New York

Burgoyne Diller

Whitney Museum/Andre Emmerich Gallery

Burgoyne Diller belongs to that group of American artists who, like Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky, were inspired by the geometric abstractions of the De Stijl movement. From the ’30s until his death in 1965, Diller restricted his palette to the primary colors, along with black and white, which he arranged in rectilinear compositions. In Diller’s current retrospective, which juxtaposes his paintings with representative works by De Stijl artists including Piet Mondrian, one is afforded the opportunity to compare Diller’s paintings and drawings with those of his more celebrated precursors. Though at first glance Diller’s career seems overshadowed by Mondrian’s Neoplasticism, this comparative view reveals the limitations of this assumption, for the De Stijl vocabulary served merely as a point of departure from which Diller went on to create a unique oeuvre.

The vertical and horizontal lattice that structures his compositions is not restricted to black, nor are his lines regular in their thickness or proportion. On the contrary, Diller built his compositions with intersecting lines of varying thickness and colors that pulsate, frequently confusing the boundary between line and plane. Unlike the black grids in a Mondrian, Diller employs successive receding planes to create spatial depth. Perhaps Diller’s most unique compositional device was the unanchored grille created by terminating his lines at definite points within the pictorial field, rather than consistently extending the divisions to the edges of the canvas.

Although these compositional devices appear throughout his oeuvre, one work clearly demonstrates Diller’s unique application of Neoplastic structures. In SecondTheme, 1938–39, a grid of black lines floats upon the surface of a square field. It overlaps a red and, behind this, a blue grille creating a drastic contrast between foreground and background. Terminating inside the picture plane, these black lines are limited rather than limitless, grounding the works in the tangible world of finite structures.

Diller’s paintings share Constructivism’s material bias, invoking the structural basis of the material world via their architectonic compositions. Like the post-and-lintel armature of I-beam girders that formed the Manhattan skyscrapers of the ’30s, his paintings evoke the substructure that lies at the core of the modern urban enterprise. As a painter working in this urban milieu, Diller’s artistic affinities are more closely wed to the Precisionist works of Louis Lozowick or Charles Sheeler than to the idealized compositions of Mondrian. Together they forged an American brand of Modernist abstraction that looked with optimism toward America’s industrial future.

The drawings reveal the constructed quality of his compositions most clearly. Tentatively drawn lines of different colors combine like woven tapestries. Painted upon a prepared surface and built up into a dense fabric of graphic gestures, Diller’s compositions seem thoroughly constructed.

Enmeshed in an American tradition of geometric abstract painting, which is grounded in social reference, it hardly seems a coincidence that this exhibition was conceived during the heyday of “neo-geo.” Fortunately, an exhibition takes several years to plan, and now that the rage over the new abstraction has subsided, Diller’s work can be viewed on its own terms—highlighted, but not obfuscated by an additional awareness that the critical rhetoric surrounding “neo-geo” brought to geometric abstraction.

Kirby Gookin