Mondrian’s Paintings and Their Pulsating Intricacy

The longer I look at Mondrian’s paintings, the more I see in them. This applies to lots of art, but I think Mondrian built real time into his paintings. They unfold with unusual deliberation in a semblance of symmetry and order that is actually precarious, even volatile. This is especially true of his mature works from the late 1920s to the early 1940s, with their tensile fusions of glowing white backgrounds, black scaffoldings and blocks of bright primaries. Everything about them, the tiniest decision, is evident and has visual repercussions.

Once you see the details, they keep everything in motion, including your eye, moving around the canvas along the black bands, into the colors and the whites, to the canvas’s edges and sometimes beyond. When you factor in the yellow pings that can radiate from the black scaffoldings’ intersections — the optical illusions of glowing dots — things become truly complex.

A Mondrian painting is a pulsating totality — object, surface, composition — in a way that relates, perhaps surprisingly, to Jackson Pollock’s allover drip paintings. And Mondrian’s imposition of time on the viewer, which may be a first in Western abstract painting, set the stage for both the visual gyrations of Op Art and the more meditative effects of Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin and Brice Marden, as well as for future generations.

“Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and other Mondrian paintings at the Museum of Modern Art blend symmetry with a tensile volatility. Credit Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times
“Broadway Boogie-Woogie” and other Mondrian paintings at the Museum of Modern Art blend symmetry with a tensile volatility. Credit Mark Kauzlarich/The New York Times

The Museum of Modern Art is a great place to see Mondrian’s art unfold, and especially now — unexpectedly. The Modern has only five of its 16 paintings on view, and instead of dominating a relatively small gallery as they usually do, they are hanging in a large one with 26 works by nine other artists including Picasso, Klee, Giorgio de Chirico, Brancusi and Stuart Davis.

Yet this urbane modernist mash-up is enlivening, and it turns out that less Mondrian can be more. Certainly when the paintings are astutely chosen, as they are here, line one wall, span his maturity and culminate in “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” from 1942-43, the last work completed before he died in New York in 1944 at age 71. They summarize Mondrian’s quest to activate his surfaces and open your eyes, and each painting helps you see the next.

The first, “Composition With Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Gray” from 1921, has no white and is bricked up with beautifully equivocating colors. In contrast, the second, “Tableau I: Lozenge With Four Lines and Gray” from 1926, which is hung as a diamond, is almost entirely white. A mere four black bands of varying widths create a square with three corners cropped by the canvas’s edges. But the square turns the canvas’s real corners into extraneous triangles, the lowest of which is painted a gray so pale you might miss it, except for the title.

The black bands in the 1921 painting sometimes stop short of the canvas edge, leaving a little breathing room for all that color. But in the third painting, “Composition No. II, With Red and Blue” from 1929, some of the bands wrap around the canvas’s edges along with the colors, which are now decisive and saturated. A little like banners sharing one flagpole, two rectangles — one red, one blue — extend from a single black vertical band that runs down the center of the painting; it joins a horizontal band along the work’s bottom edge that has a realness verging on trompe l’oeil.

The fourth painting, “Composition in Red, Blue, and Yellow” from 1937-42, reaches the geometric sublime. Everything happens at once. This is the Mondrian I would most love to live with, in perpetuity. Its scaffolding, dense on the right, open on the left, is alive with pings. Small blocks of red and blue hug the canvas edges and are not totally outlined in black, although the biggest block of color is. Locked into the center, it is yellow, echoing the pings while everything else ebbs and flows around it.

These works lead magisterially to “Broadway Boogie-Woogie,” a near-masterpiece and the start of a phase that Mondrian sadly did not live to explore. He exchanges the black bands for a more extensive network of yellow conduits through which pulse little squares of red, blue and, once again, gray — the pings embodied. In the interstices of the yellow network, blocks of the four colors combine and recombine, forming banners and semaphores, bridging gaps and creating new pathways. The possibilities were clearly endless for Mondrian, and with time, they can become so for us, too.

by Roberta Smith

Source: The New York Times

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