PRINT December 1971

Mondrian in New York

ALTHOUGH HE DID NOT ACTUALLY arrive in New York until 1940, the influence of Piet Mondrian began to be felt by American artists before the great pioneer abstractionist found himself in America, once again in flight from Hitler’s advancing armies. Even before Harry Holtzman persuaded his Dutch friend to leave London for the greater safety of New York, Mondrian’s works could be mo re easily seen in America than in Europe, where the extreme reductiveness and severe austerity of his style was not pleasing to School of Paris taste. Americans, on the other hand, seemed to take to his work naturally. A. E. Gallatin and Catherine Dreier, who arranged to have his work shown in America as early as 1926, collected and exhibited Mondrian’s paintings. During the ’30s, James Johnson Sweeney, Alfred Barr and Miss Dreier (a friend of the wife of Mondrian’s colleague Theo van Doesburg) all wrote in praise of Mondrian in the United States. In 1937, Mondrian’s crucial essay “Plastic and Pure Plastic Art” appeared in translation in the English magazine Circle, widely read among American abstract artists.

By the time Mondrian arrived in New York, his work was appreciated, his essays studied, and his style quite closely imitated within the small circle of New York abstract painters. But Mondrian’s actual presence in midtown Manhattan had two additional consequences: it reinforced the current of American Geometric Abstraction, a branch of the original European Circle and Square and Abstraction-Creation groups seeking to establish Geo metric Abstraction as an international style; and it was a tremendous boost to the flagging morale of avant-garde American artists generally, even those who rejected Mondrian’s own closed, hard-edged style and strict dogmatic canons regarding the exclusive use of the right angle and the primary colors. In 1940, American artists we re at the bottom of their psycho logical depression. They felt alone, rejected by society, useless in the war effort. Yet here was Mondrian, an obviously great master who waited until the age of 70 to have his first and only one-man show in New York in 1942 at the Valentine-Dudensing Gallery. It is probable most of the emerging American avant-garde saw the show if only because there was so little to see. Fo r the occasion, Mondrian w rote a text published by the gallery titled “Toward a True Vision of Reality,” which we may also assume was circulated. Indeed, Mondrian’s preoccupation with the reality—in a philosophical as opposed to a representational sense—of the work of art was, we shall see, his central contribution to the formulation of the esthetic of the New York School. That this contribution was not attributed to Mondrian specifically, but found its way into New York thought partially through a gradual osmosis of Cubist thought, may be explained by the frank distaste of New York artists for Mondrian’s style. Even if Mondrian’s personality was upheld as an example of heroic perseverance in the face of philistine hostility, Mondrian him self—purist, classicist, rule maker—was rejected as the opponent of the spontaneous, free expression sought by Abstract Expressionists in New York.

In the ’40s, Mondrian’s works might not have been as fashionable as Max Ernst’s or Matta’s latest experiments in automatism, but nonetheless they were extremely visible. Yet, by the time Mondrian died of pneumonia in 1944, his work was included in all the major collections of modern art in America: Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century (for whose catalog Mondrian wrote an important preface on abstract art); A. E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art; the Museum of Modern Art, and the Société Anonyme. The Guggenheim Museum, then the Museum of Non Objective Art, also exhibited Mondrian’s paintings during the ’40s, and now honors Mondrian’s 100th birthday with a major retrospective exhibition that includes many works never seen in America.

The Guggenheim’s show is timelier than most centennials. For now, more than a quarter of a century after his death, Mondrian is more alive than ever in New York. How and why his influence pervades postwar American art is a subject critics have shied away from for several reasons: first, because within the “action” painters’ milieu, Mondrian was anathema. Second, because of the altogether erroneous assumption—once again indoctrinated into critics by artists involved in their own myth-making—that to acknowledge a source is to deny originality. Certainly we have reached the point now when we must beg in attacking the question of historical sources of recent work, as well as the very idea that “innovation” confers any degree of quality. In other words, it is an urgent critical problem to dissociate the concept of historical inn ovation fro m that of qualitative durability.

This is not the context in w hi ch to examine the putative identification of inn ovation with quality, or how such an identification came to be made, or for w hat extra-esthetic reasons it needed to be secured. Howe ver, a brief investigation of the enormous debt of postwar American art to one of the great 20th-century innovators may begin to dispel the delusions of spontaneous self-generation entertained by American artists regarding the innovative—as opposed to the qualitative—contribution of their work to the history of modern art.

