The Space of Painting
Professor of Philosophy and
Director of the Program for the Study of the Audiovisual Arts
Louisiana State University
Baton Rouge, LA. 70803a
What follows is the text of a lecture delivered in the Department of Fine Arts at Harvard University in April 1997.
Its oral presentation was replete with slides.
Unfortunately, those images cannot be easily reproduced in print, if only for reasons of copyright.
It seems to me, however, that while readers may not be in a position to appreciate all of the details without the visual images before their eyes, the drift of the argument can be followed through the written text alone. Not only does everyone have some image of Mondrian’s work, if only from its decoration of coffee cups, but the central section of the lecture concentrates on his two most famous paintings, whose reproductions are readily available. Moreover, I would assume that many have seen the retrospective to which the lecture is addressed or at least have access to the catalogue from the show [Piet Mondrian: 1872-1944, Leonardo Arte, Milan, 1994]. I have labelled what would have been the slides in my lecture with numbers that correspond to that catalogue. Note, however, that “(Fig. #)” references pertain to illustrations contained in the Chronology that precedes the color plates, whereas “(Cat. #)” references designate the color plates proper.
I might add that this is the companion to a piece on which I am currently working entitled “Heidegger’s Hole: The Space of Thinking.” The aim of these essays is to think over the relationship between philosophy and art in the name of two historic figures, both of whom offer an opening to the postmodern that has not been exhausted in what we have come to call Postmodernism. This is not simply a question of a return to origins, nor to suggest that what comes after Postmodernism is what came before it. Instead, it is to think what came before after Postmodernism and, as such, of what may be yet to come.
In Memory of Harry Holtzman
I must begin by expressing my gratitude for the invitation to speak with you today and especially for inviting a philosopher into your midst. I do not often have the occasion to discuss Mondrian in philosophical circles, circles that, I think, need to be broken. It is well-known that as early as 1909, in response to one of his interpreters, Mondrian had insisted that the difference between his work and that of other painters lies in “the important relationship between philosophy and art,” presumably, at work in his work. The problem, of course, is to determine just which philosophy is at work in his painting, and at which stage of its development, as well as what we are to regard as the working relationship between philosophy and art.
I will not pretend to be in a position to answer this complex set of questions. I would contend, however, that it is further complicated by the fact that we cannot respond to it simply by consulting Mondrian’s own philosophical writings, but only by exploring that other space of thinking which is his painting. I would insist upon this for at least two reasons. First, while I doubt that the relationship between philosophy and art is ever as straightforward as Mondrian suggests, namely, that his paintings always came first and his writing later, it does warn against the opposite simplification, to which philosophers are prone, namely, that philosophy always comes first and art second, as if the latter could only be an illustration of the former. I am inclined to think that the relationship between philosophy and art – not unlike his view of the relationship between painting and the other plastic arts – is transformed throughout Mondrian’s career. Early on, philosophy does tend to determine his art, whereas the later we get, the more, it seems to me, his painting determines his thinking. In that case, however, there can be no posthumous writings adequate to the paintings on which he was working at his death. Moreover, and this brings me to the second point – a point that I can only mention even though it will determine everything that I have to say – I am of the view that the philosopher with whom Mondrian’s late work may be most appropriately associated is one that he never read or at least never mentions in his writings, even though he was the most famous – some would say, infamous – thinker in Europe during a critical phase of Mondrian’s development. But that is another, and rather long story.
The story that I want to tell today speaks only in the name of Mondrian. And this is fitting, not only because I think that he ultimately drew his philosophy in and from his painting, not from other philosophers, but because much of what I have to say was inspired by the retrospective mounted in 1994 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his death. I was fortunate to have attended both of its American openings, although I would like to concentrate in what follows on its final venue. For only the New York show included both Broadway Boogie-Woogie and the rarely seen Victory Boogie-Woogie, Mondrian’s last – and to hear him tell it – his only paintings. In addition, the exhibition at MoMA contained a mock-up and videotape of Mondrian’s 59th Street studio, including examples of his late Wall Works: those paintings without a painting that, together with Victory Boogie-Woogie, mark the final stage of his career.
My aim is to trace through this opening the trace of an opening that took place late in Mondrian’s work: an opening that not only opened up a new space for thinking, but that ultimately opened his thinking, that is, his painting, to space. In fact, I would like to argue that it opened a new space for painting by exposing what I have, rather ambiguously, referred to in my title as the space of painting. For by the latter I mean to indicate both the space that belongs to painting as well as the space to which painting belongs. My thesis is that Mondrian extended the space of painting, first, as a space within painting in his destruction of the traditional space of representational illusion in the breakthrough to geometrical abstraction. This extension, however, did not stop with the development of an abstract space in its reduction of painting to the picture plane and its pure means of production. Instead, working in the space of abstract painting eventually revealed a new space for painting, opening up the space between the work and the wall as its true space, that is, as the space to which painting itself belongs. This ambiguous space of painting, which spans the difference between the virtual and the real, is the space in which Mondrian came finally not just to work, but to live. It is, I would like to suggest, the space that is exposed in those unnamed works that have come to be called the Wall Works and that, in effect, determine not only the new art but the new life that is proposed in the space of his New York studio.
To arrive at this conclusion of a career of work, we will need to move rather quickly through a span of almost 50 years. I will not presume to be in a position to trace the development of Mondrian’s corpus in such rich and subtle detail as Yve-Alain Bois has done in his essay in the catalogue for the show. Instead, I would like to begin by moving quickly over ground that he has covered far better than I could, highlighting and amplifying certain relevant points. I would then like to go on, in two subsequent sections, to stress what his essay does not, namely, Victory Boogie-Woogie and, in conclusion, the Wall Works. For simplicity’s sake, I would like to organize my overall tracing of Mondrian’s development around one of the most well-known aspects of his painting: his use of the grid. That these structures are well-known does not mean that they are well understood, although they are a convenient theme, given our present concern. For the grid is a sign of space, in fact, it is the very emblem of space in Modernism. Of course, Mondrian did not always paint grids, although one interpreter seems to think that he ultimately got caught in them. We shall see. What I would like to show is that, at the very least, the grid is made to do many things in Mondrian: some that serve its nature, some that subve
rt it, and some that destroy it, as, for example, when it is finally made to dance.
