Victor A. Grauer

5559 McCandless Ave.

Pittsburgh, PA 15201







                                                 Mondrian and the Dialectic of Essence

                                                               by Victor A. Grauer


            The current ascendancy of the postmodernist viewpoint has led to interpretations of modernism which, to the present writer, are misguided and misleading.  Nowhere has the critical process been more unfortunately oversimplified than in the case of Piet Mondrian, one of the key figures of what can be called "classic" modernism.  The artist/theoretician who strove so intensely to overcome the limitations of late Romantic subjectivism has been painted as himself a Romantic idealist, a purist seeker after "essence" who turned his back on reality to pursue an esthetic of "significant form" as model for a super-Platonic, essentially totalitarian, Utopia.  This assessment is of course fully in line with the currently fashionable notion of modernism as an elitist fantasy of mastery and control.

            I will attempt, in these pages, to correct the currently accepted view, not by confronting, as I have elsewhere,[1] what I regard as the bad faith of the postmodernist critique of modernism, but, in a less argumentative, more methodical spirit, doggedly retracing and re-examining the development of this remarkably complex artist and thinker.  Central to my position is the notion that Mondrian's work, all his work, is characterized by a powerful commitment to the spirit of realism (not abstraction) coupled with a prophetic awareness of the problems posed by what today would be called the "ideology" of the representational process.  Ultimately, I hope to demonstrate, in the face of the accepted wisdom of the time, that Mondrian's modernism is an achievement to this day still new and little understood.

            I should add that my approach is informed by a theoretical position I have outlined in another publication,[2] a position which in turn owes a great deal to the work and thought, as I have understood it, of the subject of this essay.  No prior knowledge of my theory is expected of the reader in what follows.


A. The Essence of Disruption

            For me, a major problem with the postmodernist view generally stems from a difficulty over the notion of "essence."  Clearly Mondrian, throughout his mature existence and with every fibre of his being, as both artist and thinker, pursued "essence."  What makes him so utterly remarkable, however, is the very special and totally original nature of the "essence" he discovered during the course of this pursuit.  To fully grasp the special nature of this extraordinary achievement and its meaning for our understanding and appreciation of modernism generally, we will need to loosen ourselves as much as possible from both postmodernist and modernist dogma to re-examine certain crucial aspects of his artistic development and rethink the meaning of some of his all too easily misconstrued theoretical writings.

                                                                  The Tree Series

Mondrian's earliest paintings, dating from the 1890's, fuse a stark but conventional naturalism with the Dutch landscape tradition.  From 1900 through 1907, his work reveals various influences, ranging from Van Gogh and Gauguin to Edward Munch and the Fauves.  1908 is generally regarded as a turning point in his career, the beginning of a systematic development that was to continue till his death in 1944.

            The crucial early stages of this development can be traced through a remarkable series of paintings involving an obsessive image: a solitary tree.  This series has already, of course, gained attention for its apparently systematic, almost seamless progression from realism to abstraction.  More to our point, in the present context, is the way Mondrian has here also left an extended meditation on the iconographic sign.

            The series begins in 1909 with two rather conventionally naturalistic studies of a particular, carefully observed, tree, its trunk leaning heavily to the right.[3]  These lead to the highly expressionistic Red Tree,[4] very much in the spirit of Van Gogh, but with even more intensified color.  The tree is red striated with blue, on a blue background.  Barren of leaves, the intricate network of branches stands out against the background as a dense interplay of expressively curving lines.   Three more "portraits" of the same tree, dating from 1909-10, are progressively more simplified and expressively symbolic.[5]  The culminating work, called the Blue Tree, is a highly schematized dark silhouette with branches radiating out from the center.  This design, combined with the intensity of the color, gives the tree a flamelike aspect.  The overall effect is highly symbolic, as though the tree were being fragmented and consumed by its own life force. 

            In semiotic terms, this early sequence progressively fragments and schematizes the lower level articulations (signifying the highly individualized branches) in such a way that every element ultimately becomes totally subordinate, on the highest level, to a single, dominant, paradigm (the tree as a whole).  Exhibiting techniques already common in Symbolist pictorialism, a painting like The Blue Tree thus disrupts iconographic realism only for the purpose of dramatizing and intensifying a "higher" meaning.

            If we define the icon as "the sign which resembles," we must note how this sequence moves progressively from a true iconism (embodied in the initial, "naturalistic" attempts to render the tree in its unique individuality) to a largely conventional symbolism in which the tree becomes a universalized emblem, not many steps removed from the arbitrariness of the linguistic signifier.

            When Mondrian first saw Cubist paintings, probably in 1911,[6] their reductivist, analytic fragmentations undoubtedly reminded him of his own efforts in a similar direction.  Unlike the Futurists, however, who also must have discovered Cubism in 1911, the Dutch artist clearly sensed that the profoundly disruptive Cubist approach was as much a rejection of symbolist rhetoric as photographic naturalism.  That this insight was decisive is essential to an understanding of his mature work.  It is not until the next sequence of trees, unmistakably reflecting Cubist influence, that Mondrian sets out with real authority on the path that will be his consistently from then on.

            For example the painting known as The Gray Tree,[7] from 1911, seems poised midway between the schematized symbolism of the earlier expressionistic works and the analytic disjunctions of Cubism.   Unlike the Blue Tree, which is systematically fragmented according to a controlling scheme, The Gray Tree is fragmented through a studied but decidedly unsystematic process of give and take, based on idiosyncracies of the subject itself.  While it might sound like Mondrian is returning to the naturalistic iconism of the earliest tree paintings, a single glance at The Gray Tree reveals a totally different approach on the syntagmatic level, i.e., treatment of "space."  The earlier works clearly set the tree off from its background in a striking figure-ground relation -- The Gray Tree subjects both tree and background to a thorough fragmentation in which many figure-ground distinctions are lost in webs of Cubistic facetting and passage.

            The controlling forces of the earlier paintings are strongly centric, a property emphasized with each progressive simplification to the point that The Blue Tree presents an unmistakably geometrical gestalt.  The Gray Tree, with its strikingly arcing central trunk and umbrella of middle branches, seems torn between a similarly centric force field and the disruptive effects of Cubist facetting and passage, fusing figure and ground, liberating most of the lines from their sign-function as branches and their consequent attachment to the trunk.  While this work can still be "read" as a tree, no really coherent gestalt unambiguously presents itself.

            Thus from the Gray Tree onward Mondrian's methodical analysis of the image reverses itself.  He is no longer interested in the kind of quasi linguistic fragmentations that lead to hierarchies through synthesis toward ever higher levels of meaning.  On the contrary, he now begins his years long search for the kind of structure that will exactly not sacrifice the idiosyncratic part to the meaningful whole.  This is the only explanation for the enormously cluttered, even ungainly tree paintings of the final phase (1912-13),[8] works whose agglomerations of untamed detail could only be derived from an effort to interrelate the multiple contingencies of raw observation in a manner free from any controlling scheme, iconographic language, even "esthetic" criterion.  These highly disjunctive paintings, in which the tree image is literally pulled to pieces, reach an extreme of close observation and visual analysis rivalling the most hermetic examples of late analytic Cubism.

                                                           Reduction and Resolution

            From 1913 onward, following the example of synthetic Cubism, Mondrian begins to resolve his surfaces.  Complex, tentative, linear interlockings, tentatively adjusted and linked by webs of passage, become relatively simple, precisely and forcefully defined relationships.  Horizontal and vertical lines which remained light and open begin to thicken and link, trapping rectangular planes within.

            By 1918, with Composition With Gray and Light Brown,[9] Mondrian has arrived at the format which will pervade his work until the early Forties, an open, clearly articulated surface, giving the impression of order while, at the same time, lacking any sort of predictable or definable pattern, determined exclusively by intersecting thick horizontal and vertical lines and the rectangles enclosed by them.

