An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Reflections

ABOUT NEOPLASTICISM

“Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
Paul Gauguin wrote these questions on a painted image. Piet Mondrian painted them in colored lines that turn into planes and then back into lines. Neoplastic geometry demonstrates that it is still possible to talk about universal questions.

A reading of the explanations provided in these pages should be followed by visits to museums to examine the original works, allowing the eye to reveal all the delights of the painted surfaces transformed by the Dutch painter into authentic wordless discourse about life. 

Mondrian put forward a utopian proposal to abolish art and achieve beauty in real life. Art would no longer be necessary once it had proved possible to attain the harmonies evoked by painting concretely among human beings. While a look around shows that this will take a long time yet, there are some positive signs. The Dutch artist was in no hurry and did not expect to see the world he had in mind established any time soon. He was well aware that it is not only creativity and technical expertise that count in life but also and above all economic, political, ethical, and religious factors. He thus understood that real progress would necessarily be slow and gradual. Others instead believe that certain changes can take place quickly and have no hesitation in proclaiming the failure of a project, whose significance they have barely grasped, if it is not fully achieved overnight. 

The modern project foreshadowed by some masters of abstract-concrete art was something more than a fashion, which is what most of our contemporary visual “culture” unfortunately boils down to. In the case of Mondrian, the question was not only aesthetic but also ethical, social, and above all spiritual at the same time. To tell the truth, a look around leads us to suspect not only that modernism has not been superseded but also that it has not even begun in its deeper sense.

NEOPLASTICISM AND PHILOSOPHY

AGENT, ACTION AND THING ACTED UPON

In Broadway Boogie Woogie cause and effect are two aspects of the same process and we should always say, as certain Japanese sages say, that it is not the writer who writes the book, but that book “writes itself” through the writer. In everyday life we believe we respond to our intentions and it is true; but if we could observe things from another point of view, we would realize that our intentions do not always depend exclusively on our will.
At the level of everyday life, each individual and his or her experiences appear to be unique facts, thought and willed autonomously and independently but, from another point of view, all individuals and their continuous interaction turns out to be a unique flow of interconnected events that inscrutably influence each other.

I think of the space of Broadway Boogie Woogie in which I see a representation of the incessant exchange of energy that, in every place and at every moment, is generated between living beings; each one subtracts a crumb of energy from someone and then gives it back to someone else. Abstract composition exhorts us to see existence as an infinite process of an unimaginable variety rather than stopping at the apparent form of just a few parts of it as realistic or figurative painting does.

Those circuits that are formed, those glances, those gestures that at every moment cross and are lost between individuals, in harmony or sometimes in open contrast with our inner space, are an example of that continuum in which it is not possible to separate the outside from the inside, one thing from another. Of this infinite structure, each of us is an infinitesimal part. We cannot grasp this reality as a whole, also because it is an open structure in continuous transformation; however, it is very present and influences us through and on us. How to represent such a reality? Fleeting and at the same time omnipresent; a flexible structure that continuously expands and contracts, made of visible and invisible; energy in constant transformation that relentlessly flows between individuals uniting them in one great breath that Japanese wisdom calls KI. The pulsing geometry of Broadway Boogie Woogie is a snapshot of all this. Painting makes concrete what in life, by its nature, eludes all definition. Art can make visible what is impossible for us to stop and touch. Again I think of Paul Klee when he wrote that “art makes the invisible visible”.

NEOPLASTICISM AND SCIENCE

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NEOPLASTICISM AND INDIVIDUAL LIFE

CHANGE AND CONSTANCY

I have often spoken during my explanation of the Neoplastic works about the aspects of change and constancy.

Our days are also entities that are repeated but always in a new way (Diagram A):

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian, Diagram
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram A

We therefore seek to organize the unpredictable course of events into a more orderly and constant rhythm (the symmetrical sequences of Diagram B):

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram B

We feel the desire to reduce and control the change that life brings with it, striving to consolidate the flow of our actions and give them concrete shape in artifacts demonstrating that the flux of time has been transformed into something of a comparatively more permanent nature (Diagram C):

Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram C

Works, ideas, children: elements able to give meaning and a sense of greater permanence to our passage through life. Can we not see a visual symbol of this in the chaotic multitude of small squares that come to form a single and more solid entity?

OUR SOUL

When we are born on this planet as individuals, we partake of an infinitesimal portion of cosmic energy that we must learn to manage, preserve, and consolidate in a more constant structure that we then return to the cosmos when our bodies dissolve. We are responsible for our soul, which is not wholly ours in actual fact. The process observed in Broadway Boogie Woogie strikes me as representing this cycle. The ephemeral (the small square) attains greater solidity and duration (the unitary plane) through constant opposition before opening up and returning to the cycle of universal life. 

