PRINT March 1965

Mondrian at Santa Barbara

MONDRIAN WAS AN OBSESSIVE VISIONARY IDEALIST. He could not bear the thought of art for art’s sake, nor for art to be (merely) morally uplifting. He wanted it to serve a greater purpose—to bring man, art and environment into a Utopian harmony. In 1926, in “Pure Abstract Art,” he wrote: “. . . In our disequilibreated society whose atmosphere thoroughly reeks with old age, everything drives us to seek pure equilibrium: it alone will sustain us with the indispensable joy of living. To this end, pure abstract art’s “painting” is not enough; the expression must be realized in our material environment, and by this means prepare the realization of pure equilibrium within society itself. Only then will art become life.” Given these words, combined with the knowledge of his earlier close connection to DeStijl (and in particular to van Doesberg, who became an architect in order to further amplify these ideals), it is not surprising that his art is often connected to function and the function of visual space. However, Mondrian, despite his urge to bring man and his surroundings into a state of greater physical and spiritual harmony, was never a functional artist. Not only does his break with van Doesberg and de Stijl attest to this, but it can be firmly asserted that whenever there was conflict of his esthetic with his dreams of a better world for mankind, the former won.

Many European artists were to be optimistically sucked into integrationalist notions. The Bauhaus, of course, became a prime factor in the dissemination of these ideas, but as early as 1917 Malevich and the Russian Constructivists had already moved in this direction, and this despite Malevich’s extraordinary book “The Non-Objective World” abounding in statements asserting the supremacy of pure feeling in the creative arts. Nevertheless, he and others were to eventually subvert the original radical impulses of abstract art into a framework of environmental function or integration with science.

If Malevich, and others, go from freedom to group synthesis, Mondrian did exactly the opposite, as shown not only in his paintings but in a change of emphasis in his writings shortly prior to his death. In 1942 he states “. . . In the deep future, the realization in tangible reality of pure plasticism will replace the work of art. But to achieve this, it will be necessary for us to direct ourselves towards a universal conception of life and to release ourselves from the pressures of nature. Then we will no longer need paintings and sculptures, because we shall live in the midst of realized art.” He adds however—“. . . At the present time art is still of the greatest importance because the laws of equilibrium are demonstrated by it in a direct manner independent of individual conceptions.”

Viewed in the light of this change of emphasis, Mondrian emerges from scrutiny not as a dispassionate purist, but as a Subjective Hero. Thus, despite notions to the contrary, Mondrian’s surfaces are in no way renunciatory, or, for that matter, pristine, particularly in the works from the early thirties to his death in 1944. A very pronounced brushwork is an important compositional element of his painting. Soft and delicate, but somewhat irregular, it is used directionally, in support of, or in contrast to, the black grids. It is also used within the black, and runs directionally along. Likewise his color, although ritualized at first sight, has little connection to the optical primaries, except in the broadest sense of being a red, blue or yellow. If it be granted that a true blue is without yellow or red, and likewise a true red is without blue or yellow—his color completely lacks this order of exactitude. Apart from being succulent in quality, his blues are of the rich, pasty, natural order of tubed cobalt and ultramarine, perhaps intermixed and modified. His red (cadmium?), is tinged pinkish by the addition of white. Generally, application of several coats of the same color gives resonance and strength, as well as body. In addition to the whites are subtle variations of distilled blues, greys and subliminal pink tints, each lying within its own rectilinear space between the black grids. In other words, the black of the grids and the colors—with the exception of yellow—are re-echoed in a subdued way within the general areas, in much the same manner, for example, as in Guston, although the procedure is different and the range more delicate.The black of the grids is never matte; in later works it is often a shiny, syrupy, enameled surface. Bearing brushmarks, the crossing of black over black at the junctions of the grids forms additional rectangles. The white and off-white areas are raised to form channels for the black grids to lie within, there being a very perceptible change of depth of surface. The facture and execution of Mondrian’s paintings, then, is personal, subjective, non-mechanical, unique, unrepeatable and could not have been done by any other person according to his directions. (Against the objection that frequent restoration makes such close examination suspect, examination under ultra-violet light establishes that although many paintings evince considerable restoration around the outer edges, and occasionally within, with the exception of a few yellow areas, it is the whites that have been repaired, and then only in small areas. Varnishing, presumably by dealers, adds, to some extent, to the reflective qualities or sheen of surface, but not enough to detract from the substance of the above remarks.)