            In this and subsequent works, Mondrian has most definitely not, as has been so readily assumed, abandoned a perceptual process in favor of a purely formal one, in the idealistic pursuit of "significant form," but has in fact only intensified his ongoing search for the universal principle behind the Cubist obsession with contingency.  In his realization that such a principle, a universal basis for the disruption of the universal itself, might exist, he goes beyond Cubism, beyond abstraction, beyond semiotics, into completely fresh territory.[10]

            According to Mondrian, "Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries; it was not developing abstraction toward its ultimate goal, the expression of pure reality."[11]  Having thoroughly disassembled it, robbed it of its signifying power and turned it into a simple design element, the Cubists remained fascinated by the visual sign.  Indeed, the witty interplay of abstraction and defused iconographic signification is an important aspect of synthetic Cubism.  Mondrian, on the other hand, clearly saw no point in continuing to dwell on the sign, a now superfluous remnant of a decoded, demystified naturalism.  It was the reality veiled by both natural appearances and semiotic codes, an ultimate truth released for the first time by the same forces that defeat signification, which he wanted to confront.

                                                          Mondrian As Theoretician

Mondrian's notion of an apparently transcendent "pure reality" is one of the truly elusive artifacts in the history of verbalization about art, seeming, as with so many fundamental concepts, to partake equally of the naive and profound.  While Mondrian was by no means as gifted a writer as he was a painter, he left an impressive body of theoretical writings which are both meaningful and consistent, if not always totally coherent.  It is to these writings that we must turn if we wish to understand what he regarded as the "logical consequences" of Cubism.

            Before we proceed, however, a word of explanation is necessary.  Fortunately, Mondrian was a genuine thinker whose researches have produced theoretical works of enormous value.  Unfortunately, Mondrian's ideas are new and complex and his dense, awkward literary style, sometimes verbose and repetitive, sometimes maddeningly laconic, can be extremely confusing.  Moreover, there is apparently no one place where his overall position is presented as a continuous argument -- vital aspects of his theoretical framework are spread out in numerous articles written over a period of more than forty years.  Thus, while it would of course seem virtually impossible to "speak for" Mondrian with absolute authority, some sort of attempt to organize and clarify his thoughts is necessary if we are to come to grips with his radically new message.

            The strategy adopted here will be to carefully pick and choose among various key quotations which in my view contain the gist of Mondrian's theoretical viewpoint.  These statements will be presented in the form of a coherent step by step argument, punctuated by a certain amount of paraphrase and explanation.[12]  What follows, a dogged (and admittedly somewhat presumptuous) effort to construct a coherent theory out of fragments, is the sort of thing that must at least be attempted if our understanding of Mondrian (and modernism generally) is to be rescued from decades of confusion and half truth.

                                                       A Dialectic of Form and Space

            Nature reveals forms in space[13] . . . [yet] forms are part of space and . . . the space between them appears as form, a fact which evidences the unity of form and space . . .[14]  Actually all is space, form as well as what we see as empty space . . . form is limited space concrete only through its determination.  Art has to determine space as well as form and to create the equivalence of these two factors . . .[15]

            Mondrian is speaking generally of the way objects differentiate themselves from the space surrounding them.  Objects are perceived as forms (figures or gestalts) in space (the ground).  Under certain conditions the space between objects (negative space) appears as a form also, indicating an underlying unity which permits the statement "all is space."  Ultimately form may be regarded as "limited space."

            While the limitation of forms could be regarded as a drawback (literally a "limitation"), forms gain concreteness by being limited in a particular way (determined).  Space is unlimited but also undetermined, thus insubstantial.  The task of art must be to determine space and at the same time reveal (create) the equivalence of space and form.  The implied goal is a space which is both determined (concrete) and unlimited.

            The more neutral the plastic means are, the more the unchangeable expression of reality can be established.  We can consider all forms relatively neutral that do not show any relationship with the natural aspect of things or with any "idea."  Abstract forms or dislocated parts of forms can be relatively neutral.[16]

The plastic relations which the artist must use in determining forms or space are veiled in the attempt to render natural appearance.  In order to bring such relations forward, the "natural aspect" must be neutralized.  This involves a process of simplification, reduction and abstraction leading to "flat, rectilinear" forms free from external reference.  Note that in defining the "neutral," Mondrian rejects not only natural appearance but also "any 'idea.'"   He has turned his back on both conventional realism and symbolism.

            [I]t is a great mistake to believe that one is practicing non-figurative art by merely achieving neutral forms or free lines and determinate relations.  For in composing these forms one runs the risk of a figurative creation, that is to say, one or more particular forms. . .[17]

            [I]n relation to the environment, simple forms show a static balance.  They appear as entities separated from the whole.  In order to establish universal unity, their proper unity has to be destroyed: their particular expression has to be annihilated . . .[18]

            After one has neutralized the natural aspect of objects and transformed them into abstract forms, one is still faced with the problem that even the most abstract forms are still perceived statically as forms (or gestalts) within an enclosing space.  The equivalence of form and space will remain unexpressed unless we go beyond neutralization to break up the forms themselves.

Clearly, for Mondrian, abstraction in itself is not enough.  Note also that he invokes two very different kinds of unity:  the "proper unity" of the individual form (and, by extension, the usual type of "unifying" structure that promotes it) is opposed by a completely new kind of "universal" unity that requires the annihilation of the individual form. 

            In plastic art, the static balance has to be transformed into the dynamic equilibrium which the universe reveals. .[19] Non-figurative art is created by establishing a dynamic rhythm of determinate mutual relations which excludes the formation of any particular form . . .[20]

            [Static balance] maintains the  individual unity of particular forms, single or in plurality.  [Dynamic equilibrium] is the unification of forms or elements of forms through continuous opposition.  The first is limitation, the second is extension.  Inevitably dynamic equilibrium destroys static balance .  .  .[21]

            The particular forms, static, limited, must be destroyed through a dynamic process of mutual opposition, which breaks them up and, in so doing, opens them to the enclosing space which is also established in the same process.  This process Mondrian calls "dynamic equilibrium."

            The equilibrium that neutralizes and annihilates the plastic means is achieved through the proportions within which the plastic means are placed and which create the living rhythm.[22]

            Having neutralized and opened form, reducing all elements to a rectilinear opposition of lines and planes, all creative activity centers on the one element as yet undetermined, the plastic relations themselves, which must be made concrete (determined) by specific proportions.  For Mondrian, the proportions must create that living rhythm which is the essence of dynamic equilibrium.

            It is only after a long culture that within the plastic expression of the limiting form, one perceives another plastic expression closely allied with it, but, at the same time, opposed to it.  Art today.  .  .  has succeeded in establishing this plastic expression:  it is the clear realization of liberated and universal rhythm distorted and hidden in the individual rhythm of the limiting form.[23]

            The proportions (rhythms) which annihilate the plastic means, open limited form and make space concrete by determining it precisely, have their ultimate source in the same contingencies ("individual rhythms") which give rise to the particular, limiting form in the first place.  Thus dynamic equilibrium, while in one sense destroying the particular, in another, far more significant, sense preserves it by liberating its vital principle, usually veiled by natural appearance and limited form.  In a sense dynamic equilibrium is this principle, the equivalence of space and form, the universal which resides in the particular.

            Far from ignoring our individual nature, far from losing "the human note" in the work of art, pure plastic art is the union of the individual with the universal.  For liberated rhythm is composed of these two aspects of life in equivalence.[24]

                                                                                    Two Spatial Realms

I have deliberately arranged the above in such a way as to bring out as clearly as possible the process I find essential to the "formalistic" part of Mondrian's theory (his treatment of broader issues will be considered below).  Its crucial moments can be summarized as follows:  1. neutralization of the image through abstraction; 2. the opening out of (abstract) form; 3. proportional determination of the (opened) spatial field.  While apparently a threefold structure, I would argue that it is actually twofold, the second term acting as a hinge between two diametrically opposed realms.

