Obituary of Mondrian
The Nation, NYC
March 4, 1944
Piet Mondrian, the great Dutch painter, died in New York on February 1 at the age of seventy-one. He came to this country two years ago from London, where he had been living since 1939, after twenty years spent in France.
Mondrian was the only artist to carry to their ultimate and inevitable conclusions those basic tendencies of recent Western painting which cubism defined and isolated. His art has influenced design and architecture more immediately than painting but remains easel painting nevertheless, with all the concentrated force and drama the form requires. At the same time it designates the farthest limit of easel painting. Those whose point of departure is where Mondrian left off will no longer be easel painters. Excluding everything but flat, unmodulated areas of primary color and rectilinear and rectangular forms, his art returns painting to the mural — the mural as a living, modern form, to the archaeological reconstruction of Puvis de Chavannes, [Diego] Rivera, and the WPA projects. I am not sure whether Mondrian himself recognized it, but the final intention of his work is to expand painting into the décor of the manmade world — what of it we see, move in, and handle. This means imposing a style on industry, and thus adumbrates the most ambitious program a single art has ever ventured upon.
Mondrian’s own explicit intentions were somewhat different. There is no need to take his metaphysics on its own terms, but it certainly helps us to understand the creation of his masterpieces. He said that his art was concerned with mans deliverance from “time and subjective vision which veil the true reality.” — I quote from his essay “Toward the True Vision of Reality”:
Plastic art affirms that equilibrium can only be established through the balance of unequal but equivalent oppositions. The clarification of equilibrium through plastic art is of great importance for humanity. It reveals that although human life in time is doomed to disequilibrium, notwithstanding this, it is based on equilibrium…If we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision.
Mondrian’s pictures attempt to balance unequal forces: for example, one area, smaller than another, is made equivalent by shape and spatial relations. Further:
At the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of imagination based on appearances, events, or traditions. Art should not follow the intuitions relating to our life in time, but only those intuitions relating to true reality.
In other words, the vision of space granted by plastic art is a refuge from the tragic vicissitudes of time. Abstract painting and sculpture are set over against music, the abstract art of time in which we take refuge from the resistance of space.
Mondrian’s painting, however, takes its place beside the greatest art through virtues not involved in his metaphysics. His pictures, with their white grounds, straight black lines, and opposed rectangles of pure color, are no longer windows in the wall but islands radiating clarity, harmony, and grandeur — passion mastered and cooled, a difficult struggle resolved, unity imposed on diversity. Space outside them is transformed by their presence. Perhaps Mondrian will be reproached for the anonymity with which he strove for the ruled precision of the geometer and the machine in executing his paintings: their conceptions can be communicated by a set of specifications and dimensions, sight unseen, and realized by a draftsman. But so could the conception of the Parthenon. The artist’s signature is not everything.
Mondrian was of the type of artist-hero who immolates himself for his work, sacrificing the customary amenities of life, or making his art carry desires frustrated in other directions. He never married — he expressed a desire to but complained that he could not afford it — and he seems to have had few friends. He gave the impression of being inarticulate in conversation, and said once that he preferred not to argue about the problems of art viva voce but to read and write about them. His appearance was as dry and ascetic as a superficial acquaintance with his work might lead one to expect. But there were in both the artist and the art an intensity and passion which it needed only a second glance to discover. His one great diversion, surprisingly or not, was dancing, and I am told that he liked it so much that he often danced by himself in the studio.