The time has certainly come to close the phase of chauvinistic criticism that accompanied the emergence of the new American painting. It is appropriate to begin with an honest appraisal of the contribution of Mondrian—that Dutchman who didn’t stay long enough to become a certified New York School painter (he died while his citizenship was pending)—to American art. Mondrian’s influence may be divided into three distinct phases. The initial phase took place during the early ’40s, when he displaced Hélion to become the major theoretical influence on the group of painters who formed the American Abstract Artists, to which he nominally belonged (although apparently he attended only one meeting). Most A.A.A. artists were indebted to Mondrian’s theories of geometric form and relational composition. Some clearly imitated Mondrian’s image. Among this group were llya Bolotowsky, Michael Loewe, and Mondrian’s close friends, Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, and Fritz Glarner. Other American abstractionists, such as Burgoyne Diller and Nassos Daphnis, referred to aspects of Mondrian’s neo-Plasticism, such as the restrictive use of color and exclusively geometric form, but were able to evolve a more original image. Diller, especially in his late paintings and sculptures, developed into an artist of considerable significance and originality.

After Mondrian’s death, his influence did not wane. If anything, he became more prominent in the minds of American artists who began to define themselves not in imitation of Mondrian’s image but in opposition to his highly codified purist esthetics, which centered on the issue of relationships. We shall see to what degree this obsession led to an egress from Cubism by way of color field painting. In 1945, a year after Mondrian’s death, there was a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art with a catalog by James Johnson Sweeney. Mondrian’s own essays were published by George Wittenborn as part of the Documents of Modern Art series (edited by Robert Motherwell and Ad Reinhardt), and he came to the attention of a mass public in an article in Life magazine, which presented him as a symbol of asceticism, integrity, and artistic independence.

Consequently, in the late ’40s, the second phase of his influence, Mondrian was on everyone’s mind, even if the artists disclaimed his influence. Entering the larger awareness of artists beyond his own circle, Mondrian began to be seen as the quintessential late Cubist geometric painter to the New York School—hence The Enemy. As consciousness of his work and theories grew, this reaction ironically became more intense, and fewer ambitious artists were content merely to imitate Mondrian’s style. Perhaps more consciously than earlier art, and perhaps because of the Marxist training of its leading spokesmen (e.g., Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg), New York School art has defined itself in terms of a dialectic. Since the ’40s, Mondrian has consistently represented, perhaps because of his extremism, one pole of that dialectic, while the other pole has changed through time. At first it was Mondrian vs. Picasso: pure Geometric Abstraction vs. figurative expressionist Cubism. Then in the late ’40s, as Pollock developed a new form of composition based on the allover texture and lack of hierarchical distinctions of late Impressionism, Mondrian’s architectonic analytical Cubist works, the plus and minus paintings, came into new historical focus. Philip Guston’s first abstract works, their crosshatched painterly marks huddled in the center of the field, for example, are certainly indebted to Mondrian’s Ocean and Pier paintings.

In the late ’40s and early ’50s, structural elements drawn from Mondrian’s mature grid paintings were fused with the transparent atmospheric painting of Matisse and the “allover” style of late Impressionism in a synthesis that determined the future of American painting. The formulation of this synthesis may be traced as it evolved in Mark Rothko’s and Ad Reinhardt’s work of the late ’40s. Examining Rothko’s works of 1947–49, we see the amorphous surrealizing blots of paint gradually coalescing into structured rectangles reminiscent of Mondrian’s planes of color, at least with regard to their frontality and explicit relationship to the framing edge, which they echo. During the same period, Ad Reinhardt’s paintings, which had been abstract since the ’30s, began to resemble, in their floating rectangles silhouetted against a field, Mondrian’s Compositions with Color Planes of 1917, which represent Mondrian’s initial introduction of flat color planes as yet unbounded by the tight linear corset of the black lines of the grid.

A crucial issue of New York painting in the late ’40s was the need to find a structural principle that would provide coherence, spatially and compositionally, for the spontaneous, automatic gestures. More often than not, the concept of structure was adapted from Mondrian. If we take the painting Little Spanish Prison, which stands out as a kind of brilliant anomaly in Robert Motherwell’s early career, it is hard to find sources other than Mondrian for the strictness with which vertical bands, parallel to the framing edge, are contrasted with the single horizontal opening. Undoubtedly the painting was inspired by a literary image of vertical prison bars with a viewer’s slot behind which the prisoner was metaphorically caged; nevertheless it is an image hard to imagine without the precedent of Mondrian and his theories, with which both Motherwell and Reinhardt were familiar in their capacity as the editors of the Documents of Modern Art.

