Transcendental Interviews: Piet Mondrian on Higher Beings & Inner Fascists

A black and white photo of Piet Modrian set against one of his colorful yet lesser-known paintings eschewing parallel lines.

ETHAN PINCH: Some people find your artistic statements a little bewildering.

PIET MONDRIAN: Such as?

PINCH: Well, in 1943 you wrote: ‘Only now I become conscious that my work [sic] has been merely drawing in oil colour. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression. In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the colour planes; but the limitations of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value’.

MONDRIAN: And what’s the problem with that?

PINCH: Well, you’re using terms that are extremely narrow.

MONDRIAN: Perhaps, but the relationships I’m talking about are concrete. I’m pointing out that an apparently confined set of visual propositions is actually doing something.

PINCH: But it doesn’t seem very helpful in the way you’d expect of a normal artist’s statement.

Piet Mondrian's painting of white, red, blue, and yellow boxes set to parallel lines.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Black, Blue, Yellow, Grey (1928)

MONDRIAN: For myself, an artists statement is always polemical. Nowadays, artist’s statements are written to fit with consumer imperatives- which is to say, something everyone’s already familiar with but with the illusion of novelty. And that’s not actually helpful because it tends to create a distorted picture of what art really is.

PINCH: But there’s no consensus about what art really is, or painting for that matter.

MONDRIAN: Well, if nothing’s defined then nothing’s at stake. This relates to a larger problem in a life of inauthentic being. For many, especially those in the professional art world, the most important thing you can possibly be is agreeable or self-elevating. Other things like thoughtfulness and judgement become secondary concerns.

PINCH: Do paintings need ideas?

MONDRIAN: An idea isn’t really anything, so in that sense painting doesn’t require them. But in the absence of real, critically tough-minded ideas we’re forced to make do with wishy-washy and fleeting assertions of selfhood. The identity parade.

PINCH: Let’s shift gears a bit. Is there a particularly good critic of your own work I should be reading?

MONDRIAN: Meyer Schapiro wrote a book about me once. He’s generally very good although he had a tendency to get carried away with himself. I mean, of all the people to compare me to—Keats? C’mon.

PINCH: What tends to annoy you the most when you read art criticism?

MONDRIAN: A lot of contemporary art criticism is just unctuous ‘art enthusiasm’. As much as people claim that we live in an age of irony, I can’t help but feel we also live in an era of unrestrained sentimentalism. The writer always ‘loves‘ something, is ‘moved‘ by something.

PINCH: And what’s wrong with that? Too shallow?

MONDRIAN: Shallow. Whimsical. Disposable.

PINCH: A lot of people say the same thing about modern art. That it’s superficial or empty.

MONDRIAN: That’s a specific, historical criticism. But the larger problem now is one of an attenuated modernism being overtaken by institutional developments. Painting is ‘stuck’ because it has no practical means of exercising its internality over the power of cultural institutions. Look at someone like Peter Halley, who basically does fluorescent Mondrians.

PINCH: I like Peter Halley!

MONDRIAN: Fair enough. But do you think he’s capable of making a painting that outranks the museum it sits in? Whereas a painting like Las Meninas is arguably so great that the Prado is sucked into it rather than it into the Prado.

An abstract painting by Peter Halley with bright yellows, greens, and hot pinks set against darker blues and blacks, with an earthen perimeter and darker bottom.
Peter Halley, Perfect Sense (2011)

PINCH: But is that necessarily something to strive for?

MONDRIAN: Perhaps, perhaps not. But the institutional language employed to describe both artists is often the same. No discrimination or distinction is made between the world Velazquez comes from and the world Halley comes from. They are both merely famous artists with a profile of some kind or another. It’s an insane middlebrow.

PINCH: Let’s talk more about your own artistic apparatus. What I hear all the time is that your work is anti-individualistic. What do you make of that? Are you against individualism?

MONDRIAN: Are you asking if I’m a communist?

PINCH: I could be…

MONDRIAN: I’ve given this a lot of thought actually. In my opinion every artist is essentially a fascist in nature. Even if he’s otherwise socially and politically very liberal.

PINCH: I think I understand.

MONDRIAN: I speak from experience, of course. Part of me wants to rule my inner world with an iron fist, while another part wants to rebel against that rule, and yet another part—perhaps the innermost part—wants to submit and become a servant.

PINCH: I suppose that’s the paradox of fascism in a nutshell.

