PRINT December 1971

Mondrian, Newman, Noland: Two Notes on Changes of Style

THE TWO UNEQUAL NOTES WHICH COMPRISE this article approach differently the issue of changes of style. The first inquires whether Mondrian’s established drawing style was incompatible with his late ambitions. The second looks at Newman and Noland and asks to what extent Noland’s recent work represents an important break with his earlier position. And if these two parts form a whole it is only because they share the common subject of change. I do not seek to imply any correspondence between Mondrian’s and Noland’s styles—despite certain visible similarities. By way of a preface we need first to consider, if only briefly, something of the problem of “visible similarities” in Cubist art, and of the “conventional” impact of a Cubist grid structure, since the visible presence of grids in Noland’s paintings raises certain special issues best cleared up before we properly begin.

I have written in these pages before that “what is important in studying artistic developments is not so much the evolution of individual elements or motifs per se as the evolution of the places of such elements or motifs within the structural complex of the work of art” (Artforum, May 1971). This is especially pertinent if we find a late Cubist style reminiscent of a much earlier one. It is, therefore, misleading to rely on the evidence of simple likenesses in comparing Mondrian’s work to that of any American artist (excepting the geometricists of the American Abstract Artists Association).Thus, it may be true that Guston’s paint dabbings do look reminiscent of some of Mondrian’s “dune” or “plus and minus” pictures, or that Rothko’s middle period works do use colored rectangles and are “like” some of Mondrian’s forms. But I am not sure how valuable this information is. A small-unit structure, colored rectangles, and so on, are all available “topics” for modernist painting—are part of the store of “subjects” which makes up its tradition. While it is always satisfying to recognize what look like formal continuities, what we really need to distinguish is what belongs to the established traditions of a genre and what special ways its topics perform in special situations. An element we notice in one painting from one period may only persist in another painting from another period if it has changed its specific function or, alternatively, the function may remain but may be “occupied” by a new.element replacing one that has disappeared.

Since Cubism, the history of modernism has located itself around very “like” issues. Describing perceived phenomena through a combination of planar dabs of pigment and taut linear fragments oriented to the edges of the painting support, the original Cubist style established the major structural topics of 20th-century art—and became both the framework and the testing block for all later styles. Indeed, the nature of any later style is perhaps best recognized by asking the question: how did it understand Cubism? (what did it understand Cubism to be?). And the quality of a style by asking: how well did it understand Cubism? Although a generalization, this usefully affirms that the reaction to Cubism has been the single most important feature of modernist art. The value of such an art is not, of course, tied to its style, but all ambitious art has sought its values in somehow confirming the vitality of the Cubist impulse—though renewing its futures. We must not forget, however, that today’s worst art is also Cubist art. So deeply ingrained is Cubism that what sets out to “break with” the modernist tradition usually ends up by merely conforming to its most academic forms. One has only to look at such work to see how frequently it operates within the confines of a dumbly received Cubist grid.

The recognition of a rectilinear grid structure in Cubism has provoked as many misunderstandings of its presence as it has cast light on the nature of the style. The grid format, as many artists are quick to realize (and as many more would do well to note) has become, at this sophisticated stage in modernist art, something in the nature of a “conventional” device and cannot be simply accepted as constituting a structure. By this I mean that whereas for the Cubists (and for Cézanne before them), an allover regularized drawing style emphasized the literalness of a painting’s surface and the support emerged to deal with local problems concerning the nature of illusion, for subsequent art, the Cubists’ stylistic codification of the “grid structure” has created the possibility that the grid is merely a contextual symbol in or of art rather than a specifically pictorial configuration. In this sense, the grid can work in a neo-Duchampian way: operating on the symbology of a structure-convention, displaying the “framework” of what we understand to be modernist art as a symbol, or signal of in tent, and that what we are looking at should be considered as art. Anyone who has ever squared up an image will have recognized just what conventional power this form holds. And painting can too easily, and unthinkingly, create conventional symbols of (the existence of) structure rather than work for structure itself. No modernist painting of any worth has taken its flatness for granted. This alone separates Mondrian from his followers. In modernism, very much is “given”; but it is only the academic that does not question conventions. It is perhaps the principal task of criticism to decide whether conventions have “renewed” themselves or whether we are being asked to take seriously just the look of the real thing. If I suggest that Kenneth Noland’s new paintings represent a significant advance in his position, it will partly be because they have taken on—and very daringly—the task of renewing the “conventionally” problematic and formally complex grid structure. Noland painted several “grid” paintings in his early years—including Straight Flush of 1961—and like these paintings, his recent “grid” works give the impression of being transitional. Not only, however, because they are different from what he has done in the past but because the complexity of their functioning, allied as it is to other major changes in his art, appears symptomatic of certain shifts in sensibility occurring in recent painting and suggests implications of far broader significance than for Noland’s art alone. This said, we may now go on to consider the difficulties Mondrian faced when he wished to radically modify his style.

