Piet Mondrian was 68 years old when he emigrated from Europe to the USA, fleeing war and persecution. In October 1940 the artist arrived in New York on a passenger ship full of emigrants. In the roughly three years before his death in 1944, the Dutch painter produced some of his most famous works there. One of these paintings, “New York City 1” from 1941, has been one of the showpieces of the North Rhine-Westphalia Art Collection for years. On the occasion of the 150th birthday of the master of abstraction, who was born near Utrecht in 1872, a large-scale retrospective is being shown there with “Mondrian. Evolution”.
“New York City 1” is the youngest work in the show, and also the one that caused a bit of excitement at the opening of the exhibition at the end of October, given its fairly routine handling of the legacy of modernism. Because the art historian Susanne Meyer-Büser, who curated the Düsseldorf exhibition together with her colleague Kathrin Beßen, became aware of a photograph taken a few days after Mondrian’s death in 1944, which shows the picture in Mondrian’s studio on an easel – indeed standing upside down. Certain clues, such as the manner in which the adhesive strips used by Mondrian are fixed to the canvas, suggest that the painting has been displayed and reproduced upside down since it was first presented in 1945 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Perhaps there is “no right or wrong direction at all,” according to the curators. Who could say exactly how Mondrian worked on the work and whether he himself shot it again and again. “New York City 1” will no longer be turned the other way around for conservational reasons. Visitors to Düsseldorf now have to do this with their mobile phones or try to do it with their heads.
The street grid of Manhattan slides over Mondrian’s grid pictures
Whichever way you look at the picture: the power of the modernist composition, which draws its energy for playing with spatial perception from the relationship between surface, color and line, still has an immediate impact on the viewer. The painter drew ten horizontal and fourteen vertical red, blue, yellow and black stripes at right angles and at different distances across the canvas. With concentrated effort, Mondrian achieves maximum effect. Despite the flatness, the picture appears like an abstract futuristic space. For the European artist émigré who had proclaimed “Neoplasticism” and the “New Design” 20 years earlier in Paris with his 90-degree angle manifesto, Manhattan with its right-angled street network must be seen as the real-world counterpart to his spiritual and strictly aesthetic program of abstraction may have occurred. This moment of convergence in Mondrian’s late work is unique. In an almost magical way, the street grid of Manhattan’s ideal city slides over the grid images of Mondrian’s ideal art.
However, if you stand closer to the screen, the aesthetic-minimalist severity evaporates. Then “New York City 1” offers a surprising insight into the artist’s fragile production methods. One can see that Mondrian experimented with colored paper tapes before painting, which were subsequently replaced by oil paint. The adhesive strips, some of which are still attached to the stretcher with thumbtacks, reveal that the artist never completed “New York City 1”.
With around 90 pictures from private and public collections in Europe and the USA, Mondrian’s entire oeuvre is told in Düsseldorf like a developmental novel. The pre-abstract work also comes into its own. Mondrian is not only visible as the well-known leading figure of modernism with his iconic abstractions, but finally also as the producer of a complex work that has developed over decades from the constant examination of the fundamentals of image making, perception and the relationships between colours, light and space developed.
Before becoming a master of abstraction, Mondrian painted windmills and landscapes
Mondrian began as a “realist” painter at the end of the 19th century and was influenced by traditional Dutch landscape painting before, influenced by the art of Vincent van Gogh, among others, he turned to light, color and a freer brushstroke and then went on and on into abstraction.
Again and again in Düsseldorf, nature and the landscape become clear as the artist’s central points of reference, such as in “Mill; Mill at Sunshine” from 1908. Mondrian interpreted the popular Dutch landscape and tile motif in red and blue. The mill and its surroundings glow like in a psychedelic dream. When the picture was exhibited in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1909, it caused a stir. Critics even accused Mondrian of being mad and decadent.
Later, Mondrian’s palette became more subdued again, gray and ocher tones determine his pictures. The artist, who moved to Paris in 1911, increasingly turned to the deconstructive methods of Cubism. As early as 1914, the painter wrote in a programmatic letter that he wanted to study nature “to get as close to the truth as possible and therefore abstract everything until I get to the foundation (still an external foundation!) of things”. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mondrian produced those radical-abstract paintings that wrote art history in line with this programme.
Rudolf Steiner’s influence on Mondrian remains a little underexposed in the show. The painter read Steiner’s writings and even attended his lectures. To what extent were Mondrian and Steiner swinging on the same wave? And how does that fit into the supposedly rational core of modernity? In any case, Mondrian was convinced that the neoplasticism he had designed formed the aesthetic counterpart to Steiner’s anthroposophy. In 1921 he sent a copy of his 1920 publication “Le neo-plasticisme” from Paris to Dornach. In Switzerland, however, the painter’s theoretical advances apparently met with little approval. Steiner’s answer has not been handed down. As a modern prophet, Steiner was probably simply content with himself.
Mondrian. Evolution. K20, NRW Art Collection, Düsseldorf. Until February 20th. The catalog costs 54 euros.