SEEING THROUGH THE GRID
If we are to follow the movement of the grid in its development throughout Mondrian’s work, then we must consider at each stage exactly what work it is designed to do, and how and why it is, in effect, constantly being redesigned. Moreover, we must be aware that there is a time – and space – in his painting both before and after the grid. For Mondrian’s work begins in a rather traditional space (Fig. 2), both with respect to his studio and with respect to the space of painting, which is traditionally regarded as a kind of opening in the wall, as if a window on the world.
A watercolor of the Village Church (Cat. 1) from 1898, however, already depicts something of the tension between two spaces: between traditional linear perspective, whose virtual space offers a representational illusion of what is presumed to be the space of the world, and the flatness of space at the opening of the picture plane, which is indicative of the space of the painting itself. As if to mark the structure of perspectival space, two lines of sight are literally drawn to the church, converging at a point that pulls us off center. Ironically, these paths meet at the theme of the foreground. While the church may stand, technically speaking, at the center of the work, which is marked by a circular window, its dominance has been offset by keeping it in the background of the visual composition. In fact, while the space of the difference between foreground and background is initially set off by the green expanse in front of the church, whose diagonal lines both traverse and produce its optical depth, the grey sky behind the church provides further background, not only for the church, but for the figuration of branches that dominates the upper half of the composition. Consequently, as the eye enters from the bottom and moves to the top of this vertical structure, it is carried from a horizontal band of trees at the foreground by diagonal lines of sight across the green expanse and back into the work, to a second horizontal plane, whose vertical vector draws us up the steeple to the grey sky, which, in turn, pulls the eye forward again, to the complex of branches that configure at the surface of the picture plane, by which they are cropped.
Visually speaking, then, the structure of the opening that the trees provide frames our perspectival access to the church. As is indicated by a poem inscribed on the back, this flat plane of trees remains the orienting theme, more specifically, that ironically marked sapling whose branches reach for the sky in tandem with the steeple. If we had time to analyze this work, I think that we would come to see it, both visually and thematically, as an early indication of what I would call Mondrian’s optotheology. Suffice it to say that it is in a theological respect that we must understand his initial fascination with trees and, in the case in point, the compositional movement that is designed to suggest the divinity of nature in associating the sapling with the steeple. As a visual image of organic structure, the tree stands for a metaphysical order that moves and grows and develops. This should be obvious in the Red Tree of 1908 (Cat. 15), which provides yet another example of the optotheological exploitation of virtual space. Irrespective of its symbolism – including its use of color – what is most notable in this painting is its seemingly impressionistic rendering of the trunk, which is actually without impasto. Its volumetric space, in other words, is sheerly visual and, thus, ultimately flat: a pure optical effect. Later, quite a number of trees will be subjected to cubistic flattening and, finally, to a dissolution of their substantial identity, in works like Flowering Appletree (Cat. 35), where all that will remain is an image of pure growth.
As a sign of life itself, the tree is the symbol of a whole that is constituted through the unity of its parts; parts that, consequently, must operate in accord with a living order that is characteristic of the traditional notion of a natural harmony. Such organic growth provides the classical model of a teleological order: the order of the acorn, which by nature develops into the oak. This natural order belongs to what the tradition called form and to the intelligible movement that unfolds in accord with an essence. In this metaphysical order, the order of Aristotle’s physics, space is measured by the natural movements of the things that occupy it, as the place to which each belongs is qualitatively determined by the formal nature of the thing itself. Such a space is centered around the things that take it up, each enjoying a natural place of its own in the harmonic order through which all are already correlated to one another thanks to their eternal essences. Of course, one may already see this model of a natural harmony beginning to be tracked more geometrically in the Flowering Appletree, as its unfolding from the inside out blossoms from its center into the vertical and horizontal. Nonetheless, if we are to view this geometrical deconstruction of individual form as an unveiling of the life force within the tree, it still signals a commitment to organic order. As such, Mondrian’s trees, as with other acts of “abstraction” in the early years, like his seascapes, would remain abstractions from nature.
The grid will help to begin a phase of absolute abstraction (Cat. 78), just as it will introduce a new sense of order as well as a new sense of space: not that of organic nature but of plane geometry. The interest may still be in movement, but now with an eye to the dynamics of the structure itself, including the optical flickering that occurs at its intersections, which, admittedly, does not do much to conceal its rigidity. It only makes it hard to focus on. Still, from the volumetric space of representational illusion, the grid will lead to and through a planular space which, although flat, is optically kinetic, to, finally, what I would like to think of as the kinaesthetic space of the Wall Works. To arrive at this final movement, to which Victory Boogie-Woogie belongs, we will need to note the specific differences in the spaces that are produced by the grid between, say, 1920 and 1944. And this will require some understanding of the development of Mondrian’s thinking, especially the breakthrough to what he named Neoplasticism.
Mondrian’s grid-work effectively began by using modular grids. It is this modular grid that may rightly be regarded as the emblem of Modernism. As the sign of Cartesian space, it is characterized by its sheerly quantitative features of regularity, uniformity, anonymity, homogeneity, repetition, lack of hierarchy, unlimited expansion and, most of all, its own kind of predetermination. The grid is the sign of a prefabricated order, although not that of a natural harmony but of a mathematical coordinate system. It provides the apriori structure of an empty space that has been released from the things themselves. For Modernism, this is the space of another kind of representation, mental representation, in which space is regarded as a framework that must precede the things that are represented in it if they are to be subject to representation irrespective of their qualitative features. As such, while the grid offer a certain image of relation or at least of coordination, it remains an unresponsive structure, since it can have no essential relationship to the elements that it orders. On the contrary, it must remain entirely independent of them, if it is to provide the underlying order of a stable framework on which their movements can be mathematically plotted.
