Inspiration: Piet Mondrian
The Slow Fade
Our brains make powerful associations with shapes, colors, and patterns. We are visual beings who are programmed, to a lesser extent, to make meaning of the things we see. But how does an artist make visual contributions if they see the same things as an accountant?
The Museum Walls
When I would visit museums as a child, the canvases of Italian, Spanish and Dutch painters were endlessly fascinating. The swinging nudes, the battle scenes filled with decapitated soldiers, and the dramatic illustrations of bible stories (though I was extremely skeptical of my Christian upbringing) had me transfixed on art’s ability to be more interesting than life (or at least my life.) But no matter where I went, or who told me it was important, the world of abstraction did not appeal to me.
The grids of circles, squares and rectangles looked like a life-sized coloring book for a wallpaper convention. Artists from Ellsworth Kelley to Wassily Kandinsky left me scratching my head. Why would anyone want to paint a square? It seemed like a pointless task, especially when you could paint dancing nymphs, terrible warlords, or the far reaches of the human imagination? Then one day during high school, things started to become a little clearer through the canvases of Piet Mondrian.
Together with a good friend, my sister and my mother’s car, we drove to MoMA to see Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” The day was transformative…not only did I slightly rear end a limo at the toll booth, I also managed to park in front of the Czech Embassy and have my mother’s car impounded. Two hundred and thirty dollars later, it was the most expensive trip to a museum I’ve ever had, but worth every penny. In the end we got the car back, the scratch on the bumper was hardly visible, and we all agreed that my mother would be more interested in our art findings than the mysterious charge from the NYC Department of Transportation on her credit card.
Circle makes a Square
Back to the art…most abstract artists, like Piet Mondrian, were not always so abstract. They came from the same Classical European painting tradition that fed Velasquez, Rubens, and Rembrandt. They were not painting abstraction because they could not paint portraits and still lifes, but rather, they wanted to emphasize a different aspect of our visual world. For those of you who have not been tortured with the slide lectures of an art history degree, think of it this way:
Abstraction, when it is done well…is like
making a painting of DNA rather than making
a portrait. Both approaches are equally valid,
they just emphasize different things.
To understand how or why Piet might have moved to pure geometry, I wanted to look at one of his early paintings that gives us a flash of insight as to his growth as an abstract painter.
At first glance it would be hard to guess that “Going Fishing” (1898-1900) could have come from the same artist that would make “Broadway Boogie Woogie” (1943) four decades later. While one is a naturalistic view of a fisherman working in a harbor and the other a matrix of squares and rectangles, they actually share a lot in common. And when we look at them with a transition piece, Piet’s growth from a classical European painter to one of the worlds most famous (and dare I say loved) abstract artists becomes a little less mysterious.
It’s not until we start describing “Going Fishing” in words, that we can easily understand that Piet was working in squares his entire life. What he changed about the square was how he employed it on a canvas. In his early work, we can see him painting pictures of squares. The floating docks and boats, all blocks set afloat on water, are an exercise in squares and rectangles. There is a harbor filled with the platforms being shuffled by a fisherman. You can almost hear the waterlogged panels as they thud quietly against one another. It was as if Piet had his muse, but still did not know what to do with it. The boat, the floating pads, and the single man possess the DNA of his later paintings, except he switches the immediacy of his subject when he comes to America.
The Grid of New York City
New York City is a like a muse who occasionally likes to slap her artist around. It can be a rough relationship. Harsh at times, New York City offers an energy that is unique. There is something about the city that caught Piet, just as it caught everyone from Walt Whitman to Andy Warhol. So as he left his native Europe for New York City (in the 1940’s), we see how he stopped painting pictures of “square objects” and opted for directly painting the squares. Can you see the influence of the city on Piet? The colors, the grid, the lights, the rhythm…it’s all there (and on the section too).
Renoir once commented that, “You look at a painting, you live with it.” I’d love to live with both of these paintings, but unfortunately one is at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris and the other is at MoMA in New York City. So maybe they will have to live only in our imagination. Though what could be a better reason for a trip to Paris than to see “Going Fishing” again in person. Sounds like something I might just do.
Next time you are feeling like you are out of creative juices, have a look through the works of someone like Mondrian. Find encouragement in his growth and range which developed over the course of his career, because chances are you are just like him. You know what you want to do; it’s been in your work since the beginning, it just needs to take a new form.
While I still enjoy my Renaissance Masters, my tastes in art have evolved tremendously over the last twenty years. As a high school art student, I would never have described a bunch of squares as remotely interesting, let alone influential. They were too abstract for my sensibilities at the time. All of art will never be interesting all at once. As we change, the art changes too. Now, I can’t imagine life without a bit of abstraction here or there. For what it does, as the DNA of art, it does so well. Although too much time at the microscope is bound to burn you out eventually.