An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

A new plastic language

Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Oil on Canvas, cm. 86 x 106

After the wholly regular grid-plan of Fig. 1, Mondrian embarked on a new series of works in which the planes differ in terms of form.

Fig. 2
Composition B, 1920, Oil on Canvas, cm. 57,5 x 67

A composition expressed as a chromatic variation of the same measurements (Fig. 1) gives way to a space where there is change even in the size and shape of the colored planes (Fig. 2). If in 1919 multiplicity was expressed by color only, now it is expressed expressed both through color and through form.

In Composition B Mondrian adopts a constant module serving to establish a more controlled rhythm in the alternation of planes. We note two contiguous yellow planes of rectangular proportions verging on squares. The same shape reappears lower down once in red and once in light gray. On the right, a large blue area proves to be the sum of the initial module repeated twice vertically. Lower down we have three rectangles – one yellow, one black, and one dark gray – presenting proportions that are half the initial module: 

Composition B, 1920, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2
Composition B, 1920, Oil on Canvas, cm. 57,5 x 67
Composition B, 1920, Mondrian, Diagram
Fig. 2a
Composition B, 1920, Diagram

Fig. 2a: Though different both in color and in size, these planes are based on the same parameter. Each is an expansion or contraction, either vertical or horizontal, of a pre-established unit of measurement. The planes close to the edges of the canvas suddenly assume instead anomalous proportions that are no longer related to the module. After a phase of greater constancy to be observed in the central area, everything changes unpredictably.

Checkerboard with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 1a
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919 with Diagram

With Composition B the artist seems intent on effecting interpenetration between the white rectangle unit and the large rectangles of colors in its immediate vicinity we see in Fig. 1a.

Composition B, 1920, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 2a
Composition B, 1920, with Diagram

Because it is chromatically so heterogeneous, however, the large square which should suggest unity does not manifest itself with sufficient clarity and that’s why in a following canvas the square turns again into a more evident white field defined by black lines (Fig. 3):

Composition with Yellow, Red, Black. Blue and Gray, 1920, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 3
Composition with Yellow, Red, Black. Blue and Gray, 1920, Oil on Canvas, cm. 51,5 x 61

Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue and Gray develops freely and is no longer subject to any pre-established module as in Checkerboard with Light Colors and in Composition B.
The number of planes decreases in the transition from 1919 to 1920 and the composition now displays a greater degree of synthesis. There is a decrease in the number of parts but an increase in their reciprocal diversity. The sense of multiplicity expressed in primarily quantitative terms in the checkerboard composition now gives way to a sense of multiplicity expressed through difference in quality of the respective parts.

Mondrian does not see the square as a closed and pre-established geometric shape but rather the given moment in which the relationship between opposites attains a certain balance which is then lost when the different aspects again start to challenge and attain predominance over one another.

Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Gray, 1921, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 4
Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow and Gray, 1921, Oil on Canvas, cm 35 x 39,5

Fig. 4: The square unit is stirred by an asymmetric distribution of colored planes of various size and proportions. The artist suggests the uncertain and temporary nature of our attempts to find balance and unity of opposites.
Every Neoplastic composition expresses this dialectic between the contradictory aspects and the unforeseeable flow of existence in everyday life and the human need to stabilize them and find something of greater constancy and duration. A square form keeps space constant while differences in size, proportion and color change it.

After reverting to an homogenous white field expressing unity (Fig. 3 and 4), Mondrian still endeavored in the works of 1921-22 to express both the one and the many at the same time (Fig. 5 and 6), but then ended up once again highlighting a large white square, made more dynamic and asymmetric by a variable set of colored areas (Fig. 7 and 8). The unitary/constant aspect and the manifold/variable aspect influenced one another reciprocally while remaining clearly separate and distinct. 

Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921, Piet Mondrian with Diagram
Fig. 5
Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue, 1921, Oil on Canvas, cm. 59,5 x 59,5 with Diagram

Everything seems subject to change in these compositions in terms of form or color. The space is in motion. More balanced syntheses are generated every so often (1, 2, 3, 4).

