PRINT May 1979

Seeing Burgoyne Diller

THE AMERICAN NEOPLASTIC PAINTER Burgoyne Diller died in 1965 at the rather early age of 59. Diller, as one of the group of young New York artists encountering Mondrian’s paintings at the Washington Square Gallatin Collection exhibitions in the 1930s, had been one of the very first to welcome the full impact of Mondrian’s Neoplasticism. He spent his mature career as an abstractionist, an avant-garde artist who, as head of the Mural Project of the New York W.P.A., publicly championed abstract painting and was personally responsible for boosting the careers of the then-unknown Gorky and de Kooning, among others. His subsequent postwar retreat into almost two decades of illness and increasing seclusion from the New York art world, in New Jersey, caused his career to be largely neglected.

Of course, some have always been aware of Diller, even though they sidestepped him. The “trouble” with him, as they see it, is Mondrian; that is, Diller’s career-long dialogue in Neoplastic language with the genius of Neoplasticism. The poet Randall Jarrell, who should have known better, typified this uneasiness in a joke in his novel Pictures from an Institution; “If it’s influenced by Mondrian it’s a Mondrian.” What, however, is necessarily shameful about an association with one of the giants of one’s age? That Diller is not better known or more respected corresponds with the fact that even Mondrian is not known very thoroughly: that he changed the face of painting is a commonplace, but seeing Mondrian as an artist of, in Meyer Schapiro’s words, “an astonishing range of qualities,” is not. Perhaps, like his artistic opposite pole, Klee, Mondrian seems systemically so complete, his achievement so massive, that there is doubt that he is directly “usable.” Yet Diller, a young abstractionist in the then-provincial New York of the late ’20s and early ’30s, was able to grasp the synthetic nature of the Neoplastic idiom and find within it an individual statement. It does not damage Diller to note that his work in some respects analyzes Mondrian’s.

Diller, with the self-consciousness never found in the slavish follower, created an analytical nomenclature to identify the aspects of his own work. When titled, his entire output, including preparatory drawings and collages, was categorized as either “First Theme,” “Second Theme,” or “Third Theme.” In a notebook diagram, recently exhibited, we saw the differentiations between the Themes: the First Theme contained a “free element”—two or more colored rectangles with no touching edges; the Second, the “element submerged in activity,” with edges touching and overlapping and a multiplicity of incidents through the plane; the Third, “an element generated by continuous lines”—this a simple parallel to Mondrian’s very late New York compositions, a dense array of small rectangles and connective lines. Finally, the diagram prescribes, “retain the basic plane” while establishing tension between opposing elements—horizontal, vertical—that is to say, the basic plane, the canvas rectangle, to be construed, as in Mondrian, as having a constant pressure in all directions on the surface, created at every level of putative depth by the vibration of colors over measured intervals.

Diller’s diagram is a brilliantly simple analysis of the range of formal problems that he set himself. He numbered the themes in the order in which they first appeared in his, work, but thereafter, he worked concurrently on all three till the end of his life: indeed, some of the most interesting paintings recently shown were First Themes done in the 1960s. Although the themes are generally used as a handle on Diller’s progress through Mondrian’s compositional permutations, they obviously became more than that through his zigzagging back and forth over the years. His calling them themes rather than compositions, or even themes and variations, suggests that with this name he framed different subjects, although, with his nomenclature, Diller suggests something more than various motifs. As the constructive elements of Neoplastic composition analogize the plastic of figurative painting, so Diller’s three themes very broadly analogize the attitudes with which a painter approaches landscape, still life and figure painting.

In his great exposition of Neoplasticism, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, Mondrian had written that “the work of art must be ‘produced,’ ‘constructed.’ One must create as objective as possible a representation of forms and relations. Such work can never be empty because the opposition of its constructive elements and its execution arouse emotion.” Diller’s themes correspond precisely with Mondrian’s thesis, the distinctions among their ways of representing dynamic equilibrium among different elements giving rise to subtly different emotions. Diller “produced” and “constructed” as much in thinly painted, smooth surfaced paintings as in more rough-hewn preparatory studies—drawings and collages. These represent a huge reservoir of possibilities: Diller trying out now one context, now another for a First, Second, or Third Theme.

