Beyond Mondrian.


These words: “…I’ve found neoplasticism,” came out of my mouth in the studio earlier this week.

I’ve been into Piet Mondrian since I was 13. It is safe to say that it took about 15 years to begin to really understand his work, and another two years after that to have process oriented revelations while in sight of his compositions. His work is a keystone in my annual cycle of art exploration, and at least once every year I come into a period where all I can do is eat, drink, sleep, and absorb his work, as everything else darkens away and finds immediate irrelevancy.

Composition Blanc, Rouge, et Jaune; Piet Mondrian (Oil on Canvas, 1936)

Here we view Composition A, also known as Composition Blanc, Rouge, et Jaune, by Mondrian, finished in 1936. Seventy-two years have passed since this painting was finished and please take a moment to imagine the response to a work like this in the late 1930s… pre- Damien Hurst, Jackson Pollock, and Sarah Morris.

In my opinion, this is one of his five best works, if one could rank them. In this singular work, a viewer can easily dissect and digest most of the basic fundamentals to his work. Two colors are used, red and yellow, and the structure of the painting consists of black and white. The painting is balanced in three directions, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally through the opposition, or “tension,” of the two primary directions. Mondrian was against using diagonal lines in his work, with the exception of some earlier compositions, Composition with Grid 1 (Lozenge) of 1918, and two subsequent works completed shortly thereafter.

The two vertical lines running the height of the composition provide the starting structure for the work. They divide the canvas in approximate thirds. Four horizontal lines running the length of the composition establish vertical tension; two sets of parallel lines, seemingly charged with a mysterious magnetism that could be either attraction or opposition. Finally, three distinct rectilinear planes that “float” on the main structure of the work; one red, unbounded, occupying the top-right corner; one yellow, molecules away from the edge, and fully contained within four black lines; an “empty,” colorless container hovering center-bottom, tethering the two color planes of above.

The painting has no meaning, and this is where most viewers seem to get tripped up. It is a total non-objective work, representational of nothing… rectangles, lines, and patches of color that are of no mathematical equation, no statement on the politics of the day, no emotional constitution implicit in the image presented. However, by conveying nothing, Mondrian evokes strong emotion in his viewers, and has continued to do such since his first trademark works of the 1920s.

Each intersection provides a division for the viewer to focus on. While he avoided the use of diagonal lines, his works are dynamic in that his use of the horizontal and vertical created diagonal shifts of vision, eyeball ping-pong, a rise-and-fall and counter-clockwise spins around the canvas. Think about traffic intersections and ponder the opposing ortho-directional energy that occurs in the nucleus of these transactions, the swarming of people on street corners just at the wall of this nucleus, and the gathering of onlookers in coffee houses and apartment buildings down onto this life, diagonally opposed from the center.

The division of space and the division of line, all while maintaining balance, was his primary visual goal. He frequently sought “the universal” in his art, a sense of the basic workings of human existence translated visually, as he understood it. His visual reduction of life translated into a language of six recognizable colors (black, white, grey, and the three primaries,) that could be thought of as structure and substance: black, white and grey constructions that delineated the divisions amongst us in life, and the essential colors of that which was contained by structure. The longer he worked, the more he was able to integrate all these variables, truly recognizable in his final two works, where all sight of traditional structure was obliterated into a larger union of substance.

I think that we all make our own assessments of Mondrian’s work as an artist, but essentially, as artists, we all work with the basic restrictions of two- (or three-) dimensional space, color or its absence, the structure of our thoughts translated visually. Even Conceptual artists could have their works translated into a visual graphing of the exchange of idea, with artist beginning as nucleus connecting outward to the reception of participants… furthermore, manipulating this idea transfer to cause participant to be nucleus and all the resulting myriad possibilities human experience instigates.

Perhaps even as a basic building block of two-dimensional visual works, the horizontal-vertical structure conundrum confounds us… we get so into our works that we forget what we are trying to build (or un-build.) Are we building anything? Is there a goal? What do we seek as an artist? Is it revelation or exploration, exploitation or repair? The questions perpetuate the more we look for our answers.