Early on, Mondrian himself employed the grid as such an underlying and stabilizing structure, to hold the dynamic of his color plane compositions in place, as in his checkerboards (Cat. 83). Around 1920, however, the grid begins to emerge from the background, to become an element within the composition (Cat. 86). At first, it rema
ins impacted with color, but the expansion of non-color areas will soon allow it to open up the space of an otherwise solid picture plane (Cat. 90). As a space opening device, however, the grid begins to serve a rather different function: not as the rigid framework of a preestablished order, but as a structure of openness supplying the space required for what Mondrian will call “primordial relationality.” (Cat. 96) Moreover, in contrast to, say, the Red Tree, the grid offers another type of compositional organization, which is not centric but decentric. (Cat. 85) It would seem to abandon the sort of hierarchy that is required for the isolation of individual form in favor of a decentered overallness that some, like Rudolf Arnheim, have seen as an alternative to the power that the center has exercised in our tradition.
While Neoplasticism clearly requires the overpowering of the center, its emphasis on pure relation depends upon a new sense of compositional order which, as I have argued elsewhere, is neither centric nor decentric but eccentric. Once Mondrian discovers what he will somewhat reluctantly call “the new harmony,” his compositional experiments will all be designed to document this new eccentric order. As such, his geometrical demonstrations, as we might call them, will employ the grid to subvert its modernist character. To show this, however, we would have to distinguish between the modular and the neoplastic grid or, as I would be inclined to say, between the decentric and the eccentric grid. For what Mondrian conceived of as a neoplastic order does not stand for homogeneity, regularity, or repetition, and least of all for a preestablished harmony. Instead, it ultimately stands for the pure relationality that pertains to the interplay of difference, in which each element in a composition uniquely contributes to the overall order without any one taking control. This requires the exclusion of a static and dominating center, without, however, resulting in what Arnheim describes in Mondrian’s work as “a swarm of anonymous equals populating the picture plane.” Were we to look carefully at what is regarded as his first neoplastic painting (Cat. 88), both the undermining of the uniformity of the modular grid as well as the emergence of the visual identity of individual elements would be evident.
I would like to glance, instead, at another critical strategy that is indicative of Mondrian’s subversive use of geometry: the exclusion of the diagonal to mark a center. The 1929 Composition (Cat. 123) is part of a series whose structural deviations are all similarly designed to overpower the center. In this case, the perfect geometrical figure, a square, has been subverted by filling it with imperfect rectangles. The result is that no intersection of the grid will fall on the diagonals of the square, rendering the presumed center of the square – normally invisible, although no less dominant – categorically irrelevant to the composition. Moreover, if we look to a variation like Composition II (Cat. 125) from 1930, it should be clear that this overpowering of the center has not been achieved by abandoning the uniqueness of the compositional elements in favor of a decentric overallness. Instead, each element has its own role to play in dynamic relation to the others, each appears in what Mondrian would call “mutual equivalence,” just as each is granted its uniqueness only in relation to the others and, in fact, in its changing identity in relation to them. For there is no single composition at work here so much as a dynamic balancing and cobalancing of a complex of compositional variations, as different elements emerge and submerge in their always relative apparence. This, of course, is precisely what the series serves to demonstrate, although these various compositional configurations are essential to the dynamic of each composition as well. Each painting is subject to multiple readings, in which different elements come to dominate, although never absolutely, in so far as there can be no final compositional order in the form of a single dominant reading. Instead, each compositional configuration is inherently unstable as it has been designed to contain subversive elements that send it over into other possible readings.
The point is that Mondrian ultimately found another way to resolve the traditional dualism between the individuality of the part and the universality of the whole, neither by abandoning hierarchy in a mere coordination of elements nor by submitting to hierarchical stabilization through the permanent dominance of some single element, but by working with the phenomenological appearance of the components of a visual composition to create a dynamic relation of interdependence between them. His neoplastic order requires the achievement of a constantly shifting equilibrium between the elements of a composition, a kind of reciprocating hierarchy of mutual subordination that allows each compositional component to emerge in its own complex identity as it is codetermined within a whole that is itself constituted in the interplay between those elements that are codefined within it. In the visual dynamic of the appearance of their parts, these harmonic wholes are compositionally derived from the ambiguous and unstable relations that allow individual elements to emerge out of the literal interchange of their always relative difference, but never such that any one is able to take control of the work. For only in mutually defeating the dominance of one another can the parts appear, and in differing ways, in relation to a whole that is itself shown to be composed, not in accord with a preestablished order but in the complex of relationships that are on-going between the elements themselves.
Of course, one might insist that this mutual co-appearance of elements in the movement of their dynamic exchange is, nonetheless, centered around a stabilizing grid. There can be no doubt that Mondrian was entranced by the figure of the grid, although, I would like to think, as a sign of openness. Works like Fox Trot (Cat. 120) help to make this clear. It suggests an open structure that is not subject to repetition, and one whose own eccentricity is, if nothing else, secured by the differing thicknesses of the lines that form it. Moreover, its grid is designed to open up the space between the inside and the outside of the painting, as it raises the question of the relationship between the work and the wall. Not only does the lozenge itself suggest its suspension on the wall, in part, by distinguishing the ground of the picture plane from the image by setting them out of line through rotation, but a grid that is cropped by the edge plays with its openness to the wall. The irony of the open closure of the painting’s edge is here further emphasized by a ziggurat frame which Mondrian has designed, reversing the traditional bevel and pushing what remains an absolute image forward into the world. And yet, for all of its apparent openness, we might well agree that the classical repose of the grid here risks a certain static dominance, especially since it stands alone on a white ground, which, while inviting a relation to the wall, no longer sets its black lines in dynamic opposition to color planes.
