“The geometries in the paintings—the center line and other divisions—are the main fascinators…. Working with wholes and parts has always been important…. It is important that on each side of the middle line there is a good, solid form. Where divisions become more complex, it is a matter of making certain that each section has individual solidarity as well as a working contribution to the wholeness of the picture.”[i]
“But let us note that art—even on an abstract level—has never been confined to ‘idea’; art has always been the ‘realized’ expression of equilibrium.”[ii]
The importance of the inter-relationships between the whole and its parts, the expression of equilibrium, and the underlying architecture of any work of art have always been important elements in the making of a painting. The statements above illustrate these concerns from two very different artists: the first one from Susan Rothenberg and the second from Piet Mondrian.
Even though a painting by Susan Rothenberg may seem to have nothing in common with one by Mondrian, in the middle 1980’s Rothenberg paid him a tribute with a series of new paintings. Younger artists of that era, associated with the New Image and Bad Painting exhibitions, seemed to rediscover certain forms of imagery and gesture, which reinvigorated painting after it had recently been declared dead. The meaningful gesture and a renewed sense of the plastic possibilities of painting energized this new work.
With his arrival in New York City in 1940, Mondrian’s work began to change and respond to his new environment. The Neo-Plastic aesthetic became a trans-Atlantic issue for a larger artistic community. His direct influence on younger artists, especially in the United States, included Harry Holtzman, Charmion von Wiegand, Fritz Glarner and Ilya Bolotowsky.
During this time period Mondrian’s work had shifted from works he had brought with him when he emigrated from Europe into a new phase of New York paintings. Even Lee Krasner acknowledged his influence and importance for American artists. Mary Gabriel writes of this several times in her book Ninth Street Women, especially mentioning Krasner talking about meeting Mondrian in his studio, and two of his vices:
“Mondrian embodied restraint—physical and spiritual—but he had two secret vices: coffee (he hid his pot so this weakness wouldn’t be discovered) and, inconceivably, dancing. He had a Victrola and a stack of Blue Note jazz records to which he danced barefoot in his studio. Though he had taken lessons in Paris to learn the fox-trot and the tango, he preferred improvisation. One dance partner called him ‘terrifying.’”[iii]
In another literary vein, when the poet Charles Wright visited Butler University in Indianapolis as part of its Visiting Writers Series on 29 March 2005, he made reference to a variety of artists, from Vasari and Michelangelo to Morandi and Mondrian, with Milton Avery and Wolf Kahn in between. Meditations on the shapes and specific colors in these paintings, Wright wove individual descriptions and imaginings together into a lyrical whole and made a point of referring to specific Mondrian paintings. Included below are two of his pieces, along with the paintings to which they refer.
“As Mondrian knew,
Art is an image of an image of an image,
More vacant, more transparent
With each repeat and slough:
one skin, two skins, it comes clear,
An old idea not that old.”
“Two rectangles, red and grey, from 1935,
Distant thunder like a distant thunder—
Howitzer shells, large
drop-offs into drumbeat and roll.
And there’s that maple again,
Head like an African Ice Age queen, full-leafed and lipped.
Behind her, like clear weather,
Mondrian’s window gives out
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]
SITTING AT DUSK IN THE BACK YARD AFTER THE MONDRIAN RETROSPECTIVE
“Form imposes, structure allows—
the slow destruction of form
So as to bring it back resheveled, reorganized,
Is the hard heart of the enterprise.
Under its camouflage,
The light, relentless shill and cross-dresser, pools and deals.
Inside its short skin, the darkness burns.
Mondrian thought the destructive element in art
Much too neglected.
Landscape, of course, pursues it savagely.
And that’s what he meant:
You can’t reconstruct without the destruction being built in;
There is no essence unless
nothing has been left out.
Destruction takes place so order might exist.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.
Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.
Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
Gathers itself for sacrifice, its slow
fadeout along the invisible,
Leaving the land its architecture of withdrawal,
Black lines and white spaces, an emptiness primed with reds and blues.”[v]
It was as if Mondrian had found his home. The new environment and the company of artists and the hustle suited him to a tee. Even though he sometimes isolated himself in order to work, he also explored and enjoyed this new vibrancy. However, his death in 1944 left a void in all of this. Another section of Ninth Street Women again mentions Lee Krasner’s memories of this time:
“Amid the unrelenting reports of death in the world, three in particular shook Lee. Mondrian had died in late January 1944. The sadness surrounding his passing was not just over the loss of a great artist, it was also over the circumstances of his death. Mondrian had stayed up until four a.m. after an opening and had subsequently become ill. Though bedridden for several days, in his humility he hadn’t wanted to bother anyone, and so he had remained alone in his stark white apartment with its myriad right angles until friends finally discovered he was sick and took him to the hospital. It was too late. He died five days later of pulmonary pneumonia. Mondrian had had only one solo show during his lifetime, and that was in New York, where he said he had spent the happiest years of his life—because of the music.”[vi]
A Golden Moment: Mondrian sitting at a table/piano, about to play some jazz. On this keyboard/table top, red and blue squares appear surrounded by white, while in the background a much larger passage of yellow covers part of the floor. This is all very loose, very gestural, and supposedly the very opposite surface of a Mondrian painting. Yet, when we have seen unfinished Mondrian paintings in both New York and the Netherlands, colored tapes appear, temporarily attached to the surface of the painting, even with some stripes painted out. All lines and movements: this is Mondrian, dancing with his paintings.
“Having loved the surface for a long time, then one searches for something more. And yet this is in the surface itself. Looking through it one sees the inner.”[vii]
[i] Marshall, Richard; New Image Painting; Whitney Museum of American Art; New York, New York; 1978; p. 56.
[ii] Blotkamp, Carel; Mondrian: The Art of Destruction; Harry N. Abrams; New York, New York; 1994; p. 9.
[iii] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. 81.
[iv] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 61.
[v] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue, Selected Later Poems; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; pp. 122-123.
[vi] Gabriel, Mary; Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art; Little, Brown and Company; New York, New York; 2017; p. xx.
[vii] Cooper, Harry, and Ron Spronk; Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings; Harvard University Art Museums; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Yale University Press, New Haven and London; 2001; p. 24.