by the introduction, in 1932, of the double line. Mondrian was becoming dissatisfied with his blacks, and as usual when he became unhappy with any one of his pictorial elements, it was because he felt he was using it too easily and well. The use of double black lines, thin at first, introduced a new complexity into his deceptively pared-down means: the whites that appear between the black lines now read like lines themselves, and by implication they bisect a larger black plane behind them.
With his return to Paris, Mondrian discovered jazz, which he referred to as “this music bombshell”; it became, after painting, his great passion in life, even though he saw jazz as a some-what imperfect realization of the “Universal,” which he felt his “free rhythm” could accomplish in painting. His essay “Jazz and Neo-Plastic,” which was published in 1927, is a paean to jazz; and there is little doubt that jazz helped him to elaborate this concept of “free” and “open” rhythm. The black lines that had previously served to define the colored planes now take on a more aggressive, independent quality; at times they appear to constrict or even to threaten the very existence of the colored squares and rectangles between them. The paintings produced after 1932 challenge the eye in a new way. Because of their boldness they attract us instantly. They purify and sharpen our visual responses. The earlier works of the classical phase constitute small, individual universes in which we can lose ourselves indefinitely; the syncopation of the new paintings forces us to look at them and then to look again and again.
“I think that the destructive element is too much neglected in art,” Mondrian later declared. And in a letter of 1943 to a friend, the critic and art historian James Johnson Sweeney, Mondrian described his whole life’s work as a series of destructive acts. The last, and in a sense, the boldest of his acts of destruction took place in his studios on East 56th and East 59th Streets in New York. In 1938, with the threat of war, Mondrian wrote to the painter Ben Nicholson from Paris asking for an invitation to visit England; he had no desire to return to Holland, and already he probably saw England as a sort of stepping stone to a new life across the Atlantic. The German invasion of Holland, in May 1940, shocked him deeply. He had seen it coming; but although he had talked and written about the evils of Nazi and Communist ideologies, he was to remain, in an oddly innocent way, an optimist. Then came the London Blitz and he was forced to vacate his Hampstead studio. Mondrian arrived in New York in October 1940 and was met at the pier by his young friend and disciple Harry Holzman, who had helped arrange his trip and who was later to become his heir. Mondrian fell in love with New York at once; and the bond between Neo-Plasticism and the metropolitan was reinforced as never before.
In a statement made to Sweeney in 1943 Mondrian said, “Only now I become conscious that my work in black, white and little color planes has been mere ‘drawing’ in oil color.” At the age of sixty-one he was quite prepared to begin his artistic life anew. In a letter to Sweeney he talks of the need he feels to destroy the powerful network of black lines that it had taken him half a lifetime to evolve. In 1933, in his Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines, Mondrian had for the first time used color as line, but this had remained an isolated experiment. In New York he went back into earlier Paris and London canvases that he had had shipped over to him and began introducing colored bands into them that read both as lines and as small shapes or planes. In New York Mondrian also devised a new method of work, attaching strips of colored adhesive paper to the surfaces of his canvases; to avoid monotony some were trimmed. After moving them about endlessly and achieving the effects he was after, they were removed and he painted the spaces in with thick impasto. This technique, possibly designed in part to speed up his laborious working processes, got him a step further in thinking of lines in terms of color. Furthermore, the physical presence of the adhesive tapes, and subsequently of the heavily built-up painted lines that replaced them, meant the lines could not be read as being behind the other pictorial elements in depth and that they could once again become thinner and more flexible.
In his last two canvases, Broadway Boogie Woogie, of 1942–1943 (see page 63), and the unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie, of 1942–1944, the colored lines have in turn been broken down into an infinity of tiny shapes—red, blue, yellow, black, white, and gray. He had opened up a whole new world of possibilities in painting, destroying the concept of line as being independent of color and form. Of Broadway Boogie Woogie he is said to have felt that, “…even about this picture I am not quite satisfied. There is still too much of the old in it.” It is deeply significant that Victory Boogie Woogie employs the experimental lozenge format. In New York, asked why he was reworking earlier canvases rather than simply painting new ones, he replied, “I don’t want pictures. I just want to find things out.”
June 22, 1995