Composition with Yellow, Blue and Blue White, 1922, Piet Mondrian, with Diagram
Fig. 6
Composition with Yellow, Blue and Blue White, 1922, Oil on Canvas, cm. 53,3 x 55,3 with Diagram

The square appears as a constant module always changing in colors, size and proportions while preserving its function to suggest unity and multiplicity at the same time just as the waves of an ocean that are all different from one another but always made of the same water.

Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red and Gray, 1922, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 7
Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red and Gray, 1922, Oil on Canvas, cm. 34,8 x 38
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 8
Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1927, Oil on Canvas, cm. 51,1 x 51,1

It is important to reassert that we use the word „square“ to describe a balanced relationship between horizontal and vertical which is in fact never a preconceived geometrical form. Mathematics have nothing to do with Neoplastic space. Every square proportion of each individual composition is different from the other according to the context: here we see a slightly more vertical square and there a square which expands horizontally. 


With the lines taking on the function of expressing space that continues uninterruptedly, the artist’s gaze can concentrate on the square and a smaller number of planes. The painter uses virtually endless lines to maintain ideal contact between the finite space of the canvas and the multifarious real space of life. Balanced compositions transforms imbalances, which multiply out of all proportion in reality, into ideal equilibriums manifested on the surface of a canvas. 

Composition 1 with Red and Black, 1929, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 9
Composition 1 with Red and Black, 1929, Oil on Canvas, cm. 52 x 52

The two perpendicular lines running through these new compositions divide its plane into a series of open sections that expand, together with the lines, beyond the perimeter of the painting toward virtually infinite space. We see the inner sections as squares only by relating them to the perimeter of the painting. It is the sides of the canvas that determine the proportions generating the composition. This interaction between infinite space and finite space generates the relations and proportions that work together with the weight of the colors toward a dynamic balancing of the whole.

Composition II with Blue and Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 10
Composition II with Blue and Yellow, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5

The rectangular and square fields, large or small, are in unstable equilibrium between the infinite extension of the lines and the finite space of the canvas. These fields are defined and undefined at the same time. This interaction between definite space and indefinite makes the closed and stable square appear uncertain. Our quest for balance and unity is challenged by the unforeseeable course of life (the endless lines and the variable proportions nearing unity without ever really attain it). On observing these works, we are faced with a space that lasts and is already different a moment later.

The lines have grown in thickness and continue beyond the perimeter of the canvases. As Maurizio Calvesi points out, the canvas is “an ideal center in which the spatial event is determined in its wholeness and totality no less than in its dynamic continuity. Mondrian wrote in 1920 that the straight lines intersect and touch one another tangentially but continue uninterruptedly. The result radiates out in fact from the painting to the infinite, but the canvas exhausts the intuition of the whole within itself.” The lines hint at the immeasurable extension of physical reality the canvas is part of; a part which aim at ideally concentrating the whole in its essence.

Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 11
Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 51 x 51
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 12
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5
Fig. 12a
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931 with Diagram

Fig. 12 presents four areas verging to the proportions of squares (1, 2, 4) which are fully accomplished in area 2 only which however remains open and therefore subject to the expanding action of the lines. The closed area 1 appears as the only well defined square (slightly horizontal to compensates the vertical prevalences of areas 3, 5, 6) while area 5 again suggests indeterminate proportions. The parts express an intimate sense of permanence and duration while everything is nonetheless on the verge of flux and motion.

Composition 1 with Yellow and Light Gray, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 13
Composition 1 with Yellow and Light Gray, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 50,5 x 50,5

Fig. 13: Two perpendicular lines and two segments generate planes tending toward square proportions. The visibly thicker vertical segment serves as a counterweight in the lower right section to the visual weight of the yellow square in the upper left section. This composition is a clear example of how we identify as squares areas which actually extend indefinitely beyond the space of the canvas.
The message of these compositions seems to be that there is nothing more different than entities that appear to be almost the same.

Composition with Yellow, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 14
Composition with Yellow, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 46 x 46,5

Fig. 14: While the squares open up and expand in various works of this period, other compositions show a square proportion which appears in a closed form clearly defined by four sides. The two central perpendicular lines seem intent on pulling the square unit toward the upper section and the left, while the accent of color exerts a pull to the right. Unity is challenged by opposite directions. How often this happens during our daily lives.