MONDRIAN: I think submission is one of the most profound choices you can make in life. There’s something special about people who put all their chips on one colour. It’s like the old saying: whatever you choose will kill you. If you choose adventure, adventure will kill you; if you choose poetry, poetry will kill you, etc. The saddest outcome is if you choose nothing, nothing will kill you. So making a definite choice and devoting your life to that is crucial.

PINCH: You used to be really into theosophy and spiritualism at one point.

MONDRIAN: I still am! How could I not be? (I’m a ghost, after all.) What really inspired me in theosophy was this idea that normal everyday life as we all experience it, is in fact not real. Or rather, normality itself is an illusion. And this is long before stuff like The Matrix, which is perhaps my favourite film. Although I suppose it goes back to Plato and his allegory of the cave.

PINCH: And this relates, I suppose, to what you were saying about fascism. This desire to be made real.

MONDRIAN: Sort of. People always want ‘the real thing‘, as Coca-Cola puts it. But it’s hard to say precisely what that reality is. It all comes down to how one connects the issues of aesthetics and morality. Which one you impose on the other.

PINCH: So Neo-plastic art was about moral seriousness

MONDRIAN: Yes. Or if you like, a sort of psychic battle between religion and doubt. I used to enjoy trying to imagine a painting that would make sense to an ‘enlightened’ spiritual being, such as those written about by Blavatsky. But this was always just a rhetorical strategy because who’s to say that an enlightened being would have any use for something like painting?

PINCH: Early on in your career you were doing very expressive, divisionist-type paintings. What changed?

MONDRIAN: Maturity, I suppose. A lot of that pre-1920s stuff seems juvenile to me in retrospect. But I was working through a lot of influences at the time. Still processing the theories of Cubism and Cézanne.

PINCH: Your early stuff is incredibly popular, though. Perhaps more than your 1930s period.

MONDRIAN: Yeah, well. The same could be said of Picasso’s blue period. Informed art people think it’s sentimental, but that’s why everyone else loves it.

PINCH: Have you ever read Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction?

MONDRIAN: No. Should I?

PINCH: Definitely. And Niklas Luhmann, if you get the chance.

MONDRIAN: I’ll add them to my Amazon wish-list.

PINCH: What do you think about this term that gets thrown around a lot: zombie abstraction?

MONDRIAN: It’s definitely a problem.

PINCH: Who’s someone you would describe as a zombie abstractionist?

MONDRIAN: Oscar Murillo. It’s only nominally abstract. Or painting, for that matter. More like post-painting.

PINCH: His art is very socially conscious, though. Societally critical…

MONDRIAN: Ha! Socially conscious? He’s collected almost exclusively by oligarchs. And they like him because his work is easily explainable in the terms of their ideology.

PINCH: Which is what?

MONDRIAN: Production fetishism. A lightweight version of important content accompanied by a visual impression of hands-off effortlessness.

A messy abstract painting from Oscar Murillo depicting black, pencil-like scribbles and text.
Oscar Murillo, Champagne (2011)

PINCH: That’s a pretty concise description of Murillo. He tends to go for a very gestural, scribbly kind of mark-making.

MONDRIAN: Yes, I’ve heard talk about the ‘energy’ of those scribbly marks. But to me they look weak. It’s not really energetic, but an illustration of energy. Strategy pretending to be spontaneity.

PINCH: Incredibly lucrative, though.

MONDRIAN: Because they’re mass produced. But there’s no, as you say, moral seriousness to it. Even in the loosest sense.

PINCH: Would you even be tempted to paint like that? Casually? Shabbily?

MONDRIAN: I’ve always felt that my weakest moments as an artist were my attempts to be spontaneous. There’s something perilous about trying to consciously will yourself into making unconscious moves. There can be a great tension in that, of course. You can observe artists like Cézanne or Pollock struggling to maintain a balance. But mostly when artists try and act spontaneous they end up doing very predictable stuff.

PINCH: How do you feel about the legacy of the Bauhaus all these years later? Are you satisfied with the kind of impact you had?

MONDRIAN: In some ways; yes. But my memories of that time are very bittersweet. There was an overall tendency in 20th century art towards a kind of universalism—or at least something which could encapsulate the zeitgeist. Because of cubism, we still felt such things were possible.

PINCH: But not anymore?

MONDRIAN: I don’t think it was ever truly possible in retrospect. A universal style, I mean. Cubism wasn’t actually universal—even if it was an incredible accelerant. It forced us to adapt.

PINCH: Would you say there’s less a sense of possibility about the future now?

MONDRIAN: Optimism is always difficult to sustain in the face of reality. Malevich was very optimistic about the Bolshevik Revolution until they threw him in jail for thought-crimes.

