PRINT October 1995

Social Silence

WHAT WAS ALMOST AN article of faith in social art history only a few years ago seems far less compelling today: that the reconstruction of responses of early readers (viewers) at the time of a work’s production could not only significantly clarify the esthetic impact and the ramifications of its sociopolitical or ideological functions within that particular historical moment, but it could also facilitate its comprehension in the present. Given this conviction, it should come as no surprise to those who have examined the early Mondrian literature that, when it comes to his achievement, social art history has been silent.

Here is our first example of the problematics of a reader’s response to Mondrian. In an early instance of the postwar European reception of Mondrian’s work, we hear a relatively isolated French voice (France was after all the country of the least and the last affection for members of the historical avant-garde), the response of a French philosopher and novelist to Mondrian in 1949, five years after the Dutchman’s death:

They were on the ground floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in the gallery devoted to loan exhibitions. . . . Fifty pictures by Mondrian were set against the white walls of this clinic: no danger here, where everything was proof against microbes and the human passions. . . . Ritchie turned and looked at the picture. On a gray ground was a black vertical line crossed by two horizontals; at the left-hand extremity of the upper horizontal was a blue disk. . . . Gomez swung round suddenly. . . . “I’ve seen all I want to. I know Mondrian by heart. I can turn out an article on him anytime.”1

Inasmuch as reader-response criticism deals with early judgments, more often than not it simply encounters early prejudices. The philosopher’s quote contains a handful: first that Modernist buildings, white museum spaces, and abstract paintings are, by association, primarily antiseptic and clinical. As a result they are proclaimed to be exclusionary of bodily experience and inescapably repressive (presumably as opposed to the comforts of the body and class provided by the bourgeois interior?). But the philosopher (unknowingly and unfortunately) provides yet another prejudice, a more startling one at that: when it comes to abstract painting, all canvases are gray or make you see circles (with the ultimate implication that—as a result of its claim to constitute a universal language—abstraction exempts you from looking carefully).

This last fallacy is common among (French) theoreticians and philosophers to the present day: visual high culture provides the objects that illustrate philosophers’ theories. All painting and sculpture can be subjected to the encompassing interpretive will and totalizing claims of the theoretician. (Re)viewing or (re)discovering Mondrian now (again at the Museum of Modern Art) could teach the theoreticians (within and among us) an object lesson of the first order: that the education of the senses and the differentiation of linguistic competence and discursive practices in the 20th century have achieved a degree of separation and—as a result of the acceleration of the division of cultural labor—specialization that can only be overcome at the risk of folly (in Sartre’s case when he does not look carefully enough at the formal details and their implications to understand why Mondrian could not have possibly used circles) and/or at the price of an intentional crudity of thought (as Bertolt Brecht, another vociferous opponent of abstraction, argued in his polemics).

Thus, Sartre’s early (mis)reading points to one of the most crucial questions posed by Mondrian’s work today: which Modernist models—if any—of (non)representation remain worthy of consideration for the more recently developed sociopolitical and psychoanalytically informed methods and artistic practices generally referred to as post-Modernist? Or, to reverse the question: which of the interpretive models added as a productive renovation to the scientific apparatus of art history (feminism and psychoanalysis, structuralism and semiotics, social art history and ideology critique) could even begin to do Mondrian’s legacy justice? More precisely, to what extent did Mondrian’s hermeticism and his esthetic of infinitesimal increments (the conditions of an almost complete resistance to theorization and interpretation, conditions he shares with his poetic ancestor Stéphane Mallarmé and his artistic successors Barnett Newman and Lawrence Weiner) comprise a possibly more consequential cognitive, perceptual, and epistemic intervention within visual culture than almost any contemporary claim to a radical production of cultural identity?

Paradoxically, some of the current interpretive compulsions to establish exact matches between theoretical models and seemingly suitable artistic practices appear more obedient to the universal impulse of cultural administration than do Mondrian’s obsessive attempts at delineating and registering an infinity of possibilities of pictorial and spatial differences and relations. At the same time the instrumentalizing functions of culture-industry production seem to govern certain forms of critical interpretation more than they do Mondrian’s concerns—from his pictorial anticipation of the digital principle of information to his discovery of the fundamental constituents of the reading of iconic imagery. Mondrian’s hermeticism, however, points to an altogether different set of problems, equally addressed by Sartre’s protagonists:

“Obviously you don’t know the American public. The one thing it can’t stomach is to be startled. . . . And, if you absolutely must attack someone, at least don’t pick Mondrian: he’s our God. ” “Naturally,” said Gomez; “Mondrian doesn’t pose any questions at all.” . . . “Oh ,” said Ritchie, “you mean questions about sex or the meaning of life or poverty? I was forgetting you studied in Germany.”2

Even if one of Sartre’s observations (about the early American enthusiasm for Mondrian) might have been astute in 1949, it certainly no longer rings true. Most people in America—even in the professional milieu of 20th-century and contemporary art history—would not at this point count Mondrian among their canonical figures, let alone their “gods.” The Dutchman never acquired a popular status (if that indicates anything) comparable to Picasso or Jackson Pollock. Now it seems even less true to argue, however, that Mondrian’s work fails to pose any questions. If anything, the silence around him could be explained by the fact that his work provokes too many questions and leaves them all seemingly unanswered (the reason being perhaps that art historians—Germans in particular—are notorious for asking the “wrong” questions when it comes to the phenomenon of “pure plasticity”).