Mondrian himself always thought of the grid as a figure of the most extreme dynamism, in fact, as the first sign of dynamic relations, built, as it is, on the fundamental opposition between the vertical and the horizontal – the opposition that he refused to mediate with the use of diagonals – just as the grid normally changes its appearance with the compositional variations of a work. If he began in the early 20s to cultivate the grid as an element of its own, freeing it from its submergence between the density of color planes through the introduction of non-color areas, leaving room for space and relationality, he was eventually led to the other extreme: to the graphic works that he would concentrate on in the late 30s and early 40s, in which the line structures become more complex, more relational, and where, in
stead of the grid being dominated by the color planes, color planes are minimally employed to accent the now dominant grid. This process begins, simply enough, from double line drawings in the early 30s (Cat. 137), which are designed to suggest something of the plasticity of the grid itself. This is not just a matter of emphasizing its self-relation, but of the way in which these eccentric frameworks now appear to be determined in relation to the other elements of the composition and, therefore, in dynamic equilibrium with them. (Cat. 135) What I would regard as some of Mondrian’s most elegant spaces are produced by this attempt to display the grid as a responsive structure. These neoplastic structures, however, inevitably become more complex (Cat. 141) and more self-relational, as the multiplication of grid lines increases (Cat. 146), until the exercise in their harmonic spacing could be said to get out of hand. In works like Composition with Blue (Cat. 150), the grid seems to be closing in on itself, gravitating toward a center, where its own figuration literally bars us from the open ground.
Such linear complexity not only reintroduced signs of the dynamism of the structure itself, in the flickering that occurs at its intersections. As these graphic structures get more and more complex, they are bound to be lifted off of the ground, to appear as their own figures. As such, the attempt to neoplasticize the grid begins to invite a new sense of space. (Cat. 151) As the grid comes to figural dominance, distinguishing itself from the ground beneath it, it is suggested not only that it has an opening in it – that it is not a solid plane – but that there is an as yet unexplored space between planes: a space both in front of and behind the grid, into which Mondrian will be able to slip a color plane. (Cat. 155) In this multidimensional space, those color planes need no longer be limited to or by the grid. On the contrary, grid lines will themselves also appear as color planes. (Cat. 156) Moreover, in what we might refer to as the underlining of the grid, where a color plane passes beneath it, the space that is exposed is neither the space of the grid nor of the ground, but a space that has been uncovered between them. Similarly, the overpainting of the grid finds a space above it, projected, as it were, between the grid and the viewer, while still other color planes appear at the same level as the grid, although they are not outlined or confined by it.
This liberation of the color plane from the grid in the double dated paintings – so called because they were begun in Europe in the late 30s and reworked in America in the early 40s – shows, I think, Mondrian struggling with and for another space, the space, I would argue, that belongs to the new harmony that he has been attempting to clarify. For the monolithic plane of a flat space is no more consistent with a neoplastic order than is the volumetric space of centric illusion. It is this struggle for space that will invite further transformations of the grid in Mondrian’s late work: first, in his experiments with both its multiplication and coloration in the New York City series and, eventually, in its deconstruction in his final paintings, in which he was able to bring the dynamic order that he had struggled to display even more clearly to the surface by infusing it into the grid-structure itself, through an explosive return to color after a long period of work in primarily black and white.
While Mondrian’s graphic phase, in concentrating on the framework itself, insists upon its neoplasticity – stressing its relationality and irregularity, showing that it is not a figure of static repose but of dynamic movement, overcoming its anonymity by making each its own eccentric structure – it is at this stage that one might well think of him as getting caught in the grid. No doubt, the progressive transformation of the universal grid into a uniquely irrepeatable, we might even say, individual form is a quite exact expression of the image of order that is developing throughout his career: an order that belongs to the concrete and whose vitality presumably thrives upon it. And yet, many of the double dated paintings give evidence of Mondrian’s struggle to regain a lost vitality. There is at times in them, at least to my eye, an awkward attempt to reintroduce color, including colored grid-lines, to animate the previously black and white structure. Like them or not, what is uncontestable is that nothing in these works is as radical – at least with respect to the grid – as the sense of space that it is made to produce in the New York City series (Cat. 164), with its multistructural lacing: where there is no longer a single grid, a single structure, or a single space. Instead, the flat space that the grid once served to provide is now designed to yield an optical depth that breaks the absolute surface of the picture plane.
We should not be surprising that, in the end, Mondrian would attempt to return to the dynamism that is the lifeblood of his work by attacking the grid, not just through its structural deformation or coloration or multiplication or interlacing, but, in works like Broadway Boogie-Woogie (Cat. 165) and Victory Boogie-Woogie (Cat. 166), by deconstructing the grid lines themselves, composing them of color planes, such that the structure itself is reformed in its very nature. And there is good reason to look to these last two works as the consummate development of Mondrian’s career, since, to hear him tell it, they may, in a strict sense, be his first “paintings” after the decades of grid-work. Less than a year before his death, Mondrian wrote to James Sweeney that “only now am I conscious that my work in black, white and little color planes has been merely ‘drawing’ in oil color.” In the letter to which this postcard was addressed, he singled out his most recent work as still seeking to achieve the aims presumably not yet fully accomplished in those earlier “drawings”:
In my paintings after 1922 I feel that I approached the concrete structure I regarded as necessary. And in my latest pictures such as Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie the structure and the means of expression are both concrete and in mutual equivalence …
The great struggle for artists is the annihilation of static equilibrium in their paintings through continuous oppositions (contrasts) among the means of expression. It is always natural for human beings to seeks static balance. This balance of course is necessary to existence in time. But vitality in the continual succession of time always destroys this balance. Abstract art is a concrete expression of such a vitality.