            Step one, while promoting abstraction, remains nevertheless within the realm of traditional perception, the classically gestalt structure of "figure-ground," where forms ("gestalts"), concrete or abstract, are presented against a more or less passive background space.  As I have argued elsewhere, "space" in this sense is the equivalent of syntax, that structure ("tax") which brings together ("syn") -- the ultimate source of all "grammatical" rules.[25]  Forms (or figures) perceived in such a space are a necessary precondition for any sign function, since clearly a sign must exist in a gestalt (figure-ground) context in order to be meaningfully perceived at all.

            Step two, the "opening of form," is the breakup of this pictorial syntagma through the undermining of the gestalt which grounds it.  In, for example, the most complex of the Mondrian tree paintings, the highly differentiated (facetted) canvas is not differentiated along lines that will produce the differences (articulations) necessary for semiosis.  On the contrary, as in analytic Cubism, any meaningful articulation that might be produced by such facetting is immediately cancelled by erasures (passages) which open normally forbidden channels between contiguous forms to obliterate difference.  Thus any possible sign/gestalt is destructively opened to the overall space in a process of perpetual deferral of meaning (not unrelated, it would seem, to Jacques Derrida's "differance"[26]).

            Thanks, therefore, to the transformation effected in step two, the "spatial field" of step three is profoundly different from that of step one -- we have progressed from the virtual, syntactic space of traditional pictorialism and conservative modernism to something radically new:

                                                                A New Proportion

            Ultimately, for Mondrian, the "logical consequences" of Cubism, the "expression of pure reality," are intimately connected with the "dynamic," "liberated," "universal," "rhythm of determinate mutual relations," that "living rhythm" "achieved through the proportions within which the plastic means are placed."  One might go so far as to say that the thoroughgoing process of reduction and simplification, so evident in Mondrian's work from the second set of tree paintings to the rectilinear abstractions of the Twenties and beyond, is guided by an increasingly conscious need to clarify these proportions and bring them into the foreground of the viewer's awareness.  Ultimately proportional determination becomes equivalent to the creative act itself.

            What, we must now ask, is the basis for this proportional determination?  A great deal of confusion has arisen from the common tendency to associate the rectilinearity of Mondrian (and late Cubism) with geometry.  In such a context, any reference to "proportions" implies some sort of systematic, even mechanical procedure.  This kind of thinking has led to completely misguided speculations regarding Mondrian's employment of geometrically derived proportions.[27]

            Such speculations are totally incompatible with the developmental process revealed in our analysis of the "tree" series.  It is the perspective system, thoroughly undermined by the Cubists, which is dependent on geometry.  Cubism begins as a reaction against any such systemization, a return to direct observation of contingencies.  Similarly, Mondrian's work, from the second set of tree pictures through the works of 1914, derives its proportions from careful observation of "individual rhythms" as manifested in a particular tree, building facade, etc.  After 1914, having ceased to depend on an external model, he does not then suddenly take up geometry, but clearly proceeds on the basis of the same principle that he had sought in the earlier work.  The extreme reductionism of his later paintings, their avoidance of any form of symmetry or regularity, their dependence on the rectilinear opposition of vertical and horizontal lines, can be regarded both as manifestations of this principle and, in a more subtle sense, clarifications of the sort that will permit the principle more readily to manifest itself.

            Mondrian had explained to a young colleague, Charmion von Wiegand, "that he did not work with instruments nor through analysis, but by means of intuition and the eye.  He tests each

picture over a long period by eye:  it is a physical adjustment of proportion through training, intuition and testing."[28]  To this can be added the testimony of Harry Holtzman, an intimate friend:  "Mondrian's painting method, which he called 'pure intuition,' was the direct approach, by trial and error, to the given space of the canvas.  There were no a priori measures of any kind, there was no 'golden section.'  He also called it 'pure sensuality.'"[29]

            In the light of Mondrian's writings, which continually stress the importance of objectivity and precision, such statements can seem disappointing.  The artist who works intuitively, making crucial decisions by eye, seems the very type of subjectivist whose outlook Mondrian rejected.  The contradiction is resolved only when we grasp the full extent of the dialectic involved.  Within the context of traditional pictorial syntax, the intuitive perception of the artist functions as a vaguely defined subjectivity operating in relation to a highly defined and objective overall controlling system, that pictorial "language" which finds its culmination in scientific perspective.  With Mondrian, not only is any such system opposed, but all the factors contributing to this opposition are ultimately reduced and clarified to the point that their guiding principle can be evaluated directly and completely by eye.  In such a context, intuitive perception functions objectively and with precision.

            This totally new situation would seem to throw theory into a crisis.  In the complete absence of system (functioning either as a structural determinant or an object of resistance), in a context where the eye of the artist is the sole criterion of value, there is apparently nothing at all of a concrete nature to be said about that "dynamic rhythm of determinate mutual relations," that "dynamic equilibrium" which is the ultimate product of Mondrian's search for the universal principle residing in the particular.

                                                                   Open Structure

Given the finality of the above conclusion, respecting always the fact that the precisions of any given Mondrian painting can ultimately be neither explained nor even stated (in words), it is still possible, nevertheless, for theory to speculate regarding the conditions satisfied by such precisions.

            Basic to Mondrian's "classic" works (dating from the period 1925 through, roughly, 1939) is the manner in which their rectilinear lines and planes "annihilate" (to use Mondrian's term) each other.  In other words, the proportional relations of both (we must remember that Mondrian's lines are thick enough to carry planar weight and often vary in thickness) are such that no element is present as a figure against a ground, no gestalt emerges.  While technically the lines contain rectangles, these do not come forward perceptually as isolated forms.  Neither does any particular configuration of lines come forward.  Most important, the total design, thoroughly non-centric, does not form a gestalt, but remains open to the space around it.

            The whole is therefore not greater than the sum of its parts.  Each part, clearly differentiated (by shape, position and, more rarely, color) from every other part, is nevertheless equivalent to every other part and to the whole.  While each element is clearly articulated, non is rigidly circumscribed‑‑all is in flux.

                                                              The Seeing of Seeing

The evolution of Mondrian's work and thought may be compared with the preliminary simplifications of Euclid or Descartes, leading backwards toward that which can have no other basis than intuition itself: the axiom.  But there is a profound difference between conceptual and perceptual intuition, between the geometrical or logical axiom, which Mondrian unquestionably rejected, and the completely new kind of "axiom" embodied in his mature paintings.  The axioms of Euclid and Descartes can be stated as propositions.  Those of Mondrian, as we have seen, cannot.  His ultimate decisions regarding the precise proportions (and, of course, colors) of any given canvas must be regarded as "axiomatic" (thus, in some sense self‑evident) to the eye alone.  By this I do not mean either the "empirical" eye of science or the "logical" eye of geometry or even gestalt psychology, but, to use Mondrian's own term, the "sensual" eye of purely sensory experience.  This unveiling of the "perceptual axiom" at the heart of "the universal which resides in the particular" confirms what we may call sensory determination as the ultimate goal, not only of Mondrian's "completion" of Cubism, but the long evolution of realism as well.  Sensory determination ‑‑ this phrase must be understood in two ways, both of which are equally valid in the present context:  determination by means of the senses; determination of the senses.