PINCH: And he was a theosophist like you, no?

MONDRIAN: True. But you asked about my legacy and I would say that if I have a legacy; it’s the legacy of my design principles. Here me and Malevich are like two peas in a pod. There isn’t a graphic designer I know who hasn’t taken something from our work. The same goes for architects and fashion designers. The entire look of midcentury modern design owes its lifeblood to the De Stijl group and Russian Constructivism.

PINCH: So you’re the father of the Ikea cabinet?

MONDRIAN: Haha. Partly.

PINCH: Does that bother you?

MONDRIAN: Sometimes it does. But I don’t see it as trivial. It’s of course extremely difficult to discuss things like good taste when it’s so bound up in issues of social inequality, but somewhere along the line we succeeded in altering the basic formula for what people consider tasteful. That people can easily appreciate the graphic, minimal look of something like Industrial design is a direct result of what we were doing in the twenties and thirties.

PINCH: There was something very democratic about the neoplastic look. The sense that anyone could do it if they wanted…

MONDRIAN: Absolutely. I wanted De Stijl to be less about ‘genius’ artists and their egos and more about the look of the work itself—the seemingly endless possibilities of that look. In fact, I ended up taking a lot of inspiration from my students. Like Marlow Moss. She’s the one who gave me the idea to start using parallel lines. I’m not sure why I didn’t before, to be honest. Moments like that made De Stijl feel like a collaborative practice—a group effort.

Marlow Moss, Composition with Double Line and Blue Square (1934)
Marlow Moss, Composition with Double Line and Blue Square (1934)
Piet Mondrian, Composition No. 12 with Blue (1937)
Piet Mondrian, Composition No. 12 with Blue (1937)

PINCH: Your own work feels very poised. Like every element is loadbearing.

MONDRIAN: Loadbearing. I like that.

PINCH: Because each element equally determines the whole effect.

MONDRIAN: Yes, although the same could easily be said of any good painting. The main difference with neoplasticism is that every device is exposed. And the way I use that repertoire is in such a way where all the elements don’t proceed together. The pictures are very carefully composed. A lot of deliberation is involved in how things come into the painting or get cancelled out.

PINCH: There are always rules, then?

MONDRIAN: Yes. Although the rules would often change. As I said, there was a time when I would never consider using parallel lines. It was against the rules. In my most iconic work from the thirties, the stuff people tend to think of when they think Mondrian, there’s no overlapping planes. No symmetry. Every line has to meet another line or the picture’s edge. All intersections have to be crossways or T-junctions (no naked right angles, every plane a closed rectangle).

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow and Blue, 1932
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow and Blue, 1932

PINCH: No diagonals.

MONDRIAN: No. I never used diagonals. My student Theo van Doesburg used diagonals but I was unconvinced.

PINCH: Why?

MONDRIAN: I felt very strongly about this at the time. Diagonals are just inherently more naturalistic than horizontals and verticals. It would have meant a backslide into cubism and geometric abstraction, which in Doesburg’s case is precisely what happened. I didn’t want my paintings to look like abstracted still-lifes or landscapes.

PINCH: You tend to use very few elements. Very few bits. So there’s a very salient sense of balance.

MONDRIAN: You make it sound positively butch! But no, I actually see them as…what’s the word? Fragile. This also relates back to what I was saying about all the devices being exposed. All the elements are in fact incredibly sensitive to change. Alter the proportions of one plane. Add or extend a line, crop or reframe the edges, and all relations and formations are shunted.

PINCH: So it’s an inherently sensitive repertoire.

MONDRIAN: No, because you could use the same repertoire without making pictures that are so sensitive—and could be changed without making much of a difference.

PINCH: You know, I’ve often found it very difficult to recall individual works of yours from memory.

MONDRIAN: But that’s not because they’re all the same. Obviously my paintings have a common currency. But I maintain that each individual work has its own identity. Or they do when you’re actually looking at them. It’s when you’re no longer looking at them that they become the same. What you retain is a generic idea of a Mondrian, or rather a generic idea of Mondrian circa 1930.

PINCH: The Mondrian suis generis..

MONDRIAN: Although I suppose by the same token you could say that it would be possible to memorize a Mondrian painting and memorize it fully because the repertoire is so simple and definite.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with White, Black and Red (1936)
Piet Mondrian, Composition with White, Black and Red (1936)

PINCH: But there’s will always be room for confusion because some of them are so similar…

MONDRIAN: Because there’s an infinite number of ways of doing a Mondrian.