The paintings in the current exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the largest to be held in the United States, clearly reveal the poor condition of Mondrian’s work painted after the thirties. In many of these paintings an extensive network of small cracks has developed within the white and near-white areas. In a few paintings semicircular cracks have begun to curl and break away from the main body of paint; this has necessitated gluing back into position and subsequent retouching. The current condition of his work cannot be attributed to neglect, for it is too widespread. And his early work, with very rare exceptions, is in excellent condition. It is reasonable, then, to assert that with the possible exception of Klee (who experimented continuously with new media) no other artist’s work in the history of modern art has suffered so distinct a deterioration in so short a time. Given the apparent simplicity of his approach, and his usage of conventional materials, it is obvious that Mondrian, in his overwhelmingly compulsive search to realize his esthetic, neglected, to an extraordinary extent, the technical aspects of his painting. This brings him closer to Pollock than Purism.

This basic conflict in Mondrian’s painting is important: the net effect of the brushwork and the glossy tracks serve to distract from the unity of surface. Given the nature of his writings, the obsessive manner in which year after year he laboriously and endlessly honed his esthetic, combined with his enormous visual sensitivity, it seems difficult to believe he had a low threshold of awareness of the powerful effect very small, subtle changes can make on the totality of a picture. Nor is it sufficient to postulate that he was not as aware as he could have been of improving his technical means. Admittedly, despite his enormous sophistication, Mondrian was a clumsy artist, almost, it would seem, perversely so. Herein lies the answer. Perfection and imperfection lie side by side within his painting, mutually contradicting one another—the razor-sharp edge of the black lines contrasted against the suffused surfaces. This conflict between means and ends transmits a psychic tension his disciples refined out of their art by subordinating search to system and technical refinement. In Mondrian, this duality serves as a check against ritualization and virtuosity and enables his work to transmit the drama of search and struggle without making a spectacle of it. (Without any strictures against the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the installation of the exhibition served to throw into relief the condition of Mondrian’s paintings. Mounted on a continuous ribbon of clean white paper stretched from the baseboard to a high picture rail, this sanitary surface distended every defect. A neutral grey ground might have been preferable.)

Another aspect of Mondrian’s art is the manner in which he continuously plunges and backtracks; he employs a process of regression and re-establishment, setting up a system only to destroy it, eliminating at one point, only to re-introduce exactly the same thing at a later date. For example, his Cubist work is contained within a black grid which is eliminated in the “Color Planes” of 1917, re-used throughout the twenties and thirties and finally eliminated in his very last paintings. Again, in his work of 1917 (despite entitling earlier facade paintings “Compositions”), he eliminated all references to the everyday world and produced purely non-objective work, only to re-introduce a sense of ambience in his later works, as in “Place de la Concorde” of 1938-43 and “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” of 1942-43. He went from complex images to simple images, and backwards, many times over. (This same approach is apparent throughout his early work.) He continuously contradicted himself for the purpose of expansion.

The earliest cohesive work of Mondrian is a series of paintings entitled “Farm Near Duivendrecht.” They appear to have been started in 1905 and extend over the next three or four years. Seuphor, in his book “Piet Mondrian” lists nine such paintings; Robert Welsh, currently re-examining the early work, speaks of twelve, and a number of drawings. (Until Welsh delved once more into Mondrian’s work, it had been taken for granted that Seuphor’s book was a pretty complete catalog raisonne. Welsh, however, speaks of another two hundred and fifty unlisted works.) Considering the paintings previous to, during, and after this series, they are an extraordinarily speculative body of work. Painted in the studio from sketches, they are bridge pictures that prefigure much of his later development. The three broad elements—farm buildings, trees and sky—are treated in a considered manner, first by the reduction of all forms to contour, which is then filled in, and second, by the emergence of an overall flatness which results from this process. Mondrian was to use this method throughout his later painting. In addition, his use of a rectilinear grid within the facade of the farmhouse, the clump of trees in front, and the flat, locked-together pink, blue and yellow-tinted clouds are also harbingers of a later handling of subject matter and structure.