            Mondrian's progressive reductionism is a journey to the heart, not simply of "realism," painting or artistic experience, but vision itself, for the first time liberated from the totalizations of thought.  His "classic" canvasses, not simply through abstraction, but by destroying the figure-ground relation itself, liberate vision from meaning, freeing visual perception to be experienced more or less completely in its own terms.  Proportional determination, originating as the disruption of the sign, achieved by means of sensory judgement, is thus equivalent to determination of the senses.  In this light, the "spatial field" of step three must be regarded both as the surface and the perceptual field (what I have called elsewhere the "negative field"[30]).  In determining such a "space" Mondrian is determining this field, articulated (brought into existence) on the painted surface, where it may be said that seeing itself is made visible.

B. The Disruption of Essence

            If the above might encourage us to characterize Mondrian as the coldest of the cold objectivists, it must also be acknowledged that the work of few artists has been permeated with a warmer subjectivity.  The Romantic, indeed Expressionist, element which so obviously pervades his earlier paintings is still, in fact, strongly present (albeit greatly transformed) in the later.  We must seek out the meaning of this apparent contradiction and deal with the very serious misunderstandings to which it has given rise.

                                                  Mondrian and the Romantic Tradition

In his influential book, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Robert Rosenblum isolates a  predominantly North European tradition of nature‑mysticism.  Taking as his point of departure early Nineteenth century works by Caspar David  Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, Rosenblum traces a line of development through such figures as Blake, Turner, Van Gogh, and Munch, to modernists such as Nolde, Marc, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and the Abstract Expressionists, notably Still, Pollock, Newman and Rothko.  Motivating this development are "dreams of mystical and spiritual realms" which, "in their transcendental ambitions, .  .  . perpetuated the Romantic search for an art that could penetrate beneath the material surfaces of things and extract a religious essence."  Occupying a key place in this scheme is

            the Dutchman, Piet Mondrian, who provided the clearest and most artistically compelling link between a nineteenth century tradition based on the themes, the spaces, the emotions of Northern Romantic art and the transformation of these historical roots into a twentieth century art where all explicit references to the material world are banned.[31]

            An obvious link between Mondrian and the earliest manifestations of the tradition invoked above is to be found in the same "Tree" series we have already examined.  The special significance of trees for the Northern Romantic artist is discussed in some detail by Rosenblum, who cites compelling examples by Friedrich, Constable, Dahl and Van Gogh.  He speaks of "an empathy of the artist with the life of an individual tree" so intense that the tree can "become a sentient, almost human presence."  Specifically comparing  Mondrian's Red Tree with those of Friedrich and Van Gogh, he finds in this work and the Blue Tree reflections "of radiant, organic vitality so potent that it can transform roots, trunk, and branches into a vibrant web, hovering in some transitional domain between matter and spirit, solid and void." Such works are really symbols evoking "elemental forces and mysteries."

            These themes are crystallized in his discussion of the "neo‑Romantic botany" of Rudolph Steiner, founder of the spiritual "science," Theosophy.  To Steiner, heavily in debt to Goethe's notion of the "primordial plant," all plant species share a fundamental structural principle, reflecting the workings of the universe itself.[32]

                                                                                    Theosophy and the Archetype

In light of the fact that Steiner's Theosophy distills and elaborates on the tradition of nature mysticism invoked by Rosenblum, Mondrian's well known association with the Theosophical movement becomes especially significant.  This association, documented in Robert P. Welsh's "Mondrian and Theosophy,"[33] undoubtedly had a profound effect.  Mondrian, who joined the Dutch Theosophical Society in 1909, was an avid reader of Steiner and his associate Madame Blavatsky, whose ideas, as Welsh demonstrates, are reflected in many aspects of his work and thought.

            Probably the most ambitious and, in many ways, convincing attempt, in modern times, to erect a theoretical framework for the nexus of ideas and associations invoked by belief systems such as nature‑mysticism and Theosophy can be found in the writings of Freud's famous disciple, C. G. Jung.  Basic to Jung's theories is the notion of the collective unconscious, a deep layer of the psyche, which is, in some sense, shared by all humans.  The collective unconscious manifests itself by means of certain forms, found world‑wide in myths, dreams, art and religious iconography, which according to Jung, carry a universally meaningful symbolism:  the archetypes.

            Mondrian's tree motif, especially as interpreted by Rosenblum, is an excellent example of an archetype.  Jung has, in fact, devoted to this subject a lengthy essay, "The Philosophical Tree," which begins as follows:

            An image which frequently appears among the archetypal configurations of the unconscious is that of the tree or the wonder‑working plant.  When these fantasy products are drawn or painted, they very often fall into symmetrical patterns that take the form of a mandala.  If a mandala may be described as a symbol of the self seen in cross section, then the tree would represent a profile view of it:  the self depicted as a process of growth.[34]

Mandala and Cross

Mondrian's Blue Tree is one of a group of contemporary works which clearly exhibit, in the words of Jung, "symmetrical patterns that take the form of a mandala."  The mandala, which means, literally, "circle" or "magic circle" is, of course, associated with that aspect of Oriental religious iconography which has had crucial significance for Theosophy.  According to Jung, the mandala is among the most important of archetypes and is to be found almost universally as a symbol of the self.

            He has written that "most mandalas take the form of a flower, cross or wheel and show a distinct tendency toward quaternary structure.  .  . "[35]  The fourfold "quaternary" structure of the mandala is related to the alchemical notion of the "unification of opposites," a fundamental principle to which Jung devoted his last and most extensive work, Mysterium  Coniunctionis.[36]  Here we are very close indeed to Theosophy, for the conjunction of opposites is symbolized by the cross, to Madame Blavatsky "the master-key which opens the door of every science, physical as well as spiritual."[37]  For Jung the cross is the fundamental underlying structure of the mandala itself.

            Rosenblum follows the development of the tree motif into that of the cross, concluding that Mondrian "could hardly have avoided the association of religious meaning with elementary geometric pattern, a pattern that was in fact to become the structural basis of the remaining thirty years of his objectless, abstract art."[38]

            Bringing the above set of associations into line with Mondrian's theories, we might say that "neutralization" of the tree‑image has more clearly revealed the abstract, circular, symmetrical mandala form that is veiled by the "natural appearance" of the tree.  Since the mandala nevertheless remains a "limited form," it too must be broken up (in subsequent paintings) to reveal its underlying structural principle: the "unification of opposites" that is the cross, for Mondrian the "primordial relation."[39]  Interiorization of this powerful symbol would, finally, put one in touch with Jung's mystic "archetype as such," existing prior to the formation of any image, equivalent to Mondrian's notion of space itself.[40]


The above discussion, from Rosenblum's invocation of nature mysticism and Theosophy to the distillation of such notions in Jung's archetype, presents a totally convincing picture of Mondrian's development up to and including the period of the Blue Tree (1910), adding a great deal, moreover, to our understanding of certain aspects of his work and thought throughout his career. Nevertheless, as should be clear from our analysis of the Tree series, it would be a serious error to assume that the impact of Cubism in 1911 did not profoundly alter Mondrian's relation to the whole set of ideas invoked by Rosenblum and Welsh.  Their failure to fully take this into account has had an unfortunate effect on the currently prevailing critical view of Mondrian's work as a whole.

            For example, Dore Ashton has written of "the occult symmetries through which Mondrian meant to depict his intimations of the essential world ‑‑ essential as the ever-unchanged schema Plato admired in geometry.  All radiates from the centre here as, eventually, all of Mondrian's circles would be squared."[41]

            If we are to profit from the genuine insights of Rosenblum and Welsh, we must be careful to avoid this sort of misguided but completely typical generalization.  Principle number 6 of Mondrian's "General Principles of Neo‑Plasticism" is among his clearest and most unequivocal theoretical statements:  "all symmetry shall be excluded."[42]

            The circle, the square, the mandala, the cross, the "fourfold conjunction of opposites," are, in their very essence, symmetrical.  While the Mondrian of 1910 is turning his trees into mandalas where "all radiates from the centre," from 1911 onward, beginning with works such as the Gray Tree, he is progressively decentering the image.  The process of reduction and fragmentation begun in 1908 as a means of suppressing contingencies in favor of a dematerialized, symbolic essence is, in 1911, transformed into a means of subverting the symbolic process itself.

