PRINT October 1995

Mondrians I Have Known

CIRCA 1946: As an arty Manhattan teenager, I thumbtacked onto my bedroom walls a row of color reproductions from the Museum of Modern Art, a precocious declaration of Modernity. I placed Piet Mondrian’s Composition in White, Black, and Red (1936) next to Jean Arp’s wriggly but equally distilled Mountain, Table, Anchors, Navel (1924), in what turned out to be a preview of many slide comparisons in my future (geometric versus biomorphic, etc.). The perpendicular clarity and antiseptic surfaces of the Mondrian clicked partly into place with my Machine Age dreams of a utopian future, but its austerity also made it look more religious than worldly, a Holy Grail floating far above the pleasures of Picasso, Matisse, and Miró.

1949: The welling mysteries of Mondrian’s fierce but bone-dry power were partly explained to me, it seemed, by Clement Greenberg’s influential essay, “The Role of Nature in Modern Painting.” For him, Mondrian’s greatness was founded on the way even his wholly abstract art, unlike Wassily Kandinsky’s, was based on the structure of objects in nature and was, therefore, a vital offshoot of Cubism. This somewhat fuzzy idea sank deep, and I began to think of Mondrian as the winner, and Kandinsky the loser, in the battle of the two titans of abstraction.

1956: An article by William Seitz, “Monet and Abstract Painting,” opened yet another vista, a new genealogical table that stressed the then-unfamiliar parallels between the fluctuating structure of late Impressionism and that of Mondrian’s early studies of haystacks, façades, and trees.

1960: I published my first book, Cubism and Twentieth-Century Art, which I now realize is thoroughly steeped in Greenberg’s esthetic absolutism. My brief presentation of Mondrian in a Cubist context was in large part a gloss on Greenberg’s article—that is, Mondrian was great because he earned his abstract art through the hard work of digesting Cubism. More original was my suggestion that Mondrian added to Cubism a later mutation of the Romantic spirit found in the likes of Caspar David Friedrich or Van Gogh—the loneliness of mystic meditation before sea, church, and tree.

1965: In my Cubist-oriented vision of Mondrian, his career began only circa 1908, but this had to be drastically altered, thanks to the familiar situation of teachers being educated by students, in this case a passionate scholar, Robert Welsh, who, under my supervision at Princeton, completed a doctoral thesis on Mondrian’s pre-Cubist years, going as far back as 1890. Fascinated, as always, with roots, I now saw a different Mondrian, this one born way back in 1872 and, therefore, an artist whose first decades were steeped in a late-19th-century naturalist milieu. My growing impulse was to have Mondrian look backward as well as forward, a view that I would put into focus the next year.

1966: At the Art Gallery of Toronto, Welsh organized a landmark Mondrian retrospective, heavily oriented toward the early work, and he invited me to contribute what turned out to be “Notes on Mondrian and Romanticism,” in which I sketched out what I felt were the master’s deep connections with such Northern Romantics as Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge and such Symbolists as Ferdinand Hodler and Edvard Munch.

1971: At the much larger Guggenheim retrospective, there was another series of revelations. Although most artists wobble and collapse under Frank Lloyd Wright’s warping spirals (I will never forget the seasick-making effect of Kenneth Noland’s striped paintings on those walls), Mondrian miraculously triumphed. Never did his art look so eternally stable, dispelling Wright’s oceanic waves with its anchoring horizontals and verticals. I realized, too, the importance of the stepped-back, frameless support Mondrian preferred, a physical structure that permitted his purified nuggets of line and plane to expand unimpeded in the imagination.

And there was also Welsh’s catalogue essay, “Mondrian and Theosophy,” which, undoing the Machine Age optimism of the artist’s signature style, relocated him in the eerie atmosphere of occult symbolism. Suddenly, geometric circles and ovals became “cosmic eggs,” and vibrant, flecked brushstrokes out of Impressionism corresponded to mystical auras radiating from flowers, trees, and people. This immersion in the Great Theosophical Beyond of Madame Blavatsky reached an unforgettably strange climax in the numbingly ethereal Evolution (1911), whose triptych form and imposing dimensions (Mondrian’s largest work) turn it into the altarpiece of a new religion.