The more we know about Mondrian’s theoretical ideas, the more we can understand how his paintings came to look like they do. However, to understand how Mondrian achieved major quality as a painter is another matter—and for this we must learn why and how he changed his styles. If the theory of neo-plasticism was influenced by, broadly spiritual concerns which helped provide the components of his paintings, then it was his sensibility as an artist which dictated their arrangements. The problem with Mondrian’s neo-plastic paintings of ca. 1919 to 1921 was that while he had found a way to significant art by allowing the Cubist grid to occupy the en tire surface, the allover patterning primary colors enclosed in a linear cage tended to produce a too even, or alternately too haphazard, distribution of shapes. While these paintings are by no means unsuccessful (they are among the most adventurous made anywhere at that time), when compared to his mature mid-and late twenties and early thirties paintings they appear overmuch as simply colored objects. It is not that they are excessively simple—indeed, the later works benefit from being more so—rather that the all-overness of the grid leaves the center of any painting strangely unsettled; only stopping lines short of the perimeter edge really worked as a way of holding the center together. Mondrian’s mid-twenties solution (and one which continues to be important, even to Noland’s new paintings) was to give one rectangle most prominence, and to flank it with smaller shapes that abut against the painting’s edges. This fulfilled two important tasks: it allowed the surface to “breathe” at its center, and it affirmed more surely the finite “wholeness” of depicted image and support—the peripheral shapes becoming both buffers and ties in this respect. And Mondrian’s gradual reduction of the number of colors he used in any one painting seems similarly a way of keeping “incident” to a minimum. That detailing and injurious incident were thus seen to be synonymous continued to be important until his last works.

Because Mondrian used rectilinear forms in a rectilinear format, the literal shape of a painting tended to dictate more or less what could go on inside it—and the way he kept on working over a period of years on individual paintings was in one sense the attempt to achieve what seemed the “correct” forms for the shape he had decided on. (In this context, the predominance of vertical shaped supports in Cubist painting of this period is an important issue, but one that cannot be explored here.) Mondrian wrote at length about the “infinite” aspects of his style, but this, we must remember, is more an aspect of metaphor than of looks. Each picture performs as a tight, controlled, inward-held whole and with few exceptions the literal shape draws the limits of the pictorial space. As diagrams they may seem infinite, but as paintings they cannot be so. The “centrality” of the best early pictures was achieved by stopping lines just short of the edge of the support. The “cruciform” and “Greek-cross” works of the thirties perform in an analogous fashion because of the relatively symmetrical nature of the images. But these works are especially crucial to Mondrian’s oeuvre in that they first reveal important changes in the function of drawing for his art. Mondrian’s art had ever been an affair of values, and in essence it was to remain as such, but from the mid-thirties the question of quite how this tonal drawing performed seems to have become far more problematic. In Mondrian’s early neo-plastic paintings, the allover arrangement of colored areas bounded by narrow lines causes a series of subgroupings to be formed as we look at them. Relationships shift, are ambiguous, and we respond very actively to a painting. In contrast, the sparser works of the later twenties and early thirties are far more “given” as images. The increased simplicity means that although we may decide at different times to give certain parts more importance than others, the painting “changes” far less in the process. What seems remarkable about the complicated thirties works is that this same “givenness” persists despite the complications. But this represents more than a fine synthesis of earlier style: the increase in linear “divisions” now works far more to create or modulate the surfaces than in the early pictures. Drawing still produces contrast, sets of space, divides—and yet it also seems to somehow almost subvert its denotive character. Line widths differ (for line itself is no longer just “given” as a didactic presence). Although black, they perform as color—and energize their surfaces in a way only equalled by the very sparest of the earlier works. Indeed, once Mondrian’s art reached its simplest form he seems to have become aware of its opticality in a new way. And by the time he was able to free color from its black line encasements, forcing it to work as what he himself described as “dynamic” pulses, and to use lines of color, this opticality was far more explicit—and Mondrian was changing from a philosophical draftsman to a painter of a very different kind.

