Piet Mondrian, 1942
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Devotees of geometric abstraction this season would be hard put to find a gallery exhibition more impressive than Mondrian and Reinhardt: Influence and Affinity at PaceWildenstein. Borrowing important works from museum and private collections, the gallery offered a tête-à-tête between the seminal modernist and a painter known for his forbiddingly austere canvases. PaceWildenstein has garnered a reputation for mounting museum-caliber shows matching artists whose connection is, at times, tenuous. That commercial considerations play a part in such pairings is understood. Hitching Reinhardt, whose estate the gallery represents, to Mondrian is a gambit designed to enhance the former’s stature. Still, perhaps a specialized exhibition such as this one—which required an eye sympathetic to an often difficult brand of abstraction—could only be attempted by a gallery. If Influence and Affinity was not as provocative as the recent coupling of Bonnard and Rothko, it was first-rate nonetheless.
The question that arises is, What artist who has pursued geometric abstraction doesn’t share an affinity with Piet Mondrian (1872–1944)? The genre itself all but stems from Mondrian, not to mention the fact that he is arguably the greatest abstract painter, geometric or otherwise, of this century. The uncompromising nature of Mondrian’s vision has inspired even those artists whose work diverges stylistically from that of the Dutch master. (William Baziotes, that painter of cryptic biomorphs, considered him a hero.) Yet the school of Mondrian was never as influential as Cubism. Mondrian’s Spartan aesthetic—with its dramatic reduction of pictorial elements—had a finality to it that seemed closed. Yet, it wasn’t entirely. There has been accomplished and important painting by followers of Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism. There were his cohorts in de Stijl, of course, but also underrated American artists such as Burgoyne Diller and Ilya Bolotowsky. One could add Philip Guston during his Ab Ex period and, maybe, the hardedge painter John McLaughlin to the mix as well. Seen in this context, Reinhardt seems as likely a painter as any for bouncing off Mondrian.
Or is he? Although Ad Reinhardt (1913– 1967) was associated with the New York School, he was far from the typical “action painter.” His commitment to a stern geometry is characterized by symmetry and anonymity: no (as the artist had it) “wiggly line” painting here. Reinhardt’s best known—and, in the case of his black paintings, infamous—canvases are closely valued cruciforms that, at first glance, read as monochromes. His rejection of the incidentals of painting, or what Reinhardt thought of as the incidentals, was unyielding. He wasn’t interested in essentializing painting so much as negating it. For some, Reinhardt’s stoicism is imbued with spirituality, as if the more vacant a painting is the closer it comes to God. Yet, given the convolutions of artistic practice since his death, Reinhardt’s hardheadedness is, if not awe-inspiring, then honorable. Reinhardt may have been something of a nihilist, but he never gave up on painting.
What was illuminating about Influence and Affinity wasn’t the colloquy that took place between the two painters, but that such a dialogue never really got started. Put another way, there was less affinity than met the eye. True, both artists pursued a stringent kind of geometric painting. Reinhardt was up-front about the influence of Mondrian on his own work, and the installation stressed the two painters’ stylistic correspondences. But such similarities can be misleading. Placing Reinhardt’s October (1949) near Mondrian’s Church at Domburg (1914) made for a rudimentary kind of sense: both works are in black and white and composed of gridded lines. In their approaches to art-making, however, they are different—indeed, radically so. October’s staccato markings establish an all-over pattern, but the rhythms are less enticing than lulling. In contrast, Mondrian’s charcoal marks are inquisitive, breathing life into the two-dimensional format. For Reinhardt, painting is a matter of filling up a surface; for Mondrian, it is a matter of inhabiting one. This is more than a question of artistic temperament; it’s the difference between an ideologue and a painter.
Ad Reinhardt, 1963
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Reinhardt’s ideology was aesthetic, not political. “Painting in art is not painting,” wrote this self-described dogmatist, his curious prescriptions for art suggesting a sardonic humor absent from his work. Reinhardt predicated each painting on a conception of what it would be, or, more accurately, what it must not be. Aside from the actual process of putting paint to canvas—which can impose its own logic— Reinhardt’s canvases were arrived at before they were physically realized. Such an approach doesn’t discount good painting—it’s the final result that counts, after all. But Reinhardt’s paintings are pure pedantry. Before reaching its maturity, Reinhardt’s approach was less strident: Red Painting and Abstract Painting, Grey (both 1950) have the luminosity of the later red and blue paintings, but also space and a frankly stated brushwork that the later paintings lack. Admittedly, the earlier works display less conviction than Abstract Painting, Red (1952), a typical Reinhardt. One wonders if it isn’t this unswerving conviction of Reinhardt’s, rather than the paintings themselves, that his admirers esteem. In a culture inundated with fashion, who can blame those who look on Reinhardt’s steadfastness with a certain reverence?
Reverence, in this case, is a form of nostalgia, and Reinhardt’s quest for the ultimate painting has a quaint air about it. There is nothing quaint, however, about the work of Mondrian. What was startling about seeing his paintings in proximity to Reinhardt’s was how snappy they were. Again, this is partly a matter of style. Reinhardt’s canvases are dour and theatrical in contrast to Mondrian’s crisp and considered compositions. What painter wouldn’t look like the life of the party next to one of Reinhardt’s black holes? Yet, Mondrian’s mastery made his disciple’s rigor seem more obstinate than usual. What is extraordinary about Composition with Yellow (1930), for instance, is that it’s as fresh as the day Mondrian laid the last brush stroke on it. His geometries may have had Theosophical hocus-pocus as their basis, but Mondrian never lost sight of the concrete imperatives of his chosen medium; painting may have given him a grounding (and a freedom) that metaphysics, ultimately, could not.
Despite its self-imposed limitations, Mondrian’s work was pliable, even playful. As anyone who visited the great retrospective at MOMA a few years back knows, Mondrian never settled for the comforts of mere style. Even in the handful of works at PaceWildenstein, one saw him trying this, trying that—taking chances. One saw it in the press of gravity in the columnar mid-section of Composition No. III, White-Yellow (1935–42) or in the way a red square surreptitiously slips behind the scaffolding of Composition with Red, Blue, Yellow, Black and Grey (1922). The results of Mondrian’s discerning attention to the dynamics of composition were precise, as well as quirky—a quality unknown to Reinhardt. Asymmetry did not suit the younger artist’s vision. Dynamism had to be jettisoned, it seems, to make way for the greater unity that symmetry provided for Reinhardt.
Symmetry is not in itself boring, but neither does it guarantee a composition that can hold our interest. Having said that, Reinhardt’s oeuvre isn’t without interest. His accomplishment is a real, if narrow, one. The paintings can be reassuring—with Reinhardt “what you see is what you see” over and over again. Their rigidity, however, is as easy to identify as it is to pass by. Mondrian’s paintings, on the other hand, are as audacious as the latest hip-hop hit emanating from a passing car. If this analogy seems farfetched, remember that Mondrian loved jazz; the rhythms in his work can be punchy as well as elemental. His paintings are as alive today as they were in 1922—or, for that matter, as they will be in 2022. This will not be the fate of Reinhardt’s paintings, which have more of a period flavor than his fans would like to admit. “Influence and Affinity” was instructive and memorable, but the dialogue exhibited was really more of a polite disagreement.
© 1998 Mario Naves
Originally published in the February 1998 edition of The New Criterion.
(The New Criterion, February 1998)