1975: Mondrian the passionate mystic began to overbalance Mondrian the rationalist, whose later work is still deemed appropriate for the cover of an algebra textbook. I published my Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, in which Mondrian, under the rubric “transcendental abstraction,” earned one of the eight chapters as the heir to those gravity-defiant artists who would waft us up via the natural world—lighthouse, church, and sea—to supernatural climes. In the same year, John Russell, in the early, serialized edition of his Meanings of Modern Art, eloquently described Mondrian’s Woods near Oele (1908) as the kind of landscape in which the crazed, lone protagonist of Arnold Schoenberg’s Expressionist opera Erwartung (1909) stumbles upon her dead lover’s body—“a primeval forest ringed with fire.”

1977: Oberlin College invited me to participate in a symposium on “old-age style.” I chose Mondrian, which meant a shift of my focus from early to late, concentrating on the final years in New York. I realized, as never before, the astonishing diversity within his long career, as well as the surprising evolution (a preview of Frank Stella?) from minimal to maximal in the abstract paintings, which end in a dazzle of baroque complexity. I wanted also to raise the question of Mondrian and his relationship to other artists, too seldom asked about a painter of seemingly hermetic isolation. For instance, if he looked at what the Americans had been doing, might he not have known Georgia O’Keeffe’s New York views of the 1920s, with their skyscraper grids of staccato beeps, not to mention Mark Tobey’s scintillating city scenes, such as Broadway (ca. 1935), which was shown at the Met’s “Artists for Victory” show in 1942, or a related painting of even greater overall twinkle, which was actually titled Broadway Boogie (1942)? Nobody, I must say, seemed interested then (or now) in picking up this ball. What American artists got from him, rather than the other way around, is still the agenda.

1979: E. A. Carmean’s “Mondrian: The Diamond Compositions, ” at Washington’s National Gallery, which burned, if anything ever did, “with a gem-like flame, ” was for me a fresh confirmation of the master’s laser-beam power, with every diamond projecting its infinitely long and perfect rays like beacons mapping out an ideal world. But the issue of national flavor (seemingly irrelevant to an artist who uses a universal language) also loomed large for me. Apropos the diamond paintings, for example, various writings of the 1970s—by Meyer Schapiro, Kermit Champa, Budd Hopkins, and E. A. Carmean—had called attention, in footnotes and asides, to the precedent of this format in the escutcheons for the deceased in Dutch churches, not to mention Dutch tiles and stained glass. This vein of thought, as well as more familiar references to Vermeer, helped to explain Mondrian’s Dutch look, which can even be felt in the vernacular Dutch architecture he often painted in his early years. It would be hard, I realized, to imagine Mondrian coming from anywhere but Holland.

1985–86: In rapid sequence, two complementary Mondrians were presented. In his Mondrian Studies of 1985, Kermit Champa concentrated on the internal, formal issues of Mondrian’s art, on his “constantly shifting notions of pictorial structure.” But the next year, the artist was again swept off to Madame Blavatsky–land in the LACMA exhibition, “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985,” where Carel Blotkamp’s catalogue essay placed him among far-loonier Dutch contemporaries and where he could also be seen as part of a bizarre international community of artists who seemed more interested in séances than in making pretty pictures. If, by virtue of his pictorial greatness rather than his personal spirituality, Mondrian ascended far higher than his fellow believers, he nevertheless looked as much at home with, say, Jan Toorop or Hilma af Klimt as he later would with Theo van Doesburg or Fritz Glarner.

1988-89: At last, a bit of comic relief. In preparing The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post-Modernism (1988), I was delighted to remember, thanks to Welsh’s thesis, that, in 1891, Mondrian, then 19, had made a kitschy little painting of a puppy staring out with eyes so soulful that they might later be raised to the theosophical ethers. I loved the puzzled expressions when I told people my dog book would include Mondrian.

