PRINT October 1995

Ascetic Esthetic

LOOKING AT PRE–NEW YORK Piet Mondrian, I could only think about the reductive zeal and restraint that must have been required to focus on the spatiality of the white voids, which seem at once to seek out and reject color. For Mondrian, the diamond-shaped canvases of the ’20s and the asymmetrical spaces of plastic structures compose an ascetic music. Veiling and distorting the codes that signal a direct correspondence between what is represented on the picture plane and an external object, Mondrian attempted to achieve a visual approximation of the dialectic between the spiritual and the natural.

The paradigm of placing Mondrian’s work on a purely spiritual plane needs to be (re)viewed: his work does not construct a space of pure opticality but rather one of filmic projection. In the works of the ’20s, the grid assumes the role of the signifier; it is the foundation of his plastic discourse, while color, or its absence, operates on a more “retinal,” perceptual level. This early work freezes time, emphasizing containment and stasis, a fixed subject. As his work progresses, it becomes evident that in his development of a “new plasticism”—one in which the perceptual bondage of the grids to the planes of color, which characterized much of the pre-’30s work, is ruptured—Mondrian increasingly pulled the spectator into the space formed by the projection of his unconscious gaze, only to push him away again. In his clear elimination of the colors he disliked (such as green, which for him was too closely linked to nature), Mondrian placed the spectator within his own chromatic frame. Over time Mondrian’s visual language—hard, sharp, black markings making up competing horizontal and vertical grids on the white ground—begins to form filmic frames and sequences.

A number of works he produced in the ’20s, and certainly later paintings such as Trafalgar Square, 1939–43, signal the movement in his oeuvre from a preoccupation with the conventional concerns of painting (modulation and the relationship among colors) to a filmic sense of visuality. Viewing Mondrian through what Gilles Deleuze calls the “time-image,” it is possible to chart the progression of Mondrian’s new painting language, which reached its apogee in Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie (both 1942–44). As Deleuze discusses in Cinema 2, the time-image isolates the optical and the aural, so that time becomes the “full, that is, the unalterable form filled by change.”1 Mondrian’s New York paintings create what Deleuze called “virtual images,” works that reflect the various planes of meaning and experience on which the object exists rather than the object itself. It is as if the early works were a preliminary architectural plan for the delirious urbanism of ’40s New York. In a vertiginous geometry, circuits are placed on top of a diamond-shaped canvas in Victory Boogie Woogie; its metropolitan buzz rejects utopian notions of order while revealing the circuits through which perception, recollection, and signification travel. In Deleuze’s words, “Each circuit obliterates and creates an object. But it is precisely in this ‘double movement of creation and erasure’ that successive planes and independent circuits, cancelling each other out, contradicting each other, joining up with each other, forking, will simultaneously constitute the layers of one and the same physical reality, and the levels of one and the same mental reality, memory or spirit.”2 It is as if, in coming to New York, Mondrian realized that purity, spirituality, and strictness had to dissolve into noise—that his work had to reflect the intersection of light and sound, the motion through and around objects.

The dichotomy between the horizontal and the vertical in early Mondrian reflects a static sense of pleasure, whereas his later paintings give the impression that the elements of the composition are moving across and jumping out from the surface. Polar opposites collide but never resolve into a form that might constitute a center, as if reflecting on the origins of plasticity itself. To view the work in his current retrospective is to see the shift from a linear temporality to a rhythmic one, from a concrete representation of the object to its description, from an external space to one that reflects the subject’s construction of it. Models, projections, sounding boards must be continuously regenerated in order for the spectator to “envision” what inroads can be made into plasticity, to begin to chart where metaphors and geometries might enmesh. Abstraction reemerges from other cores and drives in order to be continually reimagined. I can only think of Mondrian’s statement: “I don’t want pictures, I just want to find things out.”

Lydia Dona

1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989, p. 17.

2. Ibid, p. 46.