Many appreciate in my former work just what I did not want to express, but which was produced by an incapacity to express what I wanted to express – dynamic movement in equilibrium. But a continuous struggle for this statement brought me nearer. This is what I am attempting in Victory Boogie-Woogie.
We may take 1922 to mark the date of the liberation of the neoplastic grid, after which Mondrian would never paint a painting without one, except, perhaps, in his final work. For there can be no doubt that what is most distinctive about these last two pictures is the way in which the grid begins to disintegrate in them. It is, as Mondrian would say, neutralized, as its own eccentric relationality is exposed in a way in which it has not been before, as the once impenetrably solid black lines come to be composed of color planes. As such, the structure itself gives evidence of the dynamic movement that earlier characterized the liveliness of the color plane compositions, although the movement is no longer between the grid lines, but of them. Rather than appearing as a static, independent, self-contained or merely self-relational element, the eccentric grid is now subjected to the compositional dynamics of appearance and disappearance that lend to it an essential vitality. Its own appearance, like any other element, is shown to depend upon t
he same dynamic at work in the composition as a whole. Most importantly, this has resulted in the fact that, in Victory Boogie-Woogie, the figure of the grid itself, as a sign of order, is depicted by a means of expression that shows it in the process of formation: as if the structure were itself forming out of the on-going relations at work throughout the work as a whole.
Such a depiction of the grid is made possible by the fact that Mondrian is no longer merely drawing: that he has abandoned the solid line and found his way back to the color plane. In his retrospective reading of his own corpus, however, he seems to be worried that we are likely to misinterpret the linear drawings, as if, from his present vantage point, they appear to be inherently misleading; indeed, as if the bulk of his career was in danger of being interpreted precisely in terms of what he did not want to express. What he wanted to show all along was dynamic movement in equilibrium, not a static or rigid order but the vitality of life itself, even though he admits that this may not be altogether visible in his earlier work without a certain rereading of it in view of these later developments. If only in his “latest pictures…the structure and the means of expression are both concrete and in mutual equivalence,” then the “continuous struggle for this statement” apparently required the eventual breakdown of the image of order that the grid-structure would seem to be providing. In that event, Mondrian’s years of grid-work would have to be viewed as a series of studies, as he himself suggests, as drawings for the paintings that he would only eventually accomplish, as if he had been diagraming the nature of this new order, literally drafting studies throughout his career, and in a strange kind of graphing through the grid itself.
In his last works, Mondrian would continue to redesign the grid, working to destroy its static dominance by demonstrating how dynamically formed every framework is. And this is most successfully accomplished, I think, in Victory Boogie-Woogie. This unfinished painting is the crowning work of Mondrian’s career, if only in the sense that it may be regarded as the culmination of his work as a whole: the painting to which all of his previous experiments led and in which they are brought together, however incompletely.
In fact, signs of Mondrian’s development are written all over it, as the cumulative character of the painting is evident in its unprecedented quoting of his own earlier work within it. If we look to the top corner, for example, we see there a fragment of the 1929 Composition, a type with which Mondrian was apparently quite intrigued, and that here stands, and precisely in its fragmentary appearance, as the insignia of a new and open-ended order. In turning attention to the lower right, we glimpse a revised version of the original checkerboard, even as, elsewhere, we see the elements that were introduced by the New York City series and Broadway Boogie-Woogie: the coloration of the grid, with its now checkered lines, as well as the introduction of colored rectangles that provide the backdrop for other colored rectangles within them. Throughout the painting, we watch the years of primarily black and white grid-work yielding a radically revised sense of figure and ground in its dynamically cogrounding configurations. The large non-color areas, for example, especially those that dominate down the just-off center, not only advance from a field of color planes but, in their figural dominance, accumulate with respect to one another, only to recede into their own kind of unstable ground for the ambiguous configuration of whatever grid-structure there is. And all of this is just a surface sign of the deep point announced in Victory Boogie-Woogie: that the harmony of the whole, the governing order, is itself a complex accumulation of the dynamic relations between the elements that it orders, even as this work itself appears as the creative consummation of the works that went before.
Returning to the diamond format, which Mondrian had not made use of for some years, works from the start to destabilize the picture plane, leaving it balanced in its suspense on and open to the wall. Of course, it also outrules the invisible dominance of the diagonal, as the corners of the canvas remain on the vertical and horizontal, which lends to the destabilization not just of the overall square, but of the grid that dynamically appears and disappears within it. By contrast, Broadway Boogie-Woogie evokes the stability of the square, as its grid reiterates the edge, indeed, as it tends to collect around the edges to reinforce them. But there is another, more basic reason, why the earlier painting is less dynamic. This first attempt to break down the grid-structure only succeeded in painting it over. While the grid lines in Broadway Boogie-Woogie do come to be composed of color planes, the overall look, nonetheless, remains too homogeneous. In fact, its checkered grid shows the same uniformity that Mondrian had trouble with in some of his earlier color plane work, as the now multicolored grid lines, unlike their black counterparts, are all pretty much the same thickness, while the red, white and blue color planes that accent them tend to be about the same size.
In Broadway Boogie-Woogie, the grid appears to be constructed of solid yellow lines over which a superficial color dynamic has been painted. This results in a transformation of the grid seemingly more radical than its solid coloration in the New York City series, but at the loss of the new space those multistructural works were able to produce. The complexity and ambiguity of Victory Boogie-Woogie, however, allows it to maintain something of the spatial depth that New York City and the double-dated paintings introduced, not through interlacing or over- or underpainting, but thanks primarily to its grid lines decomposing into color planes. The effect this has in Mondrian’s final painting is not only that the grid appears to emerge from, even as it merges with the color plane elements that compose the composition as a whole, but, as such, it does not stand out, as in Broadway Boogie-Woogie, as the dominant figure on a white background. Instead, figure and ground are in mutual equivalence and revealed in their own dynamic relationality, as the field of color planes that forms the emergent grid serves as the ground for the appearance of the non-color areas as surely as those areas serve in return as the equally unstable ground for whatever structure is visible.
