MONDRIAN DANCING

“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]

mondrian
Piet Mondrian
“Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow”
1937-1942
Oil on canvas
23 3/4” x 21 7/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

 

“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.

mondrian2
Charmion von Wiegand
“Untitled”
1946
Opaque watercolor and graphite on paper on board
22” x 18”
Whitney Museum of Art, New York

 

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]

mondrian3
Susan Rothenberg
“Mondrian Dancing”
1984-1985
Oil on canvas
78” x 91”
The Saint Louis Museum of Art,
Saint Louis, Missouri

 

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.

SUMMER STORM

“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
onto ontology,
A dab of red, a dab of grey, white interstices.
You can’t see the same thing twice,
As Mondrian knew.”[iv]

mondrian4
Piet Mondrian
“Composition (No. 1) Gray-Red”
1935
Oil on canvas
22 5/8” x 21 7/8”
The Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago

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.
Simple enough.
Destruction takes place at the point of maximum awareness.
Orate sine intermissione, St. Paul instructs.
Pray uninterruptedly.
The gods and their names have disappeared.
Only the clouds remain.

Meanwhile, the swallows wheel, the bat wheels, the grackles
begin their business.
It’s August.
The countryside
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]

mondrian5
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Red and Blue”
1933
Oil on canvas
16 1/4” 13 1/8”
The Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection
Museum of Modern Art, New York

 

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]

mondrian6
Susan Rothenberg
“A Golden Moment”
1985
Oil on canvas
54” x 48”
Collection of Eli and Edythe L. Broad,
Los Angeles, California

 

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.

mondrian7
Piet Mondrian
“Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (unfinished)”
1934
Oil and charcoal on canvas
21 7/8” x 21 7/16”
Deutsche Bank Collection,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

“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.

GIORGIO MORANDI AND THE TALKING ETERNITY BLUES

Amongst painters and printmakers, there is a great deal of admiration for the work of Giorgio Morandi.  Even from artists whose work does not necessarily look like a Morandi, there is still a genuine interest in and respect for this work and its subtle power.  Many artists often observe that he is a “painter’s painter” in the very best sense of these words.

morandi
Frank Gehry
“Winton Guest House”
1982-1987
Wayzata, Minnesota

However, I was later surprised to discover that many other professions share this admiration, including several poets and even one contemporary architect, Frank Gehry, whose Winton Guest House echoes several Morandi still life forms.  And let us not forget the Italian surrealist filmmaker, Federico Fellini, and his references to Morandi’s work in the classic film “La Dolce Vita!”

morandi2
Federico Fellini
Film still from “La Dolce Vita”
1960
Featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, et al.
Cineriz/Pathe Consortium Cinema

Earlier this year, on a visit with family and friends in Florida, I happened upon the Vero Beach Book Center hosting a reading by the Poet Laureate of Indian River County, Sean Sexton.  He also mentioned Morandi in several instances:  both his paintings and his etchings.  When I asked him about his interest in Morandi this is how he responded:

“The poem ‘Disparate’ lays out my visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Morandi show . . . and observations from a noonday repast in the cafeteria, just a flight of stairs down out of the show. . . . The works collectively comprise something so completely outside convention and the sources that inspired them and succeed in what they present as a whole.”[i]

morandi3
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1956
Oil on canvas
Private Collection, Switzerland

“Disparate”
“The girls in the museum cafeteria titter in
pleasant gossip, coiffed and garbed alike
in gold, cashmere, and silk.  Each face keeps
the same joy in this holiday escape from dailiness,
as their secret society, founded upon commiseration,
excludes a Venus in synthetic leopard wrap the next
table over, her long, raven hair mussed as if
she’d just stepped from a baroque bedchamber.
She has nothing to say to them (nor do they ask),
but sits attending an old, blind Tobit and his
wife sipping water and taking a frugal repast.