While the opposite lines “run away”, something remains to generate a variety of more or less square fields on the point of change. The painter seeks to express unresolved squares (Fig. 13) while maintaining their visibility at the same time (Fig. 14). These compositions express therefore dynamic situations resulting from a space expanding toward infinite (the opposite lines that continues uninterruptedly) and the same space momentarily concentrating in one or more finite squares. It is worth remembering that the square form is a plastic symbol of an ideal balance between the infinite and multifarious outer space of nature and the inner quest for synthesis and unity. At he some time the square symbolizes the balance and stability we always look for while confronted with the unforeseeable and contradictory events of life which keep us in a state of uncertainty.  The uncertain square module symbolizes all this in the two-dimensional space of painting. In Fig. 14 Mondrian appears to have wished to express a variety of uncertain square proportions a moment before or a moment after they attain equivalence, to express a variety of probable but not given for granted unitary syntheses, i.e. to diversify unity.

Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 15
Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Oil on Canvas, cm. 45,4 x 45,4
Fig. 16
Composition A with Red and Blue, 1932, Oil on Canvas, cm. 55 x 55 with Diagram

Fig. 16 consists of seven different areas; some verge to proportions of squares (1, 2, 3) while others show a prevalence of one direction over the opposite. Square 2 remains open at the bottom and to the left while square 3 opens toward the top and to the right. The red and the blue planes extend beyond the canvas as well. Area 1 is the only fully accomplished square closed on four sides.

At this stage Mondrian still considers color as a symbol of the natural whereas “non-color” (white) symbolizes the spiritual. Unbalanced relationships between horizontal and vertical of red or blue color are a plastic symbols of the ever-changing appearance of things (the natural) whereas white open squares (2 and 3) suggest the on-going search for synthesis and balance (the spiritual) which is finally fully achieved with 1 where opposites reach a relatively stable unity. Heterogeneous, unbalanced situations (the red and blue planes) gradually become relatively steady (2, 3) and then fully constant (1). The areas that remain open appear as squares only if seen in relation to the sides of the canvas. In actual fact, we do not know how each area develops beyond the boundaries of the painting. A slice of definite space (the closed square) coexists with slices of indefinite space which may change a moment later. The painter appears to have wished to express a variety of possible unitary syntheses, i.e. to multiply unity.

As mentioned the artist seeks in these works to open and expand the square while maintaining its visibility at the same time. The concept of space here is still essentially the one that inspired his work from the very beginning: opening up to variety and mutability on the one hand while tending to concentrate on the other and thereby generating an ideal, more constant synthesis which then re-opens to variety and mutability. 

The play of equilibrium regards not only form but also very subtle vibrations of color. The planes appear to have been painted there and then, thus suggesting intuition more than cool elaboration. The fields of red are splendidly rendered, as indeed are those of white, which have none of the flatness unfortunately seen in standard reproductions. There are extremely subtle variations of every primary color, as there are of every shade of gray. As Jaffé wrote: “The painter let himself be guided by his feeling for color and rhythm, and he made alterations and corrections as he worked; over paintings to change the color of some of the areas can still be detected. The skilled treatment and masterly balance of the canvases are the result not of a theory but of a long experience as a painter.”


Throughout the 1920’s Mondrian worked on a series of compositions developed on a lozenge format.

Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow, 1925, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 17
Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow, 1925, Oil on Canvas, cm. 77 x 77

The choice of this format gives greater breadth to the composition. It makes it possible to use lines of various lengths.

Tableau N. 1, Lozenge with Three Lines and Blue, Gray and Yellow, 1925, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 18
Tableau N. 1, Lozenge with Three Lines and Blue, Gray and Yellow, 1925, Oil on Canvas, cm. 80 x 80

New relations of tension are established between the orthogonal planes and the diagonal sides of the painting.

Schilderij N. 1, Composition with Two Lines and Blue, 1926, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 19
Schilderij N. 1, Composition with Two Lines and Blue, 1926, Oil on Canvas, cm. 84,9 x 85

The four corners of the lozenge generate a centrifugal energy and seem to expand the plane of the canvas along its two median axes.

Composition 1, Lozenge with Four Lines, 1930, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 20
Composition 1, Lozenge with Four Lines, 1930, Oil on Canvas, cm. 75,2 x 75,2

The lozenge therefore already seems in itself a way to make the equivalence of opposites, i.e. the square, more dynamic.

