New York

Mondrian

Pace | 32 East 57th Street

Certainly the most important thing in the Mondrian show was a reconstruction of the room he designed in 1926 for a certain Mme. B. at Dresden. Notes, designs and color samples for this project, which had never been executed, remained after the artist’s death, and these have been used by the American Cyanamid Co. to make Formica panels such as Mondrian would have intended them. In my opinion this room—or at least this reconstruction of it, since there may be some differences between the replica and the original idea, although it does not seem so—is a failure. If it is compared with the artist’s paintings the striking thing about it are the light and dark greys that are to be found in the room along with the black, red, yellow and blue he used in his paintings; and these greys ruin the whole piece of work. One cannot take them as hues, which they are not, but one cannot take the other colors as values, since they are hues.

I am sure that for Mondrian the room was not only—not even primarily—a visual construction, it was a metaphor for certain spiritual and emotional states. Even in New York, where Mondrian lived and worked, there is a strong tendency to forget that this aspect of his work (which was expressed also in his whole life style) was primordial to him—on others it has had little or no effect. If one has such preoccupations there might be a reason for wanting to include the greys, and if the preoccupation was strong enough one might forget or overlook other factors, such as purely visual ones; and apparently that is what happened here.

This brings up another interesting aspect of Mondrian’s room. As the artist’s early work is studied, it becomes increasingly clear how very much he owes to the esthetic and spiritual currents of the fin de siècle, and this room continues that vein in a very explicit way. The line from the Arts and Crafts movement to art nouveau to art déco and the geometric movements of the twenties—De Stijl, the Bauhaus and Constructivism—is a clear and straight one. This room is pure art déco in its forms, although in its ideology it is rather closer to the refined spirituality of the turn of the century—art déco was a shockingly secular movement, and Mondrian’s thinking was firmly oriented along its own lines before the art déco spirit evolved. The room is in fact a dated period piece.

The drawings that make up the rest of this show need less comment. Some were done in the mid-twenties and are preparatory studies for Mme. B.’s room; others date from Paris in the mid-thirties, London in the late thirties and New York in the early forties. The only interesting drawings are those done in New York, which show, as do Mondrian’s paintings of the same period, how sharply he was turning—had turned—back toward spatial illusionism in the last few years before his death. Large developments are involved in this fact, and this is not the place to discuss them. I will only say that there has not been a painter so far, in this century, who has been able to sustain a flat style. Mondrian did it for much longer than anyone else—Pollock, for example, was able to do it for just four or five years, if one admits that his work was ever flat—but in the end both of them and everyone else reverted to illusionistic depth. This has already happened in the style of Frank Stella; and it may do something to explain why painting is not a particularly vigorous art form at the present time.

Jerrold Lanes