If Broadway Boogie-Woogie has not fully achieved the disintegration of the grid, if it has merely accented its solid yellow lines with some red, white and blue color planes, such that its structure does not depict its own identity as based upon its integration as a relational event, then we may still sense the presence of a static order or, at best, the surfacing of an underlying order that has simply been painted over with dynamic relations. In that case, the structure of grid has not decomposed, nor has it been deposed, but, in the semblance of a superficial dynamism, has only masked its dominance. By contrast, in Victory Boogie-Woogie the grid disintegrates as a separately identifiable, independently distinguishable structure of its own. The point of such disintegration is, I am suggesting, the undermining of all but the last vestige of substantial identity, of the monotonous self-sameness of the linear unit, in favor of the clarification of the sort of harmonic integrity that occurs in the differential unity of dynamic relationality. This dissolving of the substance of its structure does not, however, lead to the total disappearance of a framework so much as to the achievement of its dynamic appearance in genuine equity with other elements. In so overcoming its dominance as a deep structure, indeed, in displaying its formation out of the interplay of elements that compose its surface, we begin to discern, though this literal deconstruction of the grid, the nature of an order that doe
s not underlie but first emerges from, even as it is merging with, the compositional elements themselves. Through the ultimate adaptation of its structure, in its neutralization as an independent element, the grid serves as the sign of a improvised order that finally admits to leading its own eccentric life in so far as it is composed in the complex interplay between the elements that are ordered by it, and so lives off of them. Consequently, the grid can no longer present itself with the stability of a substantial and autonomous, let alone underlying framework, but shows up in a tenuous appearance and withdrawal, as the once overriding order, now clearly emerging from the dynamic interchanges taking place between the elements that it orders, is itself seen to be collapsing back into the relation between its parts.
Admittedly, there is no little irony in the fact that the evolution of the grid in Mondrian’s corpus allowed for the documentation of an order whose clarification ultimately demanded the disintegration of the structure itself. This was not a sudden result achieved at the end of Mondrian’s career, but a progressive development worked out through his formal experiments with the grid, as the geometry of its structure allowed him to determine quite precisely the nature of an order that the grid was itself in danger of obscuring. As such, Victory Boogie-Woogie stands for the final triumph that results from long struggle, as it is named to celebrate the victory over totalitarianism – over all absolute power – whether in artistic composition or in politics. In reaching back to the whole of his own work, it is as if Mondrian were attempting to rebalance the inequities in his own corpus, in the only kind of self-portrait that we could any longer expect of him. In these final modulation of its structure, we may sense a kind of organic or, if one prefers, a musical geometry, in which the once rigid framework has yielded not so much a growing as a moving image in the figure of a dancing grid. This musical movement, with which Victory Boogie-Woogie is obviously to be associated, is, of course, not a preestablished harmony, but the rhythm of improvisation, I would be inclined to say, of an extemporaneous order, were our topic time rather than space – both of which, it seems to me, Mondrian opened his work to in the end.
The point just now, however, is that clarifying the grid as a suitable emblem for the not so hidden will of Modernism should not lead us to overlook the fact that the image this structure is finally worked to cast in Mondrian’s painting is not one of control but of compliancy, not even one of opposition but of a literal co-incidence, even if this sign had to be drawn by first eccentrically deforming and, finally, substantially dissolving the figure of the grid itself. In contrast to the rigidity of the Modernist grid, what we would have to think of as Mondrian’s postmodern painting is about pliancy and flexibility, about movement and irregularity, and, finally, about an uncontrollable and ultimately uncontrolling order. For in the open wholes that he composes, all power, whether of the center or of the framework itself, must be yielded in favor of a relational dynamic whose balance results from the elements that it harmonizes coming together to improvise their own ordering in the on-going self-resolution of their free-play. If the grid is a emblem of order, then its explosive disintegration in Victory Boogie-Woogie serves as a sign that no structure is any longer in total control, thus signifying Mondrian’s victory over any and all dominating powers in his work.
BREAKING DOWN THE WALL
Needless to say, Victory Boogie-Woogie was the grand finale of the New York opening. In the space of the MoMA exhibition – the only venue in which it was included – it was placed on the last wall, at the exit, as the culmination of the show. And rightly so. It is, undoubtedly, Mondrian’s crowning masterpiece. But one floor down, on another plane, as it were, as if a supplement to the main exhibition, was the true conclusion of Mondrian’s career: a mock-up of his New York studio, which, I would like to think, shows the space in which Victory Boogie-Woogie belongs. At least, this is where it is in my favorite reproduction of it. (Fig. 26)
It stands on an easel, displayed in a room where there are no longer walls left for such paintings. For the studio walls are now covered with a new kind of work, a painting that has been further, and quite precisely deconstructed, as it is composed by placing – that is, harmonically spacing – cardboard color planes directly on the wall. It is the painting itself that has now given up its substantial identity in favor of its integration in and with the world. This literal disintegration of the picture plane marks a further relinquishment of the absolute space that geometrical abstraction had tried to claim for itself, but it is not an abandonment of the space of painting. On the contrary, I would like to suggest that Mondrian has found the true space of painting to reside neither in the illusion of traditional representation nor in the absolute plane of abstraction, but in the space that has always existed between the work and the wall.