            This involves not only the rejection of symmetry but also the rejection of any form of hierarchical, geometrically systematized proportioning.  References to Plato, geometry, circles, squares are relevant only to those works completed before 1911.   As has already been demonstrated, the proportions "which create the living rhythm" of dynamic equilibrium have their origin in the contingencies of observation, the active interaction of the eye and the object of its regard.  Aside from the role of elements such as straight lines and right angles in clarifying and stabilizing such interaction, geometry has no role whatever to play in Mondrian's most characteristic work.

            If he had never been confronted with the discoveries of Cubism, Mondrian might have moved on from the Blue Tree to an ever clearer distillation of its underlying geometry, arriving finally at the ultimate Theosophic, archetypal and, of course, Christian, symbol:  the cross.  What in fact happened was much more complex.  Fusing Cubism with the goals of Theosophy, he retained from the cross its basic principle ‑‑ the conjunction of opposites through the intersection of horizontal and vertical forces, the "primordial relation."  But, "in each  given case Neo‑Plasticism must, so to speak, break up the representation of the primordial relation .  .  .  To represent the horizontal position and the upright position as a unity, without anything else, would evidently not be art, but at most a symbol."[43]  Thus, the cross itself, as a meaningful configuration, a "limiting form," a symbolizing unity, is thoroughly disrupted in virtually all the later works.

                                                           Intensification as Reversal

Mondrian's relation to the Romantic project invoked by Rosenblum, the neo‑Platonic search for a dematerialized, transcendent essence, is complex indeed.  Beyond question, Mondrian's involvement with Theosophy had a lifelong influence on his thought, to the extent that there is little in his theories which could not be interpreted in purely Theosophical terms.  However, too many critics and scholars have overlooked the complete incompatibility of such an interpretation with the actual structure of the mature paintings.  If Mondrian's theories regarding the neutralization of natural appearance, the destruction of limited form, and the unification of opposites are to be read simply as invocations of some Theosophically inspired archetype, then his paintings would have to be mandalas!

            On the other hand, Mondrian's relentless search for the fundamental principle behind the Cubist attack on pictorial syntax clearly has its source in his original, Theosophically orthodox, project, the impetus of which was strong enough to carry him beyond the largely iconographic‑iconoclastic preoccupations of Cubism.

            More generally speaking, exploration of this necessary link with the Romantic tradition can tell us much about the vital, subjective side of the long evolution from realism to "formalist" modernism.  Indeed it seems to have been the presence of a hyper‑Romantic, expressionist intensity that distinguished the highly subjective, almost fanatical projects of Cezanne and the Cubists from the aloof scientism of the Impressionists.  Cezanne's early canvasses are personal and impulsive in the extreme ‑‑ his subsequent naturalism is no less intense.  Picasso's painting, at the very threshold of Cubism, is remarkable for its slashing savagery.

            In characteristically expressionist fashion, Mondrian also projects his own feelings onto the motif and, at the same time, interiorizes it.  The progressive fragmentations of the archetypal tree images may thus be considered equivalent in some sense to a process of internal disintegration and transformation, a process which only intensifies after 1911.

            It should not be difficult, at this point, to understand the apparently paradoxical affinities between extreme realism and the expressionist impulse.  The search for "objective" vision must ultimately involve consideration of the visual process itself which must, of course, have a subjective component.  Only the artist with a strong subjectivity will in any case be aware of the extent to which the "real world" is a projection of the "world within."  Only an artist with a passionate attachment to nature will so intensely internalize not only the motif but the naturalist project itself.

            In this context we can much better grasp the deep inner need that motivates the struggle to see which lies at the root of naturalism and modernism both.  It is a struggle which takes place "within," "without" and between the two, the expression of a profound desire for unification of the self through integration of self and world.  At the core of this struggle, however, is the necessary reversal which takes us beyond the limits of the Romantic project.  The self cannot be integrated with the world without first becoming disunified.  The struggle to see involves the fragmentation of self, the opening out of self, spirit, meaning, to the contingencies of the visible world.

            What to the Romantic sensibility would mean death, madness or some totally otherworldly "spirituality," becomes, ultimately, (simply?), the liberation of the senses.  Thus for Mondrian the struggle to see is inseparable from what to him is the characteristically modern effort to overcome "the tragic."[44]

            The ease with which Mondrian's theories may be read as orthodox Theosophy attests to the difficulty of grasping the reversal that carries him far beyond any form of Romantic idealism.  Only a reading of Mondrian in terms of the very different framework I have presented can reconcile his ideas with the salient characteristics of his creative output.  The archetype, as a centralized, mandala-like, symbolic conjunction of opposites, can be regarded as the essence of pictorial syntax, thus, in fact, the mirror image opposite of a mature painting by Mondrian, the latter being a pure instance of that which destroys syntax, that which I have chosen, in another context, to call negative syntax (or antax).[45]  Such a painting is, in fact, an anti‑mandala, decentralized by the disjunction of opposites, and thoroughly non‑symbolic.

            While the Jungian archetype realizes unification on an ideal, totally non‑material plane, the realm of the "collective unconscious," a Mondrian painting becomes unified only on its own surface, a limited material entity which is the exact opposite of the archetype.  On this surface as well, the limited, material realm of the senses attains unification with "the world" in terms of the concrete perceptual field created therein by the artist.


C. The Politics of Essence

Interestingly, those aspects of Mondrian's thought which for Rosenblum reveal an extreme Romantic outlook have become, in our postmodern age, typical symptoms of modernism.  Thus a quest for the "essential," the "universal," has been descried as an especially noxious aspect of a grandiose, deluded modernism, conspiring within a politics of totalization and power. 

            An unusually penetrating and thoroughgoing analysis of Mondrian's art and writings from this standpoint can be found in the recently published Making Theory/Constructing Art, by Daniel Herwitz.[46]  By coming to grips with the rather harsh criticism presented in this book, we may better comprehend the ethical/Utopian implications of Mondrian's thought in the context of the cultural politics of postmodernism.  Our discussion of Rosenblum and Jung has prepared us for this strongly argued but ultimately misguided judgement.

                                                               Mondrian and Plato

Herwitz' dominant concern is with the manner in which theoretical discourse has come to dominate artistic awareness in the world of the "avant-garde," both modernist and postmodernist (and to his credit, Herwitz, though writing from an essentially postmodernist position, is equally skeptical of the more extreme claims emanating from both camps).  For him, "Mondrian's art raises the question of the capacity of a visually abstract object to be the transparent bearer of ideas."  To this end Mondrian, the "theosopher/philosopher," "aims to turn every inch of his paintings into abstract signifiers, so that, like the signs or words of a divine language or philosophical code, they can be invested with maximum semantic value."[47]  The point of this enterprise is the idealist desire "to make his paintings into platonic forms which 'speak' or 'demonstrate' the truths of the world"[48] through "a perfected harmonization which exemplifies the inner harmony of all things."[49]  This "turn to philosophical theory takes place in the context of his vision of utopia and of his perfect certainty that his artworks with their Platonistic form will bring utopia about by exemplifying it."[50]

            For Herwitz, as for Rosenblum and so many others, Mondrian's notions of "form," "space," and "harmony" are utterly traditional, unproblematic derivations from a fundamentally neoplatonic position.  "Forms" are the Platonic forms which underlie and must ultimately replace all particulars; "space" is the ultimate dissolution of all such forms into a single, unified, transcendence; "harmony" is the ideal relation of forms and space, a pleasing, mellifluous consonance which can peacefully unite a painting, a nation, a world.    Together they produce a message of abstract totalized essence, the perfect blueprint for the most perfectly soporific Utopia anyone might ever desire. 