The next year produced an even broader smile when the Dutch scholar Els Hoek published, in Art in America, some of the artist’s correspondence with his brother Carel in 1938. Here, it is revealed that Mondrian was gaga about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, not only sending picture postcards of Doc and other characters or whimsically referring to the servant who tidied up his London room as “Snow White,” but even signing off “All the best from Sleepy.” If this collision of high and low seems a ludicrous chink in Mondrian’s unsmiling armor, it was also a relief to welcome him to the human race. (It should be remembered, too, that in the same year, 1938, one of Disney’s artists, the German-born Oskar Fischinger, pasted cutouts of Mickey and Minnie Mouse onto reproductions of tempestuous early Kandinskys.)

1995: The occasion that prompts this chronological free association is, of course, the great Mondrian show that I just saw in Washington and that for the best of reasons—his art—once more elevates him to exalted heights. On hearing, months ago, that the show would virtually edit out the lunatic fringe of the early work, I was bothered by what seemed an act of historical censorship. But these losses to the mess that is the truth of art, people, and history are, I now believe, outweighed by the purposeful clarity of the selection and the installation, in which Angelica Zander Rudenstine and Yve-Alain Bois used a focus as narrow and piercing as Mondrian’s to remove any impediments to the breathtaking but steady momentum of the master’s evolution. The effect is like a supersonic takeoff: swiftly leaving behind land and sea, as well as the soaring but nevertheless earthbound windmills, lighthouses, churches; penetrating vast infinities of sky; and, finally, emerging in a stratospheric purity that, in the last works, seems to construct a spotless, utopian counterpart to the urban bustle the artist encountered head-on in London and New York.

At a time when standards of major and minor have been put on hold, this show is a jolting reminder of just how gripping a great artist’s work can be, in both its whole and its parts. As confirmed by the perfect orchestration in Washington, Mondrian never dropped his feverish level of experimentation and change, continually producing fresh masterpieces, any one of which—early, middle, or late—would elevate him to Olympus. Like Monet, Mondrian often thought in terms of series, of variations on a theme; and part of the visual magnetism of the exhibition is that it honors these coherent clusters in a sequence of what seem to be chapels, each dedicated to a different motif. The textbook Mondrian of the three primary colors, white ground, and black perpendiculars no longer looks like the goal to be reached but, one of many equally perfect stations in this ongoing life of art.

The intelligent and beautiful pruning that the show represents applies as well to the catalogue, which contains, on one hand, the fullest Mondrian chronology ever, by Angelica Zander Rudenstine and Joop Joosten, as well as exclusively factual entries for individual works; and, on the other, Yve-Alain Bois' essay, which, like the exhibition, untethers Mondrian from the pull of history, letting him live on his own monastic planet. Often using the language of combat and strategy (a pictorial battle, for example, is won in six rounds), Bois envisions Mondrian as an artist-chessmaster, energetically confronting and solving one formal problem after another. This approach sweeps a lot under the carpet (including Madame Blavatsky, whose pseudophilosophy is here replaced by the genuine article in the form of Hegel’s dialectic, which Bois suggests influenced the artist after 1914), but it is suitable to the bell-jar conception of the show, which demands undistracted attention to the work itself. Despite my built-in cynicism about the power of art to affect human behavior, I emerged thinking that, perhaps, pictures really could uplift the spirit and that, perhaps, the course of an artist’s career really could be a lesson in ethics. The air was so pure that the secular became sacred. In the absence of the theosophical triptych Evolution, the great Composition in Line (1917)—originally exhibited with two smaller paintings flanking it, as in a devotional triptych—functioned as a surrogate iconoclastic altarpiece in black and white; and in the room devoted to what the wall label (by Harry Cooper) deftly describes as “arboreal Cubism,” Goethe’s vision of Gothic architecture emerging from a nave of trees was revived. I started to think what Simon Schama might do with Mondrian’s landscapes, but then got back into the more single-minded visual focus inspired by the exhibition. But once outside, the air became polluted again, and I began to remember all the intrusive ghosts that had been haunting my vision of Mondrian over the decades—from Friedrich and Tobey to Dutch farmhouses, Snow White, and the West Hollywood hotel called Mondrian. I am glad they were temporarily exorcised, but I know they are bound to return.

Roben Rosenblum is an art historian and professor of fine arts at New York University. He is most recently the author of The Paintings of August Strindberg: the Structure of Chaos (1995).