If Neoplasticism is committed to exposing the interplay of difference, then this cannot be limited to the space within the work. It must also reframe the relationship between the work of art and the world. In the Wall Works, the autonomous picture plane has departed, or at least parted, letting the wall into the work in the space between color planes, just as this new openness in painting has admitted the work into the world. It is not, however, a question of abandoning their difference, but of maintaining it in that other space, which is precisely the space of the difference between painting and the world. Like the grid, the material integrity of the painting must in certain respects disintegrate if it is to reintegrate itself in the world as a harmonic event on the wall. And yet, in acknowledging its place, painting is neither dominated by the world nor any longer aims to dominate it. Instead, it paints in a new space between the work and the wall, maintaining the space of painting, but precisely as a painting in the world.
We know that Mondrian had been thinking about the relationship between the work and the wall for most of his career, both in his paintings and their framing as well as in his treatment of the question of the relationship between painting and architecture. The latter issue is one that he would address not only in his writings, but in his experiments with interior design, including in the interiors of his own studios. As such, the wall becomes the site of the question not only of the relationship between art and the world, but of the relationship between the plastic arts; for it is an element that is shared by painting, interior design and architecture, as if the site of their meeting. Nancy Troy, for example, has organized her study of the rise and fall of the De Stijl environment around the struggle for dominance between painting and architecture, although she only touches upon the Wall Works. And rightly so. For the modern answer to the problem of the wall in Mondrian’s earlier work stands in stark contrast to the postmodern opening of space that occurs in the New York studio. In fact, we might track the extraordinary range of Mondrian’s historical development in his itinerary from one studio space to another.
We have come a long way from the 19th century space of the Amsterdam studio. (Fig. 2) As we know, Mondrian arrives in New York by way of Paris and a famous studio there. (Fig 14) It should not be difficult to see its difference from the space of Victory Boogie-Woogie and the Wall Works nor to show that it corresponds in more ways than one to the painting that Mondrian was involved in at the time, namely, in the 20s. As I have indicated, it provides a modern answer to the problem of the wall as well as to the relationship between painting and architecture: it attempts to gain absolute control. Its walls reflect the total mobilization of painting as the self-appointed leader in the culture of pure relations, at war not only with nature but with the culture of form to which architecture is presumed to be committed. If the wall is unavoidable for painting, then painters can at least avoid being relegated to the role of decorating spaces that have been predetermined by architects. To do so, painting must produce its own wall, a solid wall of color planes, which conceals the architectural wall, sealing it out by turning its volumetric space into a visual plane of color relations. And while this strategy presumes to overcome the inherent closure of architecture through the dominance of painting, it only succeeds in producing the totalitarian space of an aesthetic bunker that is effectively sealed from the world.
One reason for this is that its presumed accomplishment is little more than camouflage. To conceal the wall of architecture by filling it with blocks of color actually retains it as the original, albeit invisible frame of painting. If anything, one has expanded its dominance, not to mention onto the floor and ceiling. The rectangular structure of the wall now confines all relations from the start in a six-sided framing of the space of the room. Moreover, the irony of the Paris studio is that in camouflaging the architectural wall, it also camouflages its paintings, as they all but blend into the wall. As such, painting not only becomes invisible, but will apparently be unnecessary, judging from the unrealized proposal for the Salon of Mme. B. It offers the fullest diagram that Mondrian himself provided of such a space. What an exploded drawing from 1926 reveals is a chromoplastic box, whose solid enclosure only has room for the space within it. It is, perhaps, not unfitting that when it was finally constructed in 1970 in the Pace Galley, it was executed in formica.
It goes without saying that what is most distinctive about Mondrian’s final Wall Works (Fig. 26) is the way in which they have broken out of the rectangle, and while still working off of the wall, are not limited by it or by the traditional canvas as a predefined space. Their own configurations are quite literally free to move on the wall – and move they did. We may infer from the number of tack holes that in the five months that Mondrian lived with them, they would have operated as their own kind of moving images. Be that as it may, if the relationship between the work and the wall is now determined in the neoplastic difference between them, then this further revision of the space of painting not only yields a new kind of work. It also exposes a new wall, and one that is as subject to deconstruction as painting has proven to be.
The Wall Works not only open the work to the wall, but are designed to open up the wall, overcoming its flat and static opacity. As such, they attempt to break down the last bastion of modern painting: the aesthetic wall that has surrounded and grounded it. For the wall has always been part of the apparatus of painting, whose modern vision is achieved by displaying the work itself as a dominant figure on a recessive ground. To maintain the necessary distance, the wall must remain hidden, albeit in plain view. Like the frame, it is regarded as irrelevant to the painting, when, in fact, it is constantly at work establishing the distance between the work and the viewer as well as between the work and the world.
breaking down of this modern wall, which separates us from the painting as it separates the painting from the world, is neither a matter of its demolition nor of painting it over, whether by filling it with color planes or by whiting it out. On the contrary, the wall is admitted to be part of the structure of painting. It is not, however, simply the architectural structure that is at issue, as if the point were merely that paintings needed somewhere to hang; even if there is an explicit undermining of the work as a detachable object. While the absence of a unified material object makes it clear that all composition – whether volumetric illusion or geometrical abstraction – takes place in the phenomenological space between the work and its viewer, the Wall Works draw that viewer into the deconstructed space between the work and the wall, as they seek a new balance not only between color planes, but between those planes and the plane of the wall itself. By exposing yet another space between planes, the wall is allowed to appear within the work not just as a ground for it, but as interceding in the harmonic space between color planes that is now inscribed by the wall itself. In that case, however, these works actually draw a distinction between two walls, distinguishing the space between them by breaking the wall in two. For the wall of painting must be distinguished from the architectural wall if the latter is to be deconstructed from the inside out, that is, from within painting, not by obliterating it, but by uncovering a new space within the wall itself. This can neither be achieved by framing a virtual hole in the wall nor by covering it with paint. Instead, the solid structure of the wall must itself be opened, must be virtualized or, perhaps we should say, visualized, so that it may be plasticized through painting. Like the grid, the wall must be seen through, must be converted into a plastic or, more precisely, a neoplastic wall, if it is to provide a new room in which to move.