The awareness of Mondrian during the entire history of the New York School is perhaps less obvious than it might be had the literature of Abstract Expressionism less stake in obscuring any European origins of that style. Emphasis has been put on the origins of Abstract Expression-ism as the rejection of the closed forms of synthetic Cubism, including Mondrian’s hard edges, geometric forms, and clearly located flat color planes. This is correct. But it should be added that the importance of having Mondrian as foe, as a highly concrete and visible presence to react against, was crucial for the emergence of any structural principle in the works not only of Guston (who unfortunately lost interest and moved toward less disciplined painterliness), but also of Rothko, Motherwell, Reinhardt, Tomlin and Gottlieb. (Gottlieb’s pictographs reflect Mondrian’s grids once removed as seen through the eyes of Torres-Garcia.) One might even go so far as to say that Kline’s bold black and white paintings, especially those initial few with rectangles occupying the center of the field, were influenced by Mondrian’s flatness as well as by his use of black and white as colors and planes, and not simply as graphic elements. Hofmann’s paintings of abutted colored rectangles of the ’60s are another matter, but may also be mentioned since they appear to belong to the 57 third wave of Mondrian’s influence in America, which began in the ’60s.

Hofmann’s late paintings, however, remain both clearly relational and clearly asymmetrical, the two principles Mondrian insisted upon with greatest emphasis. The task for American painters of the ’50s, on the other hand, if they wished to incorporate anything from Mondrian without becoming merely epigones of his style, was to refute these two elements as the basis for pictorial design. This task fell mainly to Barnett Newman. Although Newman attended lectures, exhibitions, and was known as one of the best read and most articulate members of the New York School, he did not exhibit any work executed prior to 1946, by which time Mondrian had died. We may assume Newman spent this time thinking, since he was consistently on the art scene, and that a lot of this thinking was devoted to Mondrian. Among Newman’s first works are two paintings whose titles refer to a hostility toward Geometric Abstraction: The Death of Euclid, and The Euclidean Abyss. I believe these early abstractions by Newman represent an attempt to find a structuring principle which would definitively supersede Mondrian’s theory of relationships as the basis of pictorial design. If we substitute Mondrian’s name for Euclid’s as the symbol of geometric order, we can see Newman’s struggle against the principles of relational composition, so didactically asserted by Mondrian, as a heroic undertaking. Einstein, however, probably found it easier to finish off Euclid than Newman did to write off Mondrian; for Mondrian, because of his contact with a milieu of architects, had built his theories around a crucial discovery regarding the social role of easel painting in the 20th century. Moreover, defining the problem, he found its solution as well.

When the expressive function of art began to dominate even secular art in the 19th century, a certain crucial dilemma was posed: how to relate the easel painting organically to its architectural context. Attempts were made by painters like Puvis de Chavannes and Whistler to create decorative ensembles which placed painting in a harmonious relationship with architecture. But basically the problem became insoluble once paintings were no long er commissioned by either architect, designer or patron, for a specific setting.

Because of his contact with the architectural theory that formed so great a part of the ethic of de Stijl, Mondrian was acutely aware of the significance of the social and architectural context. He believed in the union of the three plastic arts within a collective universal style based on the timeless constant of geometry, a common denominator of form that could be traced back to the most ancient civilizations. For the present, however, Mondrian acknowledged the equivocal status of easel painting with regard to its architectural context, although throughout his life he continued to hope for the disappearance of painting within a universal architecture. Recently his sketches for a room (whose purpose of subsuming painting and sculpture within architecture was not unlike Lissitsky’s reason for creating the Proun room) was realized in formica—a material Mondrian could not have known but might have liked—by the Pace Gallery in a questionable if interesting experiment. In this room, Mondrian’s geometric forms were embedded directly in the walls as opposed to hanging on them in the normal relationship of the raised surface of the easel picture separated by its frame from any architectural context.