Perhaps the most important reason why Mondrian’s works from the “Greek-cross” paintings onwards seem somehow unsettling compared to the “serenity” of earlier ones is that the declarative tonal armature he had been using for so long was now beginning to frustrate his ambitions. For the viewer, Mondrian’s late paintings are frustrating ones. He had clearly set himself a major problem: to make paintings more viable as color than his earlier ones while still using a very complex structure of elements—and, by and large, one must accept that even the purely mechanical adjustments this involved were left unsettled at the time of his death. But in being confronted with a deep change in his sensibility as an artist, Mondrian was not alone. By the mid-thirties the confidence that had once existed in geometric abstraction had disappeared, and the work of many other artists of his outlook also shows a relative turn away from drawing as they had previously understood it. I am not saying that there was a change from linear to painterly styles as such. This is something quite different. (Painterly styles usually end up by giving color less importance than do linear ones. But only in his last years did Mondrian really begin to use color in a nondidactic way.) It is more a matter of artists who have staked all on drawing, realizing that the kind of drawing they were using prohibited, or at least inhibited, their using color in any purposeful way. Only by questioning how drawing operated could painting itself seem to have a future. And if this questioning of drawing was true for Mondrian and for artists of his generation, it was no less true in different ways for Pollock or for Newman or for any later artist. The crucial importance of drawing in the Cubist style has meant that every significant change in painting has inevitably also been a change in the function of drawing. And if quite what constitutes drawing in painting was not itself an issue for Mondrian (nor an inescapable problem until Pollock) and if the issue of drawing as integral to the shape of painting (the shape as far more than the “end” of something) had to wait a lot longer to be exactly specified (most directly by Olitski), equally Mondrian’s late paintings are unresolved precisely because what he attempted could not readily be achieved until these problems had at least been aired. And, in retrospect, it seems that Mondrian would have had to sacrifice far more of his preconceptions than he did in the New York paintings to have aired these problems with more fruitful results. The opening of futures makes the past even more of a problem than it usually is.

Newman understood just how important drawing functioned in his art. Calling it “central to my whole concept,” he insisted that his contribution to art was in drawing rather than in color. “Instead of using outlines, instead of making shapes or setting off spaces,” he wrote, “my drawing declares the space. Instead of working with the remnants of space, I work with the whole space.” Newman’s determination to upset the “dogmatic positions of the purists” is well known, and although some of his recorded comments seem unfair to Mondrian (whose art was far more than an “idea-didact” ), he was in fact successful in doing what Mondrian’s earlier Cubism had prevented: he was able to make paintings with straight lines which had a visibly unbounded appearance. Mondrian’s word “infinite” is wrong for Newman, but his art does seem to do optically what Mondrian’s did metaphorically. This is not to say that the line between his paintings and their surroundings is blurred, but that he was able to create an expansiveness of effect within a unified object without that object appearing either indefinite or insular. Mondrian, learning his Cubism in 1912, could not help but accept the "confines ~’ of his spaces. He had to work in terms of the frame to preserve the identity of his surfaces. Newman learned his Cubism a lot later and tempered it with the lesson of Matisse. For him, edge was an opposite problem to that of Mondrian. Unsculptural to an extreme, Newman’s stripes do not themselves constitute a structure; they serve the surface of which they are a part rather than hold it down as for Mondrian. And (as Darby Bannard has recently noted—Artforum, June 1971) the stripes serve best the less they declare themselves, that is, the less they appear to constitute a structure. Edges and lines function analogously, and Newman’s lines are best when like edges: known to be there, recognized, but without undue attention drawn to them. What Newman sacrificed was detail, Although his paintings depended above all else on fragile surface adjustments, on his openness to reading their local demands, the small things which make a Newman work (or prevent it from working)—just how loose one boundary should be, how far one hue should carry, and so on—are never visibly important in their own right. In fact, if such things do appear to be important the painting usually suffers. This isn’t necessarily a matter of values for Newman could make fine use of contrast and clearly we do see these stripes or bands. But to be successful Newman has to prevent us from seeing a painting as anything else but one thing. Unlike Mondrian there is nothing to read here. A painting had to be, therefore, at the same time, all drawing and yet as inconspicuous as drawing—however strange this seems.