NEOPLASTICISM AND SOCIAL LIFE

CHANGE AND CONSTANCY

The relationship between what changes and what maintains greater constancy regards not only individual but also collective life.

Morality, laws, and institutions are tools that mankind uses in order to regulate and stabilize the unforeseeable flux of existence, to govern the relations between individuals and their interaction with the environment in which they live. 

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram A

It is by establishing rules and observing shared rituals that mankind endeavors to transform the instinctive life of the instant (Diagram A) into a more orderly sequence expressing cornerstones or certain values to be taken as points of reference (Diagram B). 

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian, Diagram
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram B

The process analyzed in Broadway Boogie Woogie—from lines to symmetries, then simple planes, and finally the unitary plane—tells us that life is change (the dynamic lines) but if people are to live, they need to reduce and stabilize the ever-changing flux of existence, which does not, however, allow itself to be governed all that much (the unitary plane flowing back into lines – Diagram C)

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian, Diagram G
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram C

As Mondrian put it, “It is important to distinguish two types of equilibrium in art: 1) static equilibrium and 2) dynamic equilibrium. It is always natural for human beings to seek static equilibrium. This equilibrium is obviously necessary for existence in time. But vitality always destroys this equilibrium in constant temporal succession. Abstract art is a concrete expression of this vitality.”

The lines, which express the maximum degree of energy and do not stop continuing, represent vitality. The symmetries and planes, which express a measured space and are endowed with greater permanence, albeit not total immobility, represent the equilibrium required for existence in time. 

In this dialectic between what persists and what changes, crucial importance will attach to establishing rules, laws, and institutions capable of remaining open to the changes that existence brings with it and hence of performing their regulatory function without stifling vital demands any more than necessary. 

When laws and institutions oppose the movement and transformations that life brings with it, all they do is generate greater unrest over time, which in turn generates greater resistance on the part of the institutions and so on in an exhausting vicious circle where it is ultimately life that prevails and not our “symmetrical” stubbornness. This is what human history teaches. This is what is shown by the geometry of Broadway Boogie Woogie, where space arrives at a certain degree of control and then opens up again to becoming.

NEOPLASTICISM AND URBAN SPACE

Another aspect of existential reality interestingly reflected in Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie is the overcrowded space of metropolitan areas. Contemporary urban spaces often manifest themselves aggressively and severely test our ability to maintain balance between external stimuli and our inner world. The space at human height is never the same for more than ten seconds in big cities. How can we contemplate and feel part of a landscape in a constant state of change? 
Mondrian’s Neoplastic compositions teach us to conceive harmoniously of space in a state of becoming. Just think of how unharmonious the space of our cities is and how frustrating it is for us as we experience every single thing, moment after moment, in a constant whirl of fragments, no longer able to see the individual parts as a whole. 

We obviously cannot return to the slow rhythms of the human being on foot or horseback:

It would be better to make the space of our everyday life more lasting, but this cannot mean bringing it to a halt. We obviously cannot return to the slow rhythms of the human being on foot or horseback, to the more static and monolithic social values connected with the rhythms of life in an agricultural society. More realistically, we can instead work to transform chaotic urban flux into more harmonious patterns, harmony being understood as a more balanced relationship between the parts and the whole, between the dynamic and variable aspects of physical reality and the sense of greater constancy demanded by our inner world. I have spoken of this repeatedly during my explanation of Mondrian’s paintings and it was, among other things, the point of departure for Cubism: the representation of dynamic space in a harmonious form.

In speaking about the relations between Mondrian’s art and urban space, appearance is often confused with substance and somewhat crude examples are put forward. Comparisons are made and analogies discovered with disarming superficiality between the artist’s abstract compositions and the rectilinear façades of modern buildings, thus demonstrating once again an inability to do more than scratch the surface of the Neoplastic vision.

The true link between Mondrian’s visual thought and urban space lies not in the yellow, red and blue façades:

The true link between Mondrian’s visual thought and urban space lies not in the façades of buildings with yellow, red or blue windows but rather in the attempt to make the urban environment more homogeneous by transforming the manifold and fragmentary nature of external space into the continuity and duration of inner space. I shall give just one example for the present.

Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram

Broadway Boogie Woogie, Diagram: The yellow plane numbered 1, which presents a certain degree of vertical predominance, comes into contact with a gray horizontal segment. This juxtaposition of opposing thrusts generates movement (all opposition causes a buildup of tension that is released through movement) and the plane moves downward together with the segment, which thus becomes a gray field inside plane 2.
In plane 3 the gray open field is transformed into a small square fully inscribed in a yellow plane. The latter thus seems to represent the conclusion of the sequence initiated with plane 1. The three planes 1, 2, 3 would thus be three successive moments of a process through which a yellow plane internalizes a gray segment of line that then becomes a small square. 

