New York

“Neo-Plasticism in America”

Whitney Museum of American Art

In his introductory essay to a catalogue for a 1940 exhibition at his “Museum of Living Art,” by the same name, A. E. Gallatin invokes the authority of science to support his position that abstract art is both creative and progressive. Gallatin continuously describes and valorizes art in terms of “exploration and experimentation”; what the public beholds in his galleries are not merely works of art but “experiments performed in the artistic laboratory,” Furthermore, the practice of art is less a skill or technique than it is a matter of “research,” wherein artists strive “above all to obtain plastic qualities in their work.”

Gallatin’s “museum”—which, after the Société Anonyme of Katherine Dreier and Marcel Duchamp, was arguably the most influential public collection of Modern art in the United States during the early ’30s—was saturated with the ideals of a progressive, almost scientific, Modernism. But even in that respect, it can be argued that Gallatin did not introduce any revolutionary ideas—that he was simply truthful to what he took to be the unifying thread of the admittedly heterodox ideological justifications of Suprematism, Constructivism, and above all, the Neo-Plasticism of Piet Mondrian, who said, quite innocently, “I don’t want paintings, I just want to find things out.”

It is this sense of just wanting to “find things out” that seems to characterize aptly the aspirations of that group of American artists most closely associated with the theory and practice of Neo-Plasticism. Through the sympathetic, often devoted art and proselytizing of a core group that consisted of Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner, Harry Holtzman, and Charmion von Wiegand, Neo-Plasticism was elevated in New York to something approaching a universal doctrine. Or, to put it in a more familiar way, Neo-Plasticism, as a paradigmatic shift away from both Cubism and Surrealism, was generalized in practice in a manner not necessarily inimitable to Mondrian himself. Diller, who was given a retrospective at the Whitney in 1990, was the first to become familiar with Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism; in 1934 he introduced Holtzman to Mondrian’s work in the Museum of Living Art. Later on that year, Holtzman visited Mondrian in Paris, and, in 1940, he was instrumental in helping Mondrian settle in New York City. Glarner had already known Mondrian in Paris during the early ’30s, but he did not adopt a Neo-Plastic approach to abstract painting until the ’40s. Von Wiegand, not yet a serious painter but, rather, a critic and writer on art, met Mondrian in 1941; she subsequently enabled the artist to publish his first texts in English, notably the essays “Towards a True Vision of Reality” and “Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art.” Bolotowsky was aware of Mondrian’s work in the early ’30s, although his self-described project at that time was the attempt to reconcile or combine the biomorphism of Joan Miró with the geometry of Mondrian. Of these artists, Holtzman was the least typical of those who imagined themselves to be taking up where the master left off: first, because he was the purest of Neo-Plasticism’s North American exponents (Mondrian remarked of Holtzman’s sculptural “paintings”: “He really is much more modern than I am—you will see—and he leans towards what I wrote about the end of art”); second, because Holtzman virtually abandoned painting by the late ’40s.

What is most interesting about this exhibition, however, is how it demonstrates what can occur in art when a model is elaborated, when the notion of influence is understood as an active reaction to a given state of affairs rather than construed as a passive extension. One has only to consider the startlingly contemporary feel of the paintings of Irene Rice Pereira (Oblique Progression, 1948, Heart of Light, 1954) to appreciate how far it is possible to travel in the name of Neo-Plasticism.

But, as Karl Emil Willers, in his informative essay accompanying the exhibition, and Yves Alain-Bois, in his excellent essay “Piet Mondrian, New York City,” 1985, both suggest, the seeds of misapprehension were probably sown by the master himself. With New York City, 1942, Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942–43, and the unfinished Victory Boogie Woogie, 1943–44, Mondrian succeeded in achieving an unparalleled destruction of spatial illusion; but the means with which this was accomplished in these three final paintings seemed to his New York admirers so radical a departure from his Neo-Plasticist origins as to signify both a negation of purity and a license to transgress. Whatever the presence of Neo-Plasticism in the United States might have signified, the singularity of Mondrian has never been clearer than in this exhibition.

Michael Corris