            Herwitz, of course, is buying none of it.  And clearly, such a "Utopia" would quickly degenerate into a nightmare of delusion, hypocrisy, control and exploitation in which "The Universal" would be achieved at the expense of individuality, "competing interests, divergent styles of belief, religion, historical consciousness, political taste,"[51] etc.

            Is this cloying super-Platonic fantasy an accurate assessment of Mondrian's vision?  His writings, liberally quoted by Herwitz, are full of high sounding pronouncements of the sort that might indeed encourage us to answer in the affirmative.  Herwitz has not the slightest doubt:  "Mondrian's [example], like Plato's and Christ's, is belief in the world-transforming power of ideas:  he is a Platonist."[52]

                                                                Mondrian's Sword

But, also like Christ, Mondrian comes offering "not peace, but a sword."  The artist-philosopher who could say "I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art,"[53] wanted, as I have already argued, to destroy not simply "the natural" or "the individual" but "any idea."  If, for Mondrian, as Herwitz claims, "form" means "Platonic form," what are we to make of his many references to form as an outworn relic of the past which must be "broken up," "annihilated" or "abolished"?  How, for example, are we to take the following, with its Nietzscheian (and Derridaian) overtones?

            We now discover that the basis of form is not unchangeable as the old culture thought.  The new culture abolishes form, together with the old morality. . .  Jazz and Neo-Plasticism are already creating an environment in which art and philosophy resolve into rhythm that has no form and is therefore "open."[54]

            And Mondrian's notion of "harmony"?  "Neo-Plastic harmony arises from constant oppositions.  The harmony of Neo-Plasticism is therefore not traditional harmony, but universal harmony, which to the eyes of the past appears rather as discord."[55]

            Herwitz sees Mondrian as attempting to sublimate the particular, the individual into a totalizing "universal."  However a careful reading will show that Mondrian usually uses the phrase "particular form," designating the particular manifesting itself as a gestalt.  As our earlier analysis has shown, Mondrian is opposed to this not because of a Platonic disdain for the particular in itself, as a concrete limited entity, but out of an awareness that within the particular form lies hidden and repressed the "living rhythm" that is the basic principle of particularity (materiality, concreteness, contingency) itself.  If we substitute for "the individual" the term "Ego," the notion of repression comes into stronger relief and a link with Freud becomes evident.

                                                                     A Dialectical        Reversal

The psychotherapeutic meaning of Mondrian's work is the subject of an especially insightful recent essay, "The Geometrical Cure," by Donald Kuspit.  Though, like Herwitz and so many others, he too easily reads geometry and traditional philosophy (in this case, Spinoza) into Mondrian's theories, Kuspit recognizes the connection between Mondrian's project and the eminently anti-Platonic healing program of Freud.  For Kuspit, Mondrian (and Malevich) "are the truly transmutative artists, . . . for their geometry evokes the original wholeness of the self by affording a peak experience of primordiality."[56]  Even more to the point in the present context, Kuspit is among the very few to have recognized that Mondrian, like Freud, must be understood dialectically.  Comparing Mondrian with Malevich, he accuses the latter of having mistaken "totality for wholeness because he could not comprehend its dialectical character.  (Mondrian obviously did, which is why his wholeness never has the look of stark totality characteristic of Malevich's abstraction.)"[57]  In recognizing that "wholeness" and "totalization" are not necessarily the same thing, we are reminded that modernism itself may be more subtle than the postmodernists (who are always attacking modernism for its "totalizing" ambitions) have been willing to accept, that we cannot afford to literalize the complexities of dialectic into crude affirmations of ultimate "Truth."

            This, as should now be evident, is exactly what Herwitz has done.  Despite his many insights, and, unfortunately, like so many others who have tried to make sense of Mondrian's writings, he is insensitive to the possibility that Mondrian might be struggling to say the exact opposite of what he appears to be saying.  We cannot completely blame Herwitz or anyone else for falling into this trap.  As Mondrian himself has bitterly complained:

            How deplorable that such timeworn, conventional language must serve to express the new beauty:  to describe the means and the goal of purely abstract art, we are compelled to use the same terms that we use for naturalistic art -- but with what a difference in their meaning!

                        When we speak of "harmony," we do not mean anything like traditional harmony. . .  The words "equilibrium," "pure plastic," "abstract," "universal," "individual," etc., can be similarly misunderstood . . .[58]

                        The meaning of words has become so blurred by past usage that "abstract" is identified with "vague" and "unreal," and "inwardness" with a sort of traditional beatitude.  Thus, most people do not understand that the "spiritual" is better expressed by some ordinary dance music than in all the psalms put together.[59]

                                                                  Theory vs. Art?

To his credit, Herwitz recognizes that there is something very wrong with the "meta-narrative" he finds in Mondrian's texts:  it does violence to the art.  The discrepancy between a typical Mondrian painting, which "resists all prefigurement by words. . . feels complete in itself, unreachable and uninterpretable. . ."[60] and the conceptual burden Mondrian supposedly expects it to bear is in fact the point of much of Herwitz' argument, hinging as it does on the premise that Avant-Garde theory is designed to direct and control the way we experience Avant-Garde art.  Herwitz is claiming that while Mondrian the theorist is attempting to control the look and meaning of his art, to force it to signify Platonic ideas, the art itself resists by defeating signification of any kind.

            That Mondrian's art resists signification is indeed one of the major points of this essay.  However, to assume that Mondrian the writer nevertheless expects these works to actually symbolize specific aspects of his theory is to seriously misread -- Mondrian never makes such a claim and is clearly opposed to any form of the symbolic in art.[61]  The discrepancy between theory and practice exists not because Mondrian the artist was a genius while Mondrian the thinker was "wooly" or "dotty," as Herwitz implies (he is certainly not alone in this assessment), but because Herwitz has failed to plumb the depth of the dialectic at work in Mondrian's thought.[62]

            This should not be surprising.  Mondrian was an artist/thinker who made an important discovery that he was able to articulate perfectly in his art, but not his writings.  Since in his theory he was attempting (not unlike Derrida!) to deploy the intellectual tools of idealism to undermine idealism itself it is not surprising that he was never able to make himself perfectly clear.  I believe this situation confused him to the point that too much in his writings hopelessly conflates the conceptual and anti-conceptual, geometry and sensuality, idealism and materialism (despite some earnest attempts to make just these sorts of distinctions -- he unquestionably lacked the literary and philosophical skills of a Derrida.)  Not only does this make his writings especially difficult, it leads on occasion to political claims that are indeed dangerously naive (not because they are necessarily misguided or hopelessly Utopian, but because he has seriously underestimated the potential for the sort of misunderstanding that could oversimplify or even reverse his meaning with disastrous results).

            Only when we concentrate on his art and, most especially, as we have in section A of this essay, the development of his art from around 1908 on, does a consistent theoretical picture emerge.  We can, only then, turn back to the writings with some hope of understanding what is really meant.