The failure of the International Style to emerge as the architectural style of the 20th century, a uniform, generalizable modular system based on pure geometry, capable of infinitely variable combinations, had special repercussions for Mondrian’s vision of painting. Beginning in works of the ’20s, he focuses on the actual physical properties of his frame, emphasizing its boundaries by raising the canvas from a background as if to assert its further autonomy and absolute independence from any architectural context. Ad Reinhardt’s paintings, although negations of Mondrian’s opaque resistant surfaces and in many ways defined in opposition to Mondrian, have, as one of their peculiar qualities, the recession of the painting behind its frame. This is, again, an inversion of certain of Mondrian’s discoveries, one which had the same consequence of denying the importance of any context beyond that established by the painting itself, now armored from incursions or the necessity to relate to the surrounding wall on which it hangs.

The continuing agon between painting and architecture set up by the aggressively sculptural forms of the Guggenheim Museum have proved that individualism indeed won out over any impulse toward the collective, for reasons too complex, both psychologically and socially, to deal with here. Seeing Mondrian’s paintings within the context of a building so at odds, as opposed to in harmony, with his own principles of design appears proof that the assumptions of the de Stijl and Constructivist architects regarding an international modern style compatible with the aims of socialized society were falsely utopian and idealistic. A rational economic system capable of integrating humanistic cultural impulses has been the dream of generations of modern artists, among which Mondrian’s was not the first. The realization that no such marriage between an international architectural style and the rational principles of design on which it was based, and a rational socialist economy, was forthcoming, forced Mondrian to acknowledge that there continued to be an irrevocable separation of painting and sculpture from any architectural or social context. The new emphasis on the frame we discern in Mondrian’s mature style, which ineludes extending the forms around the lip of the support, and framing the canvas in such a manner as to “raise” it from the wall surface, is a sign of this acknowledgment, and a signal that modernist painting, intentionally or not, was doomed to autonomy and self-reference. In such a situation, an even greater emphasis had to be placed on the frame itself as the only context to which the elements contained within the pictorial field could refer themselves; for the frame became, by default, the architectural context by means of which painting declared its independence of architecture. Thus the degree to which image-frame relationships are stressed in Mondrian’s neo-Plastic paintings, which abandon the earlier oval format completely, is the degree to which the frame itself becomes the missing context for painting. This is especially true of the so-called lozenge paintings which confront the rectangularity of the room by counterposing a diagonal, in the framing edge though not within the pictured right angles within the painted field against the straight angles of wall, floor and ceiling. The context of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum for these paintings is particularly ironic, since Wright decided to do away with the straight edge entirely, basing his structural concept on the spiral.

Although Mondrian assumed that architecture would continue to stress the right angle and that rooms would be boxes as paintings were rectangles, he had already, as we have noted, taken precautions to dissociate painting from architecture by emphasizing the frame and orienting the contents of the pictorial field with regard to the structure of that rectangular frame—whose structure the painter had it in his own power to determine forever, no matter in what circumstances the painting might eventually find itself. That Mondrian had actually conceived of a room environment is in itself significant; it represents yet a further admission that he had abandoned any real hope of a fusion of the arts, unless that fusion was imposed by the painter himself within an architectural context of his own design, regardless of any social function.

In this light, Mondrian’s insistence on the central importance of relationships within his work can be seen as the acknowledgment that this was the only sense in which the painter had any power to determine the context for his images.

Part to part, part to whole, and image to frame relationships thus became the core of his work, and the intervals between planes and lines were an essential element in the balance of these relationships. This was a tight and logical system to break. Of the painters of the New York School who sought to find a new system of structure, Barnett Newman was the most radical, because he was the first to challenge the issue of relationships. In the ’60s it became fashionable to speak of Newman’s works as “nonrelational” because he did not depict forms against a background or relate them to one another in the manner of familiar Cubist “rhyming,” of which Mondrian’s repeated rectangles were merely a severer form. Of course the term “nonrelational” is a misnomer; for although Newman jettisoned Mondrian’s system of balancing out internal relationships within the field, by simply dividing the field with a band or bands, he did so to give an even greater emphasis to the dominant relationship of the painted image to its framing edge. Thus Newman’s bands or stripes or “zips,” as he sometimes called them, are explicitly parallel to the framing edge, the better to insist more forcibly on the importance of the frame as the only context painting had to acknowledge. Although Newman did not use Mondrian’s rectangles, grids, or primary colors, Mondrian’s minimizing attitude with regard to the number of elements and colors painting might reduce itself to, while remaining a complex experience, surely encouraged Still and Rothko as well as Newman to experiment with severely reduced formats, few colors, and a stress on image-frame structural relationships.