Morandi’s lonely bottles hang in galleries upstairs,
paintings in lush pink butter and almond paste,
and the most exquisite greys in art.  On a wall placard
is a quote from his ending days:
“If only you knew Longhi, how badly I want to work,
I have so many ideas I wish to develop…”
In quiet and solitude he kept at his métier, sharing
the family apartment with his three unmarried sisters,
seeking only the recognition of his peers—the leering Chardin,
rag tied round his bespectacled head, stolid Piero, mercurial
Caravaggio, and the intractable, enraptured, Cezanne.”[ii]

morandi4
Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin
“Self-Portrait with a Visor”
c. 1776
Pastel on blue laid paper, mounted on canvas
457mm x 374mm
The Art Institute of Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois

Several years ago at the Butler University Visiting Writers’ Series I heard the poet Charles Wright read from his work.  I was impressed with the range and depth of his work, and especially several of his remarks mentioning both Piet Mondrian and Giorgio Morandi, two of my own personal favorites.

Giorgio Morandi’s work is often difficult on many levels.  For first time viewers it is so simple, even mundane, that they wonder what is the big deal?  For the experienced viewer, they become more complicated, utilizing formal devices and placement to create subtle but powerful tensions.  And for others, perhaps only painters and poets, these pieces become mystical.

This is such a powerful element in his work, that in one recent five-year period (from 2004 to 2009) there were three major exhibitions in celebration of his work:  at both the Metropolitan Museum[iii] in New York, the one Sean Sexton mentioned above, and the Phillips Collection[iv] in Washington, DC, and a small but highly successful presentation at the Lucas Schoormans Gallery, also in New York.

In the catalogue for that exhibition, Schoormans wrote:  “At first glance, the works may appear quiet, contemplative, but once the viewer engages with them, one realizes that they are anything but.  Instead, it becomes apparent that they seem to affirm only one thing:  that nothing is certain, and permanently subject to change.  Embracing this message, Morandi presents the viewer with endless variations, at times with the subtlest of shifts in tonal values and composition, and thereby he becomes the architect of a world as finely calibrated and rigorously constructed as any great work of art, or perhaps a piece of music – think Bach’s Well Tempered Piano:  a monumental under-statement, of riveting and stimulating beauty that allows us a notion of the sublime.”[v]

“Giorgio Morandi and the talking eternity blues”
“Late April in January, seventy-some-odd degree.
The entry of Giorgio Morandi in The Appalachian Book of the Dead
Begins here, without text, without dates—
A photograph of the master contemplating four of his objects,
His glasses pushed high on his forehead,
his gaze replaced and pitiless.”

morandi5
Herbert List
“Portrait of Giorgio Morandi”
B&W photograph
1953
Collection of Herbert List Estate,
Hamburg, Germany

“The dove, in summer, coos sixty times a minute, one book says.
Hard to believe that,
even in this unseasonable heat,
A couple of them appearing and silent in the bare tree
Above me.
Giorgio Morandi doesn’t blink an eye
As sunlight showers like sulphur grains across his face.
There is an end to language.

There is an end to handing out the names of things,
Clouds moving south to north along the Alleghenies
And Blue Ridge, south to north on the wind.
Eternity, unsurprisingly, doesn’t give this a take,
Eternity’s comfortless, a rock and a hard ground.

Now starless, Madonnaless, Morandi
Seems oddly comforted by the lack of comforting,
A proper thing in its proper place,
Landscape subsumed, language subsumed,
the shadow of God
Liquid and indistinguishable.”[vi]

morandi6
Giorgio Morandi
“Still Life”
1953
Oil on canvas
8” x 15 7/8”
The Phillips Collection,
Washington, DC.

 


[i] Sexton, Sean; “An Artist’s Statement” contained in an e-mail to this writer, 10 March 2019, 9:36pm.

[ii] Sexton, Sean; May Darkness Restore; Press 53; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; 2019; p. 32.

[iii] Bandera, Maria Cristina, and Renato Miracco; Morandi 1890-1946; The Metropolitan Museum of Art and SKIRA; New York, New York, and Milano, Italy; 2008.

[iv] Fergonzi, Flavio, and Elisabetta Barisoni; Morandi:  Master of Modern Still Life; The Phillips Collection; Washington, DC; 2009

[v] Mattioli-Rossi, Laura; Giorgio Morandi Late Paintings 1950-1964; Lucas Schoormans Gallery; New York, New York; 2004; p. 3.

[vi] Wright, Charles; Negative Blue; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York, New York; 2000; p. 167.