PINCH: An infinite number? Surely there’s a more infinite number of ways of doing, say, a Rubens…

MONDRIAN: I didn’t say the forms themselves were infinite, but rather there’s a sense that the forms could be varied infinitely.

PINCH: But you must recognize that many people will see no distinction between one Mondrian and another. There’s no ‘core’ body of your main work. Just a succession of pictures.

MONDRIAN: The forgers dilemma, eh? So what? Repetition is inevitable when you’re trying to exhaust the resources of a repertoire.

PINCH: I’m just saying that it’s hard for a lot of people to understand the self-criticism that goes into your practice. What you want. What you decide to do with a new one. The thing in any one picture that must be held on to or sought at all costs.

MONDRIAN: I hate to disappoint, but mostly it involves just doodling around until something comes up.

PINCH: But then why stop? Why not go on until something else comes? Everything could still be changed and reworked towards another finish. Yet each Mondrian has to come to a stop somewhere. Why?

MONDRIAN: Just because there are an infinite number of possible Mondrians doesn’t mean they’re all equally as good. An audience might fail to distinguish a problem from a solution, or an intention from an achievement, but the same can’t hold for the artist. As the artist I have to make these distinctions, and these are subject to all sorts of determining factors. Preference. Expediency. Manner, etc. Very rarely is anything completely arbitrary.

PINCH: What about the late New York pictures, then? They’re often held up as your chef d’oeuvre, your crowning achievement. Something must have changed to bring about that kind of work.

MONDRIAN: It’s funny how my least representative work tends to be the most popular. Even those terrible art-nouveau tree paintings. Gosh, people love them. What can I say—I just decided to loosen up and go crazy with it, like Duke Ellington.

PINCH: Was it tough, adjusting to life in America?

MONDRIAN: Not as such. I’ve been an immigrant for all my life, you understand. But it depressed me to think about the situation in Europe. The rise of Nazism, the destruction of the Bauhaus and so on. It was a hopeless state of affairs.

PINCH: But you kept painting.

MONDRIAN: As if that were the heroic thing to do! Haha. Yes, I kept painting albeit with a more flexible programme.

Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943)
Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943)

PINCH: You started using coloured lines, instead of just black ones.

MONDRIAN: Coloured lines, planes without lines, concentric rectangles. Yes. The format was still rectilinear but I was trying to add something like an equivalent for rhythmic syncopation.

PINCH: And you were working out some of your compositions in masking tape beforehand?

MONDRIAN: Yes. It was an economical decision. Saved time and material.

PINCH: To conclude then—what are your thoughts about the state of contemporary art in general? Are we truly fucked or what?

MONDRIAN: Haha. The art market is fucked but that’s because speculators have more power than critics. Overall there’s a huge problem of critical impotence. Even when critics are correct it doesn’t tend to make a difference one way or another. And there’s nothing like an official avantgarde anymore. No one you can point to and say ‘Hey, they look like they’re on the right track—let’s follow their lead’.

PINCH: What about this magazine, automachination. There’s some good art-writing on here, no?

MONDRIAN: Some good writers. My current favourite is Su Zi who writes very concisely and very persuasively. But some of the issues and artists under discussion are, in my opinion, slightly outdated.

PINCH: What about Jessica Schneider? Have you read her poetry?

MONDRIAN: I’ve not had the pleasure, but Hilma af Klint is always telling me how good she is.

PINCH: And what do you think of my own critical writing?

MONDRIAN: I find it a bit muddled, if I’m being honest.

PINCH: Ouch. Perhaps I ought to try and get in touch with my own inner fascist, as you say.

MONDRIAN: Haha. I myself have a dreamy, laidback side that wants to ruminate and have fun but also an output-obsessed side that I internally fear and try not to aggravate or disappoint. If an artist fails to balance these forces—a version of the Apollonian and the Dionysian—then he’s bound to end up in a bad place. Maybe that’s one of the big ideas of my work. Self-denial as a means of self-empowerment.

PINCH: I can tell you were raised as a Calvinist.

MONDRIAN: Very staunchly Neo-Calvinist. I grew up around lots of talk about living in ‘equilibrium’ with God and the natural world. I suppose some things never change. The pleasure I get from painting is connected to life, nature and how the mind organises reality. I don’t say look at my paintings and your consciousness will be raised! Instead I force the viewer to ask what consciousness in art is, what pleasure is, what makes them work and what drives people to seek them out. If something jars or is wrong or doesn’t work, why is that happening and why is it a problem—what constitutes a false move? What constitutes an equilibrium? The social implications of this kind of questioning are not so hard to see.

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