A painting of 1909, “Dunes 1” reveals connections to Pointillism; but, more to the point is Mondrian’s diminution of subject, substance and presence by the establishment of an equivalence between figure and ground within an overall structural method that prefigures the eventual grid system. By this time, that is, before he went to Paris sometime around 1912, essential elements of his development were beginning to emerge, and this despite a considerable amount of investigation of Monet, Munch and other sources of modern art. (Constantly fed by his own passionate idealism, he was never to be a narrow-minded sectarian. Much later, for example, he was to write approvingly of Dada. He also contributed an article entitled “Het Neo-Plasticism” to Schwitters’ “Merz” magazine, number 6 of 1923). In an extraordinary painting entitled “Composition in Pink, Blue and White,” of 1912—a study of the facade of a Parisian church—painted on cardboard with the oil from the dense, separate islands of freely applied paint bleeding into the ground, he reduced his colors to blue, red and yellow, the very same colors (but employed in a more diminished manner) of the sky in the 1905 painting “Farm Near Duivendrecht.”

The sharpest break in Mondrian’s work occurs around 1918 with the first lozenge painting. The Cubists had first used the oval or circular format to extend the ambivalence of figure and ground. A circle, having neither top nor bottom denies weight and provokes spatial ambiguity and intangibility. A circle within the square format of a canvas, however, remains essentially a point of focus, echoing, in a distant manner, perspective, the focal organization of perceived objects in the everyday world. Mondrian cut away the non-functional corners, creating his first truly all-over paintings in dynamic equilibrium. By accentuating horizontal and vertical asymmetrically disposed lines within a diagonal grid he was able to invent hitherto unknown relations. From this moment onwards he was to evolve an art distinctly his own.

Mondrian worked intermittently over the next fifteen years on a small number of these lozenge shapes, reverting in between to the traditional rectilinear format. The last of the series was in 1933, but he reverted to the lozenge in a small number of paintings in 1943, a year before his death (as in the unfinished “Victory Boogie-Woogie” of 1943-44). Quite apart from this format variation, demonstrating in a typical manner his process of regression and re-establishment, a comparison of two paintings, the first completed in the middle twenties, and the second a decade or so later, reveal a considerable change of emphasis in Mondrian’s evolution.

In “Composition with Blue,” of 1926, he employs a segmental type of space, the configuration, two rectangles, subliminally completing itself in the mind of the observer, outside the lozenge, beyond the canvas. In effect this painting traps a segment of reality. Mondrian locks his composition into position by the creation of a tenuous but tangible pivotal point, emphasized by the fragment of blue in the crossed black grid. His deployment of the diagonal lozenge shape provokes an acute turning movement, stressed (and perhaps set into motion) by the imbalance of the composition, which is simultaneously denied by the optical fluctuations of the black and white, then amplified by the subliminal completion of the rectangles outside the canvas. In short, he sets up a process of flux, with the result that the tangible slips from the grasp of the mind to be replaced by the intangible.

In “Composition in White, Red and Yellow,” of 1938, he eradicates the segmental type of space in his earlier work. The lines and colors that hitherto arced off the canvas into space are now wrapped around the outer edge of the canvas. (This obviously cannot be seen in reproductions, and only with some difficulty in the actual paintings, since the edges are taped to within a quarter of an inch of the picture surface to hide the tack-heads.) This destruction of the outside pull metaphorically makes of the painting, not a fragment of an esthetic cosmic reality, but a self-contained reality.

Mondrian’s sense of edge is very unique. It has tremendous importance in his work, finally becoming an intrinsic element. He appears to be the first artist to give it this sense of dominance. Completely abandoning a restrictive frame, he fixed around the painting a small baguette. White, like the surrounding tape, it is recessed, so as to assert the autonomy of edge and picture plane.

This sense of the visual importance of every element in the painting is tied to his sense of scale, and cannot be considered separately. A number of complicated factors dominate Mondrian’s scale; first, the question of flatness (in the sense of destruction of perspective) and second, the manner in which he either tied his image by hinging it to an internal block-form, or to the edge. Perspective, for example, is never completely abolished in Monet; despite the scale (which immerses the viewer) of his late painting, he merely succeeded in bringing it to the surface. Similarly, Kandinsky’s painting has an implied perspective, the tilted forms of his Abstract Expressionist period slithering into a segmental type of space. In destroying the center of the painting and placing it in flux, Mondrian’s paintings “look” at the observer; in doing so, they cannot be larger than the normal arc of vision of an observer positioned immediately in front of the painting. In other words, if the various acute formal relationships cannot be scanned comparatively and more or less simultaneously, the viewer cannot grasp the necessary relationships. The scale, then, must be small. If the hatchet-like quality of Mondrian’s grids plays an essential role, minute differences, in contrast, are relatively unimportant in Monet (or for that matter, in Pollock, who also used an immersive-type scale).

John Coplans