It is doubtful Newman could have forged so powerful a style without an opponent like Mondrian to define himself against. In a lengthy theoretical article “The Plastic Image” (quoted by T. B. Hess in his forthcoming monograph on Newman), whose very title refers to Mondrian’s “Plasticism,” Newman discussed Mondrian’s 1945 Museum of Modern Art exhibition:

There has been a great to-do lately over Mondrian’s genius. In his fantastic purism, his point of view is the matrix of the abstract esthetic. His concept, like that of his colleagues, is however founded on bad philosophy and on a faulty logic.

The essence of Newman’s argument against Mondrian’s neo-Plasticism, which reduced the world to “the horizon table-line of the earth” and “the vertical lines of things that stand and grow on it,” was that neo-Plasticism was still Platonic, in that it continued to picture a world, no matter how abstracted, that existed outside the painting. Newman, on the other hand, spoke of the goal of the new painting (that is, his work and that of his New York contemporaries) as being concerned with “a new type of abstract thought,” presumably directly embodied in pure form as opposed to having been abstracted from nature or reflecting objects in the world exterior to the art work.

Newman’s attack on Mondrian is in a sense a finale to the evolution of the idea of the independent reality of the work of art, as an object in the world, and not merely the reflection, depiction, or representation, of other objects in the world. This change in the status of the art object, from a reflection of things in the natural world to a thing in itself, a fundamental assumption of modernism first focused on as a philosophical problem by the Cubists, was developed further as a concept by Mondrian. A good deal of the severity of Newman’s tone regarding Mondrian may be attributed to Mondrian’s influence in establishing the concept of the autonomous reality of the art object in the mind of New York artists through his writings and paintings.

Newman might have written off Mondrian on paper but he continued his dialogue with the master in his work. Drawing on Mondrian’s discovery of the ability of image-frame relationships to free painting from the need of any context other than its own boundaries, Newman began to enlarge his painted fields, in which he had eliminated internal part to part relationships. The enlargement of the painting to mural size, the fact that it became larger than the field of vision, created a new relationship of view to work, and acted to further defy any context to impinge on the autonomy and totality of the pictorial experience. Enveloped in broad fields of color, the viewer could lose himself within the optical experience. The viewer’s relationship to such work was necessarily more immediate than to paintings he could stand outside of and calculate the relationships of part to part within the painting, instead of concentrating on his own primary relationship to a field of color.

No doubt Newman won the bout with Mondrian, though there is also no doubt that it went on, silently, throughout his life. For among the last paintings of Newman is a series of four titled Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue. Finally, so assured of his own conquest of the problems posed by Mondrian’s paintings that he was free to use Mondrian’s own palette, Newman, at the moment he was sure of his triumph, could publicly declare the challenge to Mondrian always implicit in his paintings. Interestingly, the bands in these paintings no longer divide a field but frame it; they are moved to the framing edges themselves, so that the sense that the painting “frames” itself, dividing itself from any context, reiterates Mondrian’s insistence on the independence of painting from context.

It is not coincidental that the magazine published to publicize Abstract Expressionism was called It Is. Mondrian’s assertion on the literalness of the properties of the painting—his insistence on flatness as a defining property of painting as an object in the world, was subsumed within the esthetic of Abstract Expressionism without open acknowledgment of its source, which was more specifically and immediately derived from Mondrian rather than French Cubism. Indeed there was no member of the New York School who was not touched by Mondrian. The locked-in forms of Still, the divided color fields of Newman, the rectangles of Rothko, the planar stress of Motherwell and Kline are indebted to Mondrian’s radical treatment of space. Even the widespread use of black and white in New York painting around 1950 is more closely linked to Mondrian’s dramatic juxtaposition of the two than to the chiaroscuro tradition. In the ’60s, Al Held’s bold geometric solids viewed as transparent diagrams would once again recall paintings by Mondrian that confined themselves exclusively to heavy black lines against a white ground.