On observing the four lozenges we note how a closed area nearing the proportions of a square (first lozenge) opens up (second and third) while in the fourth one a closed square re-appears which consists of lines which assume variable thickness. On the one hand an open square area extends with the lines toward a virtually infinite space (the finite opens up to the infinite; the one opens up to the many) and on the other hand a renewed closed square is made of a relative multiplicity through lines varying in thickness. In both cases, the one interacts with the many. Once again, Mondrian seeks in these works to open and expand the square while maintaining its visibility at the same time.

We shall now examine Lozenge with Yellow Lines which constitute a synthesis of all previous compositions of this type.

Lozenge with Yellow Lines, 1933, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 21
Lozenge with Yellow Lines, 1933,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 80,2 x 79,9

The more important innovation is obviously the fact that, for the first time, the lines are no longer black but yellow. The field is uniformly white and the yellow shape almost appears to be born out of the white rather than in opposition to it, as in the case of the black.

Lozenge with Yellow Lines, 1933, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 21

Yellow is an intermediate value between black and white, sufficiently dark to be differentiated from white but, at the same time, not so radically opposite as black. The opposite values now seem communicate and achieve unitary expression in terms both of form and of color, with horizontal and vertical simultaneously present for an instant in every line and the synthesis of black and white in an intermediate color, which yellow appears to constitute in this case. On observing this square and contemplating the differing thickness of the lines, we are faced with a unity undergoing transformation from one side to the other; a synthesis that already appears comparatively manifold in itself. We perceive a unity that tends to become rather than to be. It endures but changes at the same time; a square that is open, dynamic, asymmetric, and entirely expressed by color.

This composition goes to the heart of the problem: to show the manifold in unitary form; to open up unity, i.e. the postulate of consciousness, to the changing aspect of the natural universe and existence in time but without losing sight of it. Once again we recall the fundamental issue: The one and the many appear as antithetical realities in the human dimension; in actual fact, they are the same thing.

Composition with Yellow, Red, Black. Blue and Gray, 1920, Piet Mondrian
1920
Composition en Rouge, Bleu et Jaune, 1930, Piet Mondrian
1930
Composition 1 with Red and Blue, 1931, Piet Mondrian
1931
Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Piet Mondrian
1932

The dialectic between unity and multiplicity continued throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. The single white square field (1920) took on color, underwent duplication and opened up on one or two sides (1930). A closed square developed out of the dynamic continuity of the lines around 1931: sometimes more horizontal, sometimes more vertical; sometimes larger, sometimes smaller; sometimes blue, sometimes yellow. The single square of 1920 gradually gave way to a variety of probable square forms. Unity and multiplicity tended to interpenetrate.

In actual fact, the square opened up and interpenetrated with the variety of forms and colors in the rectangular canvases while seeking in the lozenge compositions to absorb that variety with no extensive change to itself. In the first case, the square opens up in the direction of multiplicity; in the second, the square absorbs multiplicity while remaining substantially one:

Lozenge Composition with Red, Black, Blue and Yellow, 1925, Piet Mondrian
1925
Composition 1, Lozenge with Four Lines, 1930, Piet Mondrian
1930
Lozenge with Yellow Lines, 1933, Piet Mondrian
1933

In this phase Mondrian is like a composer who gradually reduces the orchestra to a solo instrument, an almost imperceptible sound that can still be varied in an effort to express the whole. In a white field crossed by four black lines, the thickness of a line can also serve in a space moving toward ever-greater synthesis to calibrate the weights and influence the overall economy of the composition.

These lozenge compositions constitute the moment of greatest correspondence between the one and the many. 

Study of Trees 1, 1912, Piet Mondrian
1912
Composition II, 1913, Piet Mondrian
1913
Checkerboard Composition with Light Colors, 1919, Piet Mondrian
1919

As Michel Seuphor puts it in his beautiful biography of Mondrian: “Sometimes he thinks he has found it. So he stops, observes the work, and says: It’s done. But the clock of his life keeps on ticking and is already driving him forward. He soon realizes that nothing is done and everything has to start all over again.”