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian, Diagram
Broadway Boogie Woogie
Diagram

The same also holds for the three red and gray planes A, B, and C, which can be seen by virtue of analogous colors as different instants of a single sequence through which a plane evolves.

On my reading of the three parts (1, 2, 3 or A, B, C) we have a relational space in which three entities—seen as three different things in a static vision—become a single entity represented in its process of becoming. Multiplicity moves toward unity in a dynamic vision. 

An architectural dynamic order:

What was done in the first half of the 15th century by introducing order and symmetry into the erratic development of medieval façades should be done today, albeit bearing in mind that everything has changed in the meantime. The single viewpoint has multiplied into a succession of different viewpoints, i.e. dynamic sequences, and the concept of symmetry (static space) has thus given way to the concept of equivalence (dynamic space), which can confer homogeneity on a quantity and variety of different volumes that are no longer susceptible of standardization in terms of the older spatial coordinates. Just as every single object was formerly made up of parts gathered together in an organic whole (the façade), every object today becomes part of a continuum (urban space), which can thus be conceived again as a living tissue of interconnected parts. In this connection, mutatis mutandis, I am reminded of the splendid Rome of the baroque era. 

Learning from history, but without resting on the laurels of the past, we must address the challenges posed by present-day reality with courage, intelligence, and creativity, not least because we have moved beyond the fundamental modules of classical architecture, based for centuries on the proportions of the human body. Today these proportions are no longer crucial even for human activities, which have come to involve bodily extensions made available by technology. 

Can automobiles become part of a dynamic architectural order?

I am thinking, for example, of automobiles, which have come by now to constitute an authentic flow of objects in motion that interacts with the static volumes of architecture as literally understood: a stream of self-moving entities available for use as a rhythmic sequence of shapes and colors that could serve as the basic modules (the individual automobiles) of a developing architectural structure. Seen all together, the automobiles that crowd our urban spaces create plastic sequences that appear and disappear within a few seconds. What is needed is the capacity to evoke harmony in that rapid development of space. One of the great challenges facing artists and architects today is to make space coincide once again with time. The little time available to us today must be capable of offering us all the mental space we need if our humanity is to manifest itself fully.

In my view, the question of values and content is primarily one of measures, proportions and relations, i.e. a question of form (for those who still believe in the difference between form and content).

It is no longer possible to apply the traditional architectural plans and orders in the dynamic context of the modern urban centers. These worked in the static and potentially symmetrical space of the Renaissance and Baroque eras where, among other things, the external landscape was always perceived at the same speeds (walking or riding). Today we perceive the urban environment at different speeds that cause the form and duration of architectural volumes to expand and contract within our mental space. 

If only the complex and variable forms of the city could also evoke something more constant through equivalent proportions and analogies.

A new architectural order based on a dynamic interaction between outer and inner space:

It would be necessary to discover an “architectural order” making it possible to reassemble the dynamic and disconnected signals of external space in more durable structures of internal space, an order no longer based solely on external objects but generated in real time between things and us. This would entail education in a new mental space. I regard the Neoplastic vision as constituting an excellent gymnasium for training the mind and spirit in this direction.

One interesting architectural example that not only moves beyond human proportions but also seems to evoke new ones more in keeping with the spirit of the time is the Citicorp Building on Lexington Avenue and 53rd Street in Manhattan, which I have no intention of examining at length here.
Work in this direction is also being carried out in Berlin with very interesting results. Rome is instead content to settle for the masterpieces produced by past generations. In Italy the past often becomes a good excuse for doing nothing in the present.

Modernism has manifested itself not only in the two-dimensional space of the painting but also in the great efforts of architects to rethink the cities. The ideas of Gropius and Le Corbusier presuppose a new society. In speaking of phenomena as complex as cities, it is necessary to take variety as a common factor, to translate individual imagination, freedom of enterprise, and plurality of intent in terms of architecture and urban planning without losing sight of the overall context. The question of the relationship between change and constancy, multiplicity and unity, then becomes an economic, political, and social issue, and everything thus becomes much more complicated.

The continuum evoked by Mondrian, in which each thing loses its particular nature to become part of a context of relations, presupposes a more highly evolved social and economic system than we have at present.
So-called postmodern architecture has instead clumsily reintroduced symmetry, restoring the central role of the object and thereby preventing a dynamic vision of greater breadth. What a friend in Berlin used to call “post-mortem” architecture has in fact proved to be the plastic expression of a conception that was only apparently innovative but actually conservative all the way through, developed by potentates intent on maintaining their positions and largely unconcerned with the quality of people’s lives in the future. Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building on Madison Avenue in Manhattan is a clear example of this.

It may not be long before others discover new pathways of greater present-day relevance in line with the true ideals of socialism, a term largely misused in the course of the 20th century.

SOCIAL LIFE

PAINTING, PHOTOGRAPHY, VIDEO

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TODAY’S ARTISTIC SCENE

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