PRINT October 1995

New Math

FOR ME, THE WORK of Piet Mondrian is linked to the 20th-century discourse on objective reality. This discourse has, I feel, led to a dichotomy in Modern painting. On the one hand, there is the tendency, explicit in movements from Constructivism through Minimalism, to present the visual in purely objective terms. On the other hand, there is the response to this intense objectification, which can be felt in the massive sublimation of Surrealism. To me, this dichotomy shows the alienation of the mind from objective reality when it is unable to sufficiently sublimate that reality.

Mondrian’s intent was to find universal harmonic balance through painting. He sought to achieve this through extremely reductive means and by establishing rules determining the objectively real in a painting. It is understandable, then, why Mondrian’s work has become a cultural emblem, claimed as a precursor of Minimalism.

When I look at one of Mondrian’s Neo-Plastic paintings, I do, in some ways, feel I am looking at mere “facts.” One can, after all, easily describe a Mondrian work in terms of form, quantity, and color. His ingenious use of color is based on the simple combination of white, black, and the three primary colors red, yellow, and blue (which also form black when blended together in painting). The effect is factual: red plus blue plus yellow equals black, which minus yellow minus blue minus red leaves the reflection of a white ground, and totality is reached at either end—black entirely absorbs the color of light, white entirely reflects it. As such, color, objectified and neutralized, is held in a static balance, which supports the impression of a Mondrian painting as a singular object devoid of metaphor.

There is, however, always the quality of relationship in the work of Mondrian, the varying balance of red, yellow, and blue to white and black. In some paintings, only one or two primary colors are present. Things don’t always add up in his subjective mathematics. In this sense, Mondrian’s painting may be compared to the musical compositions of Morton Feldman, who based his work on the physical presence of discrete tones. Like Mondrian’s colors, isolated by black perpendiculars and black and white rectangles, Feldman’s tones are spatially isolated at lengthy temporal steps. Inevitably, relationships—melodies—form. It is this perceivable gap between melody and tone that is so beautiful in Feldman’s music. In Mondrian’s works, with their pure, objectified colors and their tonal relationships, there is a similar gap—and similar beauty.

Viewing Mondrian’s colors independently of these harmonic relationships, one may feel inclined to affix meaning to them; a teleology of color appears to form. Every painting is completed in the mind of the viewer, and even the most objective visual experience becomes transmuted through sublimation. It's as though one were to look at a Mondrian but see instead a Mark Rothko. In the mind’s eye, Mondrian’s hard-edged squares begin to look soft, taking on a resonance that is not “objectively” there. Perhaps it is in the process of sublimation that beauty and truth diverge. If so, I believe that, in Mondrian, desire overwhelms truth. The wonderful thing about his paintings is that it is through their seeming neutrality that they become springboards into the beauty of the mind.

Jonathan Lasker