The space that is revealed in the various rooms of the New York studio is no longer defined by the walls that belong to architecture, but finally exposes the wall that has always been possessed by painting. Of course, Mondrian had already distinguished the wall of painting from the wall of architecture in the Paris studio, in allowing the one to conceal the other. In so doing, however, he was not in a position to thematize their relationship nor, therefore, to literally open up the painting to the space between. It is as if the wall had to be distinguished from itself, made to reveal another surface, as it is subjected to an interior design that breaks it open from the inside, breaking it down while leaving it standing. In so meeting at the space of their difference, painting is liberated from the dominance of the architectural structure by letting it into the work, but in such a way that painting may claim its share of the wall. And yet, this sharing of the wall also marks a victory over all absolute painting and its attempt to dominate architecture. Previously, the wall had to be kept out of the picture, even if it was implicitly treated within it: in the overpowering of the center, which refuses interior closure and carries the composition to the edge of the painting; with its open edges, that imply expansion beyond them, in part, thanks to the grid, whose lines may be cut off but are not necessarily terminated by the border of the canvas; in the use of the lozenge, which allows the image to remain unconfined by the rectangle, thanks to its eccentric rotation; and, of course, most explicitly, in Mondrian’s inventions of framing, whether in addressing the framing wall of architecture or in the framing of his pictures, both of which had asserted the absolute plane of painting while forcing it into the world.
While I am not altogether unsympathetic with the contention that the studio itself has now become the frame of painting, I am afraid that such claims may incline us toward a traditional notion of the frame as a container rather than as an opening. I am more inclined to conclude that if there is still a framing effect at work here, it is because the painting itself has become a frame. Part of the new balance that these paintings achieve in the open relation between the work and the wall is that each provides a framework for the other, not unlike the figure/ground exchange that we see in Victory Boogie-Woogie. In the case of the Wall Works, however, we can only fully appreciate the radical opening of Mondrian’s painting to space if we understand that they are no longer objects in space, but have themselves become space. As such, these works are without frames not because they are to dissolve into the wall, but because Mondrian has found a new way to resolve the difference between the work and its frame by turning the works themselves into harmonic openings of space. This, of course, would mark the consummate achievement in a career that has been attempting all along to turn the frame inside out, as Mondrian has finally converted the work itself into an open framework of and for the space of the world.
Admittedly, it is quite a bit easier to think about the geometry of the grid than about the topology of a painting whose frame is on the inside, that is, whose relation to the outside is explicitly distributed throughout and across its complex surface. In fact, certain of these painting are, if anything, more open to the outside at their inside than they are at their own periphery. This is because their outer limit, which is, in some sense, without an edge, nonetheless forms an overall configuration on the wall that determines a regional closure of space. By contrast, the informal edges, as it were, those inside of the work, more clearly frame the space of the wall by providing a structure for its appearance within the work. It is as if the open edge that previously stood at the threshold of painting’s relation to the wall has been inserted into and throughout it and is now inscribed not only on but through the wall itself, in fact, in the space where the grid used to be. The effect is neither to push the work out into the world nor to contain it within a frame. For these paintings are neither objects in space nor do they contain space. Instead, they frame space as an opening; to be precise: as a harmonic event. Thus, they delimit a space without a borderline as they have literally drawn their lines in space, even as their overall configuration is formed at an outside without edges. As such, they are free to let space in – and out – creating an opening whose freedom of movement occurs in the constant transition between the work and the wall, thanks to a dynamic framework that opens the inside to the outside, generating a new surface of space by repeatedly converting the one into the other, without, however, obliterating their difference.
Unlike the Paris studio or the Salon of Mme. B, the Wall Works make room for more than the space within them. Thanks to their complex topology, they are able to convert the architectural wall into the space of painting by framing it within the work, but as a wall that painting is no longer in a position to dominate. Nor can the painting simply blend into the wall, if it is to generate a space of its own. If the grid has been a sign of this space, then a trace of it may be thought to remain in the spacing between color planes, but precisely in the network of what I have called informal edges: at the outside that is formed within the work as belonging to it. In that case, now, more than ever, the grid appears – or, perhaps we should say, disappears – quite literally, as an open structure of space. Of course, we must insist that the space at issue here is not simply a matter of the interval between color planes that would have previously been filled by grid lines; nor can space any longer be represented by the grid, least of all as the colorless ground between or behind its black lines. Instead, the parting of the picture plane here traces the design of a space that can no longer be
drawn with a solid line – or, for that matter, with a dotted line of color planes. For it exposes an opening that can only be painted, a space of pure relations, from which the solidity of both line and form have been excluded, and it proposes it as the true space of painting: the harmonic space of color planes composed in relation to one another in relation to the wall.
This unique space, which the Wall Works are designed to create, is neither the volumetric space of architecture or sculpture nor is it the supplementary space of film or what we today call virtual reality. If anything, it approaches the space of interior design, as these paintings are to provide an inhabitable space, although one that is neither aesthetic nor merely kinetic, but virtually kinaesthetic. And yet, while painting is shown to be in a position to produce a distinctive space, it is not, despite appearances, any longer demanding a room of its own. On the contrary, the space of painting – not only as the space that belongs to it, but as the space to which it belongs – is shown to be generated in an open relation between the arts. It is little wonder, then, that in seeking a new order, including of the arts, Mondrian would associate his painting not only with the traditional plastic arts, but with music and dance, that is, with an environmental design that attends to the beauty of our own movement in and through the world. Such beauty can no longer be confined to the picture plane, nor does it belong to another world, neither beyond the clouds nor within the frame. Nor can the movement involved in it be a mere traversing of aesthetic distance in a stationary gaze across the room. In the neoplastic environment of Mondrian’s last studio, the eye dances with these unframable events that celebrate painting, not as an opening in space but as the opening of space, through which we may become engaged in the movement of a living beauty.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]