PRINT October 1995

Shape Up

I do not recall really spending time with Piet Mondrian’s work until I was hired as a guard at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in the summer of 1962. Being a guard allowed a relaxed familiarity with the collection. The contact was a daily one, during which you could study a work or simply see it in passing. Some works and artists seemed to gather weight with this exposure; others did not, or even diminished in my eyes. Mondrian’s paintings looked better every day; I seemed to rediscover them each time I came upon them. Somehow, his paintings did not seem lodged in the past but were of the moment. This is a quality I have found in other artists of the past I am drawn to, but at the time it was a revelation.

I am interested in the role shape has played in Mondrian’s work. The edges of his paintings, from around 1912, stop being framelike and, instead, become the first element in the work, the element everything else must adjust to. Starting with the works where he draws an oval around the inside of a paper’s or a canvas’s edge, each work’s boundary is carefully conceived. There is a locking of the edge with the other elements of the work that makes an inseparable unit.

Mondrian tended to rely on a fixed repertoire of shapes—rectangles, squares, squares rotated on their tips (the diamond shapes). Except for a couple of years in the early 1930s, he seems to have avoided using exact squares, preferring, for the most part, a vertically positioned format that is close to but not square. The shape itself is not revolutionary. It is the emphasis on and the importance of the actual shape, the actual size, that I think was quite new.

In recent years, I have been most in conversation with Mondrian’s drawings, particularly those from the 1912–15 period, where he variously breaks down the structure of trees or a church façade. Even more significant for me are the Pier and Ocean and the Ocean works, from the same period, where the structure becomes more overall, as the vertical and horizontal short marks of charcoal, sometimes overpainted with gouache, spread out across the entire surface. There is the freedom of a defining moment in these works, a breadth and scale and at the same time a fragility, that is now very appealing to me.

Robert Mangold is an artist living in Washingtonville, N.Y.