The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Perhaps most known for his abstract paintings of black horizontal and vertical lines with blocks of primary colors, Mondrian sought to establish universal values and aesthetics through seemingly simple geometric elements.
Beginning as a figurative painter, Mondrian eventually translated formal elements from his early works into purely abstract paintings. He was an early learner among the Hague school of painting and co-founded the De Stijl art movement, with Theo van Doesburg. Mondrian developed his own non-representational art, dubbed neoplasticism, which he believed was necessary to create universal beauty. The artist, however, was not solely inspired nature, but also by rhythm found in dancing the Foxtrot and listening to jazz.
Upon his arrival to Paris in 1911, Mondrian also tried his hand at other art movements, like Cubism. His work has also influenced later movements such as Color Field painting, Abstract Expressionism, and Minimalism, as well as the fields of design, architecture, and fashion. In his 70s, Mondrian moved to New York where he befriended artists Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner, along with the collector Peggy Guggenheim.
The exhibition “Mondrian Evolution” at the Fondation Beyeler, which is celebrating 25 years, marks the anniversary of Mondrian’s 150th birthday. The show is comprised of 89 paintings across nine galleries. The Foundation Beyeler holds seven Mondrian paintings, spanning from 1912 through 1938, which served as the impetus for the show.
The idea behind the exhibition draws on Mondrian’s own thinking about evolution as “the accumulation of experiences, on which a new phase of artistic development could build, in turn leading to further insights,” as described in a press release. The show, curated by Ulf Küster, follows Mondrian’s development as he explores figurative and abstract styles of painting—vertical and horizontal lines, dimensions and flatness, and color—and how these elements can offer a larger spiritual experience.
As part of the show, the Fondation Beyeler’s Mondrian paintings underwent conservation research to learn more about the way in which the artist composed his works. “Mondrian Evolution” is on view at the Fondation Beyeler in Riehen, Switzerland (just outside Basel) through October 9.
To learn more about the exhibition, ARTnews spoke with Ulf Küster to discuss his approach to curating and understanding the work of Mondrian.
ARTnews: How did you first conceive of the show?
Ulf Küster: We always like to concentrate on an artist’s strengths and, since we have quite a time range in the collection, we thought that focusing on this idea of evolution, as he himself called it, would be really enlightening.
The astonishing thing about Mondrian is that he started as a landscape painter and was very much influenced by the Hague school of painting. He tested and developed theories from this school of thought in his art until he found a means to get closer to what he believed was the foundation of art. All the abstractions for which Mondrian is most known are rooted in nature.
At the beginning of the of the 1920s, Mondrian begins concentrating on black lines, white backgrounds, and the use of three primary colors in a rectangle grid. We composed the show based on these evolving styles, showing the formal relationship between his early and late works.
Can you speak to how Mondrian’s early works, which are definitively rooted in 19th-century Dutch landscape painting