Piet Mondrian came closer than most to creating a perfect art -- though not everyone will agree. Some critics of his paintings claim that what he produced was not art at all, and others insist that he helped lead 20th-century painting down the garden path. Even Salvador Dali, when called upon to comment on Mondrian, gleefully responded "Piet? -- Nyet!"m
But Dali and his other critics notwithstanding, Mondrian cannot be denied his place as one of the cornerstones of modernism, and one of the most daring, consistent, and original artists of our time.
Mondrian's first paintings belonged to the tradition of late 19th-century Dutch Romantic realism. They were precisely rendered figure and landscape studies in which something of Van Gogh's influence can be felt -- in attitude if not in style. Following these came several series of paintings and drawings based on windmills, trees, flowers, and the sea -- all gently lyrical, and all revealing an increasingly intense interest in linear design and pattern. Drawings of trees became highly structured designs, searching out the rhythms and patterns created by twigs and branches against the sky. And the flat dunes near the flat sea became horizontal lines interrupted only by a few delicate curves and subtle diagonals.
But no matter how searching and structurally analytical these works became, they still drew their primary identity and form from their original subjects. Although a drawing of a tree, for instance, might by now be extremely patterned, it still very obviously was a drawing of a tree.
Between 1910 and 1914, however, Mondrian gradually came to an important decision: although he would still base his imagery on observed reality -- the sea, for instance, or the facade of a church -- he would now use these realities only as starting points, as triggering devices for his creative imagination, rather than as final frames of reference, or as the determining factors in establishing his paintings' quality and identity as art. If he was drawn to paint by his reaction to the facade of a church, and if that reaction derived from his delight in the tensions and relationships created by the church's verticality and the intricate and complex patterns of its stonework, well then, he would paint a picture consisting of nothing but a dominant vertical (the vertical shape of the canvas) covered entirely with intersecting vertical and horizontal lines.
It was a dramatic and revolutionary step. But there was more to come. By 1917 he had stopped looking to nature for information entirely and had begun to fashion severely simple geometric paintings whose subject matter was the painting itself.
In 1914 he jotted down in a notebook: "Art is higher than reality, and has no direct relation to reality. Between the physical sphere and the ethereal sphere there is a frontier where our senses stop functioning. . . . To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual."
The difficulty lay in proving his point. Behind him lay thousands of years of art, all of it at least partly derived from observation. Although various earlier cultures had had some forms of nonrepresentational art, these works had never risen above the decorative and the ornamental. Art traditionally had drawn its identity and validity from the interaction between human emotion, human will, and human obedience to the laws of physical structure and appearance.
Nevertheless, Mondrian went ahead and rejected what he saw as the tyranny of illusion in favor of what he considered to be the eternal laws of life.
From that moment on, art for Mondrian became an act of spiritual probing and reverence. Within him lay a truth, and his life's work was to mine that truth, and his life's work was to mine that truth as pictorial symbol. His tools were to be his intelligence, sensibilities, and spiritual alertness -- coupled with the most perfect, least accidental, and most irreducible pictorial elements he could find.
For these he chose absolutely vertical and absolutely horizontal lines -- and the primary colors. The lines because their points of intersection represented the division of life into its fundamental oppositions: male/female, positive/negative, tension/- response. And the primary colors because red, yellow, and blue are irreducible as color.
By the late 1920s Mondrian had struck pure gold with some of the most beautifully simple and inevitable paintings of our time. By the 1930s he was broadening his base to include an increasing number of elements in his art. And by 1940, the year he arrived in New York to live, his work had become relatively complex.
"Victory Boogie-Woogie" was his last painting. In it Mondrian the purist seems to have been won over by Mondrian the sensualist, for it is a lighthearted celebration not of an idea or an ideal, but of the pulsating, vital nature of life itself.
Mondrian's art is a metaphor for existence stripped down to its absolute essentials. Just as a human life can be lost or saved by what happens at a busy intersection, so does the life of a Mondrian painting depend upon what happens when a horizontal line intersects a vertical. It is an art of hairbreadth linear adjustments and pin- pointed color placements, an art in which a square of white canvas is not a flat and empty piece of cloth, but a living representation of the absolute, a life-saturated symbol of eternity upon which the artist exercises the sacred rituals of his craft.