Of all the first generation New York School artists, however, Ad Reinhardt remained closest to Mondrian both in terms of image as well as esthetic. That he studied Mondrian’s theoretical writings closely is evident when reading Reinhardt’s own texts on art. Indeed, some are direct, if unconscious, parodies of Mondrian’s writings. Reinhardt’s auto-interview in Art News, for example, refers to Mondrian’s well-known 1920 text “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality,” an essay in dialogue form in which Mondrian interviewed himself. The obsession with purity and reductiveness is likewise parallel with Mondrian’s thinking, although Reinhardt’s extremism is yet more absolute than Mondrian’s, for he too dispensed with the relational aspect of composition. But Reinhardt can in no way be considered, like Mondrian’s initial admirers, in any way an imitator of his style. For he subverted the clarity of geometric forms by darkening his palette to black so that no shapes or hard linear boundaries could be seen any longer. As Newman and Rothko had done, Reinhardt chose a symmetrical image, defying Mondrian’s demand that “dynamic equilibrium” was the basis of good painting. Mondrian laid down the laws so that the New York painters could defy them; but Reinhardt liked to lay down the law as much as the old Dutch master.

The Americans who reacted against Mondrian did so in a typically American fashion, whereas Mondrian remained a European no matter how much he liked Broadway, boogie-woogie and the jitterbug. In a peculiarly psychological sense, the issue of relationships is crucial. The nonrelational painting that developed in opposition to Mondrian may be taken as a metaphor for the isolation of the American artist, his open acknowledgment of a lack, not only of an architectural, but of a social or historical context for his work. The American artist is forced into large scale, not only by the scale around him of natural and urban landscape structures—which his work must challenge to look ambitious—but also because to communicate with an equally culturally deracinated viewer, he must draw him into an intimate relationship with the work, into a private world where no collective thought is possible.The lack of utopian theorizing among American artists—recent anarchistic protests notwithstanding—is evidence of the understanding of a pluralistic society as permanently in coherent, and of the artist as permanently isolated in that society. As the y say in thousands of group therapy sessions, Mondrian’s rectangles “relate” to each other. American society, because of its history and composition, provides psychological blocks against social relationships familiar to Europeans. The vastness of the American landscape, at one time an impediment to communication, also creates a different sense of the relationships of natural formations to each other and of the human body to the landscape. These I think are reflected in the ethos behind recent large-scale “nonrelational” American art.

The third and most recent phase of Mondrian’s influence on American art took place in the ’60s and continues in the present. Like Duchamp, it appears that something in Mondrian’s art touched a sympathetic chord in American taste and character. Both were appreciated here more than in Europe because they strengthened existing indigenous American tendencies and attitudes. Elsewhere I have writ ten of Duchamp’s importance as an American artist. Mondrian’s point of contact was with an entirely different thread of American thought than Duchamp’s pragmatic pessimism. For it was the mystical and the transcendental current in American thought that was highly compatible with Mondrian’s thinking, and one of the most important connections between not only Mondrian and Reinhardt, who insisted on the function of painting as an object of contemplation, but also between Mondrian and recent mystical painters like Agnes Martin and Alfred Jensen, who used Mondrian’s own grids as points of departure.

In his catalog introduction to the Mondrian exhibition, Guggenheim director Thomas Messer stressed Mondrian and Duchamp as the two poles of the current dialectic. There are other connections between them in terms of their position in the history of American art, for both pushed certain implications within Cubist thought—regarding the relationship of painting to reality—to extreme conclusions. Traditionally American painting, even of our mystical early modernists. such as O’Keeffe, Dove, and Hartley, is realistic. The complex redefinition of the relationship between painting as a means of representing an external world of appearances and the painting as an object that is literally real, because it is literally an object lacking illusion or allusion, is a question considered by both Mondrian and Duchamp, with opposed conclusions. Duchamp finally replicated literally instead of imitating reality. Mondrian found another form of literalism, one which permitted painting to survive. Creating the most literally flat as well as the most literally frontal paintings produced until the abstract art of the ’60s (which leaned so heavily on his discoveries) Mondrian diminished illusionism and stressed surface to such a degree that only monochrome paintings like Frank Stella’s and Ellsworth Kelly’s could produce greater flatness. Pop artists no less than hard-edge painters demonstrated their awareness of Mondrian’s continuing importance. Both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, for example, painted works we may consider homages to Mondrian. More important, however, was their acceptance of Mondrian’s literal flatness and, in Lichtenstein’s case, of the use of bold black lines and invariably, primary colors. Warhol’s black and white dance diagram is a witty reference to Mondrian’s original black and white Foxtrot.