The one-glance unity of Newman’s best pictures was one of the things that recommended them to sixties’ artists. By now we tend to see them if not quite in terms of later art, at least aware of how later art has fixed certain emphases, like reading a book someone has already an notated. As Michael Fried has written (in terms of Louis and Pollock), a later art “give[s] significance to aspects . . . which otherwise could not be experienced as significant, or as having this particular significance.” (And, in a sense, Noland’s new paintings similarly “revise” Mondrian’s.) The issue of accessibility is far more than I can do just ice to here, but it seems clear that what Mondrian and Newman shared was an apparent “obviousness” that created a following—even if this meant that many confused the mechanics of their art with the art itself. The “Iiteralist” response to the pictorial Newman was very similar to the way Mondrian’s paintings were interpreted. (And it might even be true to say that in the sixties Newman himself was more prone to misinterpret his own art in this way.) But this does not touch on other than academic following. The best “linear” painting of the sixties was able to find in Newman justification for an art located in color that declared surfaces, was expansive and open, that saw drawing as an attribute of the medium of shape, and that affirmed abstractness to a radical degree. If Noland’s new paintings do represent a change in the nature of his commitment to that art it might be because certain different readings of Abstract Expressionism are now asserting themselves.

If it is true that the traditional way of making viable modernist color painting was to use few colors in broad even expanses, then this was because the problem of indivisibly fixing the adjustments in a painting was more easily solved by reducing the numb er of pictorial components it contained. The more visibly different elements there were, the more difficult it was to fix them. The more the surface seemed to be other than just color, the less “visible” it seemed. Certain factors, such as tactility or internal detail, often appeared to hinder a purely optical rendering and most sixties’ painting needed to do without them. Tactility belonged more properly to sculpture (and not even to modern, pictorialist, sculpture) and detail meant a lack of clarity. But while the picture we have of modernism as an evolving self-purification in which each generation renews the tradition by isolating and discarding unnecessary conventions, and where painterly and linear styles alternate, stands up as a model of historical development, the continuity and integrality of this development is often overplayed. Too frequently it is assumed that the causes which prosper at any given moment are the only ones from which further “progress” will come. Or, equally, the chain of events leading to successful styles is distorted by episodes being judged only for how they helped or hindered the final result. However, traditions are often enriched by taking up “unfinished” episodes—ones left off earlier either because of the rapidness of stylistic change or because the problems they posed were insoluble without development on other fronts—or by bringing in features from previously less fruitful or previously inaccessible areas of activity. This is to say that features discarded by one generation or style as unessential can only be said to be unessential in terms of that style. In this sense, although an art is helped by an earlier one, and can rarely succeed without assimilating its lessons, equally it cannot afford to pretend that what is given (or not given) is, in any sense, settled. To think otherwise would be nothing short of an idealist vision of an “ultimate” style of painting (and the Minimalist to Conceptualist development seems to have made a mistake of this kind). Therefore, it doesn’t affect the integrity of sixties’ painting to say that it missed out on some things that can belong to painting, and that tactility and detailing are among them. Just as shape, which could easily seem to belong mainly to objects, has come to occupy a major place in recent art, so tactility may seem to be “sculptural” and yet be a part of painting without involving any harmful compromise. It is, after all, a natural attribute of surfaces. Similarly, clarity and simplicity are not necessarily the same and if a painting can contain detail and be successful it may well have proved more ambitious than a “bare” one. We have only to think of Pollock, Louis, and Olitski, to see that maximum visibility is in no way hindered by an energized surface. And in very many ways it is these three artists whose achievements seem among the most relevant to recent, but as yet unfulfilled, endeavors.