                                                 A System For the Disruption of System

What, then, is really meant?  What, ultimately is Mondrian struggling so patiently to communicate in essay after essay, statement after statement spanning a period of over twenty-five years?  I have of course already had a good deal to say on this matter, in sections A and B above, but there is something more fundamental, something especially relevant in the age of post-structuralism and deconstruction, an age struggling to free itself from its own suffocating, totalizing "mastery" of technology, art and thought:

            The Mondrian who was so profoundly influenced by Cubism, and the most radical aspects of Futurism and Constructivism was never a Platonist.  Nevertheless, he was, in a sense, a Platonist, as is revealed in his purist attempt to attain the essence of that which disrupts limited form, which disrupts "any idea."  He operates in the spirit of Plato by pursuing an ideal,[63] but, as has been demonstrated by our earlier discussion of his theosophy, the ideal he pursues is the destruction of idealism itself.  As we learned in our analysis of the Tree series, he has discovered a unique structural principle which promotes that which has been repressed and bound by form and "essence."  This principle is itself a new universal, a new essence, a new order, the antipode of the Platonic essence, an order that can oppose repression by opening out Platonic ideas like "particular form" and "the individual."  This is the "essence," the "universal," the "unity" that Mondrian speaks of when he is sounding Platonic.

            What Yve-Alain Bois has had to say with regard to a particular Mondrian painting (but which could in fact be applied to many) seems especially relevant at this juncture:

            It goes without saying that this picture -- like the classical neoplastic paintings in general -- does not come under the heading of systemic or programmed art.  But if it is not systemic, isn't it, in some way, systematic?  Isn't there a system functioning within it, entirely apparent, whose goal is to prohibit any stasis or fixing of perception in a systematic assurance?[64]

            Mondrian's discovery of what we have called "the perceptual axiom," the anti-axiom which explodes the "axiomatic" itself, opens up just such a possibility:  a system for the disruption of system.  The disruption would be radical indeed, for Mondrian, artist and thinker, has taken us far beyond the sort of dialectic which, like the signifying process itself, disrupts only to reunite its fragments on a "higher" level in a perpetual process of unfolding "transcendence."  Nor could a disruptive force of such magnitude be contained by the "informal" workings of postmodernist bricolage or rhetoric, weak-tea notions totally alien to Mondrian's diamond-hard vision.  The new, essentially contingent, spatial field revealed in the "classic" works from 1918 on is fully independent, fully the equal of the traditional "syntactic field" it negates (but does not transcend), and need not be "redeemed" by higher level incorporation into anything else whatsoever.

            For me this profound discovery, firmly grounded in the extraordinary researches of predecessors like Cezanne, Braque and Picasso, paralleled by the remarkably similar discoveries of Schonberg and Webern, is both that which lies at the heart of modernism and exactly that which has escaped notice in the many postmodernist attempts to "go beyond" it.  Such an oversight is deeply unfortunate, since this radical dialectic on some level achieves what most postmodernists have announced to be a prime goal of their own:  the neutralization, breakup and reconstitution of the overmastering, totalizing, controlling forces of our time.[65]  If Mondrian's Utopian vision has any meaning at all, it prefigures exactly this.




[1]. See Victor Grauer, "Modernism/postmodernism/neomodernism" in Downtown Review 3-1/2 (1982) pp. 3-7.

[2]. Victor Grauer, "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts," in Semiotica 94-3/4 (1993) pp. 233-252.

[3]. Throughout this essay, I will refer to Mondrian's paintings and drawings according to the numbers and dates provided in the "Classified Catalogue" appearing at the back of Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian:Life and Work (New York:Abrams, 1956) pp. 355-395.  The two studies referred to above are Seuphor 169 and 170.


[4]. Seuphor 171.

[5]. Seuphor 172, 173, 174.  The last is also called (by Seuphor) "The Blue Tree."

[6]. According to historian Hans Jaffe, Mondrian probably first viewed Cubist paintings at an Amsterdam exhibit held in the autumn of 1911, but had undoubtedly heard of the movement and seen reproductions before this time.  Hans Jaffe, Piet Mondrian (New York:Abrams, undated) pp. 24,25.

[7]. Seuphor 177.

[8]. Seuphor 190-200.

[9]. Seuphor 294.

[10]. Alfred Jarry may have anticipated Mondrian with his only partially whimsical notion of "'pataphysics," the "science of the laws governing exceptions."

[11]. Piet Mondrian, "Toward the True Vision of Reality" (1942), in Mondrian, Plastic Art and PUre Plastic Art (New York:Wittenborn, 1945) p. 10.

[12]. While it is my belief that the overall result does in fact reflect Mondrian's intentions, I may be wrong.  (Perhaps those who might accuse me of concocting a Mondrian of "my own," will also be willing to credit me with "his" insights.)

[13]. Ibid., p. 13.

[14]. "A New Realism," (1943) in Plastic Art . . . op. cit., p. 18.

[15]. "Toward the True Vision . . .," op. cit., p. 13.

[16]. "A New Realism," op. cit., p. 20.

[17]. "Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art" (1937), in Plastic Art . . . op. cit. p. 58.

[18]. "A New Realism," op. cit., p. 25.

[19]. Ibid., p. 25.

[20]. "Plastic Art and Pure . . ." op. cit., p. 58.

[21]. "A New Realism," op. cit., p. 25.

[22]. "General Principles of Neo-Plasticism" (1926) in Seuphor, op. cit., p. 166.

[23]. "Pure Plastic Art" ( 1942), in Plastic Art . . . , op. cit., p. 31.

[24]. Ibid., p. 31.

[25]. see Victor Grauer, "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts" op. cit., pp. 236-239.

[26]. The "it would seem" is necessary in view of the extraordinary difficulty of defining Derrida's typically obscure neologism, a "non-concept" in which "difference," "deferral" and "erasure" apparently come together to defeat logic and meaning in a manner that seems especially relevant here.  For a more thorough attempt at coming to grips with "differance," see Alan Bass, "Translator's Introduction," in Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1978), pp. xvi - xvii.

[27]. See, for example, Charles Bouleau, The Painter's Secret Geometry (New York:Hacker, 1963).

[28]. From the journals of Charmion von Wiegend, as quoted in Seuphor, op. cit., p. 181. 


[29].  Harry Holtzman, "Piet Mondrian:The Man and His Work," in The New Art -- The New Life:The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, edited and translated by Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James, (New York:Da Capo Press, 1993), p. 6.

[30]. See Victor Grauer, "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts" op. cit., p. 243.

[31]. Robert Rosenblum, Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (New York:Harper and Row, 1975), p. 173.

[32]. Ibid., pp. 36, 180, 184.

[33]. Robert P. Welsh, "Mondrian and Theosophy," in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, Centennial Exhibition Catalog (New York:Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1971)  pp. 35-51.

[34]. C. G. Jung, "The Philosophical Tree," in Jung, Alchemical Studies (Princeton:Princeton University Press, 1967) p. 253.

[35]. Alchemical Studies, op. cit., p. 22.

[36]. C. G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis (New York:Bollingen Foundation, 1963).

[37]. Helena Blavatsky, Isis Unveiled, vol. II, as quoted in Robert P. Welsh, "Mondrian and Theosophy", op. cit., p. 49.

[38]. Rosenblum, op. cit., pp. 193, 194.

[39]. See "Natural Reality and Abstract Reality," op. cit., first three "scenes."

[40]. Jung ultimately distinguishes between the "archetype as such," a universal, imageless, essence, and the particular, though still highly generalized, "archetypal images" which represent it.  See Jolanda Jacobi, Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung (New York:Bollingen Foundation, 1959) p. 34.

[41]. Dore Ashton, "Mondrian:Notes on an Exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum," in Artscanada 226/227 (May, June 1979).  Ashton's notion of radiation from the center may derive from a particularly misleading essay by the artist, Max Bill, who claims that "one may visualize [Mondrian's lines] extending beyond the rim of the image.  The fixed center becomes a nucleus, surrounded by possibilities of unlimited extension."  Bill's notion has also been echoed by so noted an authority as Meyer Schapiro in an otherwise highly insightfull essay, "Mondrian:Order and Randomness in Abstract Painting" (1978).  Both interpretations apparently derive from an overly literal reading of Mondrian's notion of "open" structure, as though the contents of an "open" painting were to be expected to spill out into the surrounding space.  Such readings are refuted by the canvasses themselves, where many of the lines do a 90 degree turn to continue onto the edge of the canvas, where they clearly stop.  This sort of highly idealized interpretation would be better applied to the most ordinary Realist and Romantic landscapes, where hills and dales ad infinitum are implied before, behind and to the sides.  Old ideas die hard.