One of the questions Mondrian’s work has posed for me for a long time (and the exhibition and its catalogue unexpectedly answer to a greater degree than I would have anticipated) is the following: what theoretical model of sublimation and historical definition of “culture” are at work in the production of an artist who single-mindedly pursued his project of pictorial deconstruction during the last ten years of his life, totally undisturbed by a daily confrontation with the experience of war and Holocaust? When—and if—any residual traces of the “real” enter his paintings at all (and confront his underlying model of the functions of cultural production in relation to reality), they do so at the level of the referential banality of the last works’ titles (New York, Broadway Boogie Woogie, and Victory Boogie Woogie) or in the form of the treacherous suggestion (eagerly embraced by iconographers of Modernism) that the pictorial grid can be read as a map.

One might have expected that Mondrian’s scandalous abstraction, blinded to the lot of the world around him, would have earned the notorious ban Theodor Adorno had placed on composing lyrical poetry after the Holocaust. Paradoxically, however, Mondrian’s hermeticism offers the almost perfect articulation of Adorno’s esthetic theory of critical negativity.

Angelica Zander Rudenstine and Yve-Alain Bois’ amazing installation of the exhibition in Washington, D.C., succeeded in conveying Mondrian’s painterly evolution and the lessons he offers with a compelling clarity that disarmed my well-prepared arsenal of polemical questions. Complementing the experience of the installation is Bois’ exceptional essay in the catalogue, which gives us not only the most complete and detailed account of Mondrian’s pictorial procedures and overall project but also a methodological example: Bois respects the empirical primacy of Mondrian’s work, as a historical/esthetic object, and lets it determine his method throughout the essay. In a critical performance that could be called a mimetic transformation from the observation of painting to descriptive writing, Bois displays an uncanny capacity for articulating Mondrian’s pictorial development step-by-step, for tracing the intricacies of Mondrian’s painterly thought without imposing theories external to the work or alien to the reader’s/viewer’s perceptual encounter. This position is of course generally considered an epistemological impossibility, and it constitutes a feat of Modernist emancipatory thinking and art-historical writing in its own right. Without citing Adorno once, Bois delivers Mondrian’s apogee of Modernist critical negativity.

Precisely because of this achievement, Bois’ essay is, of course, almost as scandalous as Mondrian’s work itself. It incessantly provokes the question not just concerning the adequacy and authenticity of such a model of Modernist sublimation—but also regarding the historical tolerability of that model for cultural practice at large, then and now, and the devastating consequences of its unexceptional adaptation (after all, many of us have spent the last ten years getting out from under the consequences of that model of Modernist art and the unexceptional history and criticism to which it gave rise).

Yet Mondrian remains the exception, the thorn in the eye of post-Modernism: in every respect he remains singular. Setting Mondrian against his most obvious counterpart, Kasimir Malevich, reveals the degree of the latter’s dispersal, if not confusion, at the end of his life. Comparing Mondrian to the Soviet avant-garde at large or even to his de Stijl compatriots clarifies the extent to which he was ultimately unaffected by both the utopian and political promises of “designing” new social relations as well as their political organization through pictorial or architectural vision alone (and therefore he remains also unaffected by the strange obsolescence that has resulted from the naïveté of that avant-garde, sparing him the easy contempt of post-Modernist architecture historians). Whenever Mondrian’s admirers attempted to adopt his “model” (through various forms of artistic style or, worse yet, in the transfer to utilitarian design), their instant failure corroborated all the more the singularity of Mondrian’s project. From the start, the efforts of “disciples” like Fritz Glarner or Harry Holtzman to paint like the master—and to establish a Mondrian “style”—proved utterly futile. From Charles Eames’ attempts in the mid to late ’50s to communicate Mondrian’s message in furniture design by transposing his primary colors and primary structures onto relationally placed Formica surfaces, right down to Yves Saint Laurent’s efforts in the ’60s to make women more at home in the totally administered world and conjure a certain Modernist look by deploying Mondrian’s linear grid design as a fashion ornament: all these make Mondrian’s project appear even more exceptional. They make it all the more evident that he was a singularly resilient figure whose practice depends on a dialectics of uniqueness and universality as well as on the radical separateness and specificity of painting as a cognitive, epistemic, and perceptual project. Precisely because where it is decisive it is also separate from all other forms of visual representation and social production, Mondrian’s lesson now embodies the possibility as well as the increasing precariousness of practices articulating the experience of autonomy.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is an art historian and critic who teaches modern and contemporary art history at Barnard College/Columbia University. He is currently working on a monographic study of Gerhard Richter and preparing a collection of essays for publication with MIT Press.

1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Les chemins de la liberté, vol. III (La mort dans l’ame), Paris: Gallimard, 1949. English translation published as Troubled Sleep, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1951, pp. 25–29.
2. Ibid., p. 28.