It took Jasper Johns to find the representational equivalent of Mondrian’s flatness, and thus reunite the two varieties of “realism”—literalism and objectivity—that were the most complete American synthesis possible of modernist and native attitudes. Johns’ identification of literal with depicted flatness in his flags fuses together a tradition of literalism already existing in 19th-century American trompe l’oeil painting (such as Haberle’s painting of a clock in the shape of a clock) with Mondrian’s insistence on the literal properties of painting as a flat surface.

“The Art of the Real” was the name given to an exhibition of recent American painting and sculpture organized by E. C. Goossen for the Museum of Modern Art. It included a painting of a window by Ellsworth Kelly, which also appears like Johns’ flag, to marry these two currents of literal “realism” with representation. Its connection with Mondrian’s black and white paintings seems too visually obvious to ignore. Kelly’s 1951 sketch for a mural of square colored panels similarly recalls Mondrian’s earlier checkerboard paintings. The grid. pattern initially regularized by Kelly has by this time become a familiar device for structuring areas of color. Today, younger painters such as Herbert Perr, David Diao, Wililiam Ridenhour, and Gary Bower, following Darby Bannard’s lead, use an underlying grid network to structure painterly color paintings. In the early ’60s, Larry Poons combined a strict pencilled grid with dots positioned on the grid through a random operation; perhaps these works represent the synthesis of Duchampian chance with Mondrian’s rigidity structure. Poons’ early paintings were even more obviously indebted to Mondrian. Certainly the bright optical flicker of Mondrian’s boogie-woogie paintings must have inspired more than one Op artist. In Ludwig Sander’s color paintings, Mondrian’s structure is recalled. Paintings by several of the newest young artists in the Guggenheim’s Theodoron Awards exhibition revealed an equal debt to Mondrian’s concepts. Perhaps most striking of all is the format Kenneth Noland has adapted from Mondrian’s New York 1942 painting, in which narrow bands weave in and out contradicting explicit flatness with surprising illusionism.

By making these comparisons, I do not wish to imply that every time we see a rectangle in a New York School painting, Mondrian is evoked; although to some extent, his image has been so pervasive that such an assumption is not false, just irrelevant. Mondrian’s importance for New York painting can be summed up as: 1) his insistence on literal flatness of forms interlocking on the plane of the surface; 2) his reduction of the elements of painting to two or three colors and black and white, concomitant with his reduction of the number and variety of forms; 3) his stress on the intimate symbiotic relationship between image and frame, resulting in a situation in which the frame itself became the actual missing or lost architectural context for painting. There is another important element in Mondrian’s work I have perhaps not sufficiently stressed. In his book on Abstract Expressionism, The Triumph of American Painting, Irving Sandler juxtaposes Mondrian’s Composition V, 1914 with Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm. This comparison suddenly reveals how Mondrian’s Paris period works differed from Parisian Cubism, and why they were probably more important in the formulation of Abstract Expressionism than even Braque’s and Picasso’s analytic Cubism. That Mondrian used the horizontal format usually scorned by Parisians, who preferred the vertical format evocative of the human figure, is not as crucial as the degree to which he dispersed energy away from the center toward the edges, coming closer to filling the whole of the field than Braque or Picasso. We may attribute the difference in their respective attitudes toward the field as the differences in the sources of their respective styles: Braque and Picasso came out of Cézanne, Mondrian out of Impressionism, with its allover dispersaI of focus. Thus Mondrian’s initial Impressionist experience permitted him to arrive at his mature style in which the entire canvas is subdivided into areas by lines and planes. This attitude toward the painting as a single field to be filled to the edges, rather than as a ground to be marked more densely in the center is another of Mondrian’s major contributions to New York painting, for it was an essential link between postwar American painting and Impressionism, the pre-Cubist style from which post-Cubist color abstraction has drawn its most significant inspiration.

When Mondrian arrived in New York, he came to a place ready to benefit from his art, one congenial to its spirit. Mondrian’s puritanically ascetic technique—his call for the precedence of idea over execution—struck a familiar response in America, where sensuousness of surface was highly suspect and a native style called Precisionism was our answer to Cubism. Mondrian’s dedication to craft and simplicity were virtues of earlier American art like that of the Shakers. It is time to forget Mondrian once represented a threat, and to claim him as one of our own—a signal figure in the history of the New York School.

Barbara Rose