It isn’t too much to say that Noland’s new paintings (and Stella’s even, in a different way) are symptomatic of a general taking up of issues that have very little to do with the simplicity in sixties’ art and more to do with the unrealized gestural, or at least muscular, side of Abstract Expressionism and that (like Mondrian’s late work) part of the present difficulties of these two artists is in their attempts to tailor their established styles to accommodate some of these issues. Most artists manage to be successful in one style only. (Despite our idea of Mondrian’s sameness, he was remarkable in making important art in two styles and in trying to create a third.) Whether or how successfully Noland (and Stella) can change will be interesting to follow, for what they both seem to be up against is a resurgence of the painterly. There is nothing new in my saying that a painterly style seems in the process of finding itself. The development of various forms of “lyric abstraction” in painting and anti-Minimalist “pictorial” or Expressionistic sculpture since the late sixties has made this a familiar topic. But what is now significant is that the painterly has reached the level of an inescapable issue—regardless of how convincingly painting has managed without it in the recent past. It may be objected that Noland’s recent work is not so radically different to warrant this assumption or, alternatively, that although significant change has occurred this has nothing to do with others’ painterliness. While I am not suggesting that Noland is in any sense at all capitulating to topical concerns, his work has changed enough and the character of the changes seem clear enough to support the assumption that he is now forced to confront as issues certain important components of his style. The most obvious one is that of relative complexity; and the most significant change in his art may therefore be described as a change towards detailing. By detailing I include both a new complexity in the interplay of elements and a variation in the surfaceness of colors and in the nature of their visible effects. Characteristics of surface work as a part of color; luminosity and transparency modify its “pure” opaqueness; “imprecision” within areas of color no longer has the look of “mistakes” (although all still depends on exactness of drawing); and the problem is now more than a matter of integrating groups of discrete color areas (although this is still involved) but of also convincing in terms of what might almost be called total atmosphere. Inevitably one remembers how close Noland was to Louis, for the new kind of emotion here recalls Louis’ veils. Noland uses ground and stripes as Louis used veil and bare canvas—to have an “interior” but not a hollowed space. But it is more than this. Noland’s art is now not simply a matter of color but, in a new way, of light. Color is now more than hue. And I can hardly justify this, but it does now seem that to discover the “pureness” of painting in adjustments of hue alone and to depend so utterly on relating firmly bounded areas is coming to look a lot less “natural” to the medium than it once did.

The issue of emergent painterliness cannot be adequately treated through the three artists I have discussed. I have sought to point out an analogy between the late Mondrian realizing that aspects of his style are no longer proper to current ambitions including Noland’s recent moves to change his style. I am not suggesting that Mondrian and Noland (or Newman either) are like artists, rather that Mondrian showed just how tough it is to change style radically and he reminds us how much needs to be questioned, sacrificed, or replaced in the process. It is an apt moment for such reminders. “Painterliness” in recent art seems to have survived its vanguard moment and the task of establishing itself without worrying about its “advancement” is an ongoing concern. (It is worth noting here that the issue for SteIla is that he has sought a way out of his present difficulties by using a “vanguard” look—bas-relief—while likewise responding to “painterliness” with even more thrusts and gestures than hitherto. And if his present work has very severe problems, it could well turn out that a violent move—even if rather misdirected—was necessary for future progress.) Quite how long it will take to come near to matching up to the last painterly style is a pertinent question. At each move problems seem to become compounded, not simplified, and anything that is merely a “return” to Abstract Expressionism will not be of very much interest. Recent articles have talked of a finality in abstract art in Pollock and Louis beyond which no further fundamental changes can happen (Barbara Rose, Artforum, October 1971) or of a future non-Cubist art founded in Clyfford Still (Darby Bannard, Artforum, June 1971). I would be both more optimistic and more cautious. It does seem that Newman’s “lesson” is not as relevant as it once was and that Pollock and Louis are assuming a different kind of significance, and not least because of the questions they posed of Cubist drawing. Still’s natural “surfaceness” has an obvious bearing on this—Olitski’s work, too—but, for me, both of these remain Cubist-style artists. Clearly something is in the wind, but Cubism still seems to be with us and contains within it a lot of unfinished business. At this late moment I should point out that the “changes of style” in my title perhaps imply a greater advancement or resolution of the painterly position than I intend. Styles, however, are not easily changed and we must expect to be more puzzled than enlightened in the near future, at least if tastes are really altering. Change is continuous, but real changes are few. What we are witnessing may be just change. Titles, as I. A. Richards has written, “raise, and sometimes settle, more than they can account for.” It is as yet too early for the definitiveness that my title might imply.

John Elderfield