An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Neoplasticism and urban space

Harmonizing the space of our cities

A more lasting space-time

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 a 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.

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.

It is not about 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 and façades 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 D

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 of plane 2 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. 

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. Such a vision should guide architects and urban planners in generating continuity among the different objects that make up cities today.

Old and new architectural orders

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 (the vanishing point of Renaissance perspective) has multiplied into a succession of different viewpoints, i.e. into 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. 

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. Could automobiles become part of a dynamic architectural order? 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 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.

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.

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. 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).

A new conception of space

In truth, it is our own rhythms of life (far more dynamic than those experienced in the past) that have undermined the foundations of a plastic space based on the single point of observation (the vanishing point of Renaissance perspective). It is the social progress of the last two centuries that has transformed the conception of space as a wholly external a priori reality independent of human action in a new conception of space understood as an open structure in a state of constant transformation depending also on the active consciousness of individuals. After Mondrian, space is no longer a purely external phenomenon but the result of the relationship between subject and object, interior and exterior.

It is certainly no coincidence that psychoanalysis was born at the same time as this new plastic space. Psychoanalysis focuses precisely on the relationship between exterior and interior, i.e. between horizontal and vertical in Mondrian’s terms. Modern space is no longer something existing prior to the subject, something that has always been there waiting. The new concept of space is rather of a reality that is born, develops, and alters together with the subject. We are therefore talking about a dynamic process, an open and flexible structure that is not only a geometric entity but also depends on mental and cultural coordinates.

Aesthetics and ethics

The new “vanishing point” that unifies plastic space no longer lies solely in external reality but rather in a dynamic equilibrium between the space of the world and the space of consciousness. Aesthetics necessarily involves ethics. I believe that there is a relationship between the social life of a collectivity and the type of space with which it identifies. It is no coincidence that Nazism, Fascism, and Communism were all fiercely opposed to abstract art. Certain present cultural regimes, the expression of obtuse economic power, confine themselves today, more democratically, to ignoring the revolutionary impetus of true abstract art and dishing up surrogates that are as high-flown as they are insignificant. The official art world certainly cannot ignore the historical figures of abstract art but does nothing at all to promote the work of young people who display the capacity to continue along the path opened up by the masters.