     See Max Bill, "Composition 1 with Blue and Yellow, 1925 by Piet Mondrian," in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, op. cit., p. 75 and Meyer Schapiro, "Mondrian:Order and Randomness in Abstract Painting," in Schapiro, Modern Art (Brazziler:New York, 1979).

[42]. Op. cit., p. 166.

[43]. "Natural Reality and Abstract Reality," op. cit., p. 312.

[44]. See, for example, his comments in "Natural Reality and Abstract Reality," op. cit., p. 318.

[45]. See Victor Grauer, "Toward a Unified Theory of the Arts" op. cit., p. 244.

[46]. Daniel Herwitz, Making Theory/Constructing Art:On the Authenticity of the Avant-Garde (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1993)

[47]. Ibid., p. 98.

[48]. Ibid., p. 99.

[49]. Ibid., pp. 113-114.

[50]. Ibid., p. 97

[51]. Ibid., p. 131.

[52]. Ibid., p. 129.

[53]. From a letter to James Johnson Sweeney, in The New Art -- The New Life:The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, ed. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (New York:Da Capo Press, 1993), p. 357.

[54]. Mondrian, "Jazz and Neo-Plastic,"(1927) in Ibid., pp. 220, 221.

[55]. "The Neo-Plastic Architecture of the Future," in ibid., p. 197.

[56]. Donald Kuspit, "The Geometrical Cure," in The Cult of the Avant-Garde Artist (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 44.

[57]. Ibid., p. 51.

[58]. "Purely Abstract Art," in The New Art -- The New Life, op. cit., p. 200.

[59]. "The Manifestation of Neo-Plasticism in Music and the Italian Futurists' Bruiteurs," in ibid., p. 151.

     Among the very few to have "gotten the message" of this dialectic is art critic and Mondrian scholar Yve-Alain Bois, whose comments on a well known Mondrian dictum should be taken to heart by postmodernists all too eager to read dreams of mastery and control into the meanings of Mondrian and so many others of his time:  "[T]he famous 'if we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision' speaks also of a painting that would be entirely free of the tragic that perception necessarily entails in that it always seeks to impose an order, a particular structure, a "limitation," a stability upon the free rhythm of the visual facts that confront it:  to liberate our vision is also to accept that we no longer master it."  See Yve-Alain Bois, Painting As Model (Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press, 1990), p. 162.

[60]. Herwitz, Making Theory/Constructing Art, op. cit., p. 125

[61].  While to my knowledge Mondrian never even implies that his art might signify or symbolize anything whatsoever, he does frequently make what seems to me the perfectly reasonable claim that his art demonstrates fundamental aspects of his theory.  To Herwitz such a claim is even more extreme than that of simple signification, but I disagree.  To "demonstrate" is clearly different in kind than to "signify."  We might for example say that a particular bird in flight "demonstrates" certain principles of aerodynamics.  This doesn't mean that we expect that from now on this or any bird will therefore "signify" such principles or that anyone looking at such a bird is to be expected to grasp such principles just by looking at it, by virtue of some magical semiotic process.  Clearly, Mondrian's paintings demonstrate his artistic principles in the same way that any art demonstrates the artistic principles of its creator.  (It would be indeed quite strange if this were not the case.)  Saying this is not the same as expecting that simply by staring at one of his paintings such principles will become known to us,  nor is there any evidence that Mondrian had such an expectation.

[62]. Since I seem to be dumping on Herwitz at this point, I feel compelled to add that I find his book as a whole quite sympathetic and even important.  Of the many to have missed the point on Mondrian, Herwitz is among the most thoroughgoing and perceptive, bothered by problems that others have never noticed, eager to give difficult issues the careful consideration they deserve.  If I've chosen him as "whipping boy," it is largely for these reasons.

     Herwitz' excellent treatment of Warhol and Cage, his thorough analysis of the ideas of Arthur Danto and his logical, skeptical approach to many key issues of modernism and postmodernism make his book worthwhile reading indeed.

[63]. Donald Kuspit, who associates Mondrian's "geometry" with the "geometrical method" of Spinoza, comes very close to what I am saying here, but this statement requires some explanation.  As Kuspit assumes his reader already knows, and thus unfortunately never actually states, Spinoza was not a geometer in any ordinary sense.  He called his method "geometrical" only because it was analogous to the axiomatic method of the geometer Euclid.  As Mondrian's "geometry" is generally assumed to be more literally Euclidean, the comparison with Spinoza is a bit misleading.  Also misleading, of course, is the suggestion that Mondrian proceeded axiomatically in any traditional sense.

     But, as I have argued in section A above, Mondrian did operate axiomatically in a very untraditional sense, by simplifying his approach to painting to the point that each painting becomes itself what can only be called an "anti-axiom" of the contingent.  He thus moves in the opposite direction from Spinoza, who built his Ethic up from axioms.  But, in this very opposition, motivated by his intense hunger for the "union of the individual with the universal," so similar, as Kuspit notes, to Spinoza's "the universal within," Mondrian does proceed, in this special sense of the word, "geometrically."  See Donald Kuspit, "The Geometrical Cure," op. cit., pp. 45-49.

[64]. Yve-Alain Bois, Painting As Model, op. cit., p. 163.

[65]. The only major philosopher, to my knowledge, to have fully grasped the significance of modernism in this sense was also profoundly influenced by it.  The "negative dialectic" of Theodore Adorno is rooted in modernist music (he was a member of the Schonberg circle), not painting, yet (not really surprisingly) key aspects of his thought have a great deal in common with that of Mondrian.  In a comprehensive recent study of Adorno's aesthetics, Lambert Zuidervaart writes:

     Adorno's arguments are dialectical in the sense that they highlight unavoidable tensions between polar opposites whose opposition constitutes their unity and generates historical change.  The dialectic is negative in that it refuses to affirm any underlying identity or final synthesis of polar opposites . . .

          Substantive justification for a dialectical approach comes from the "unconscious interaction" between universality and particularity within modern art.  According to Adorno, modern art has taken a "radically nominalistic position" . . .

          Dialectical aesthetics . . . "deals with reciprocal relations between universal and particular where the universal is not imposed on the particular . . . but emerges from the dynamic of particularities themselves."  [Emphasis is mine.]  See Lambert Zuidervaart, Adorno's Aesthetic Theory:The Redemption of Illusion (Cambridge, Mass.:MIT Press, 1991), pp. 48-50.

     This last sounds very much like Mondrian's "clear realization of liberated and universal rhythm distorted and hidden in the individual rhythm of the limiting form." [see note 23]

     Adorno's negative dialectic, refusing to resolve itself into a fixed, totalized conception, striving to maintain a radical gap between its irreconcilably opposed terms, has, with good reason, been getting more and more attention in the literature on postmodernism and is indeed a much needed corrective to some of its more simplistic assumptions.  Whether any practice ultimately grounded in language is capable of resisting the synthesizing pull of traditional dialectics (metaphysics) has of course become, especially since Heidegger and Derrida, an open and very difficult question.  To the extent that Adorno, Derrida et al. remain content to express themselves in language alone, as philosophers, their efforts to achieve this radical split may be necessarily self-defeating -- inevitably destined, despite all "good intentions," to degenerate into yet another mystifying "transcendence."  In my view, Mondrian, himself already split, was in his own way able, if not to explain, then to express something "essential" to this long sought "end of metaphysics."  But this is a topic for another essay.