All the work, including the paintings, represents directly the intuited relation between at least two forms, two “steps” in the construction of the picture. This holds for the late, so-called symmetrical paintings as well as for the rest of the work. These paintings are, remarkably enough, brought as evidence that “late Diller” (read: “the most mature, the most original”?) broke with his own past, with the conventions of construction in which he spent his painting life, to adopt a formation—in the sense that Albers did—and to stick with it. Yet Diller named those late paintings First Themes—and First Themes, no matter how far to the edge of symmetry they are pushed, must be read as a “one” and a “two” in opposition. Neither the received formation—of a “U” shape—nor the machine-tooled surface has a place in Diller’s oeuvre. The totally matte surface of his paintings is axiomatic, as are the right angle and the flat shape of hue color, because they were seen by Diller, as by Mondrian, as the purest—most direct—vehicle of plastic relations.

In focusing on the many and different First Themes, one starts to recognize more than one source for the thinking that Diller brought to bear on the same theme. With their nonoverlapping, seemingly free-floating elements in the base plane, the First Themes shuffle the vocabulary of Mondrian’s Compositions with Color Planes (1916–17) into a syntax of Diller’s own. In those Mondrians, as in no others, color shapes are posed in the plane completely unattached to lines; Diller’s First Theme, like these Mondrians, activates the plane through the directional orientations of rectangles and their color weights. In a First Theme painting from 1962 with two colored and two white rectangles in a gray ground plane, Diller uses a few rectangles of greatly differing dimensions, in contrast to Mondrian’s numerous equivalent-sized rectangles, in an elongated canvas. Although Diller’s elements, posed asymmetrically in the plane, create a felt diagonal tension, the few elements also bear looking at, as if they were jostling each other. Starting from the upper left, a large white rectangle seems to echo the vertical shape of the canvas, as if inside it, while simultaneously two of its edges are identical with the edge of the canvas and therefore with the whole plane of the composition. To the right, a free-floating yellow rectangle reverses the prevailing verticality and expands the full pressure of its yellow horizontality against the white; below the yellow, a small white square equalizes the horizontal and vertical measures while shrinking the visual field to its smaller dimensions. Finally, outweighing the white square in weight of color and measure of linear extension, a large blue square reopens the plane. These are the barest bones of what the eye measures and weighs, up and down, side to side, from corner to corner in this painting, or in the 1955–60 First Theme painting where only the expansion of the black base plane makes a counterbalance to verticality.

Especially in the crowded interior of a 1962 four-element First Theme, in its tight space that contracts and expands with the dimensions of smaller and larger rectangles, the impression of torsion at the edges of the rectangles is very strong. That torsion is present in the Mondrians of 1916–17 as a peripheral sensation, but in Diller’s painting that sensation is central. The proportions of Diller’s elements to the intervals between them, and the great central rending pressure that they create, suggest the effects, so differently arrived at, of Hofmann’s explosive squares. Diller had studied with Hofmann at the Art Students League—in fact, Hofmann wrote the introduction to Diller’s first catalogue—and it seems to me that, completely through the manipulation of the purest Neoplastic vocabulary, Diller arrived at a painting whose frictive force makes it spiritual kin with ’40s Hofmann.

To the more simply stated tensions of the First Themes, Diller’s Second and Third Themes add overlapping and multiplicity of incident, speeding up the vibration of colors through the plane and bringing to the eye, in more highly articulated array, the basic conflicts that the First Theme sets out. This is the work of a painter who, in encountering Mondrian, had recognized a language of the present sufficient for expressing himself in relation to the painting of the past. As we begin to know more intimately the First, the Second, and the Third Themes—their divisions of the canvas, their hues, their internal proportions—we will learn how they signal as much feeling, however differently, as a Hofmann. Like all traditional painters of quality, Diller felt convinced of a reality outside himself, which his imagination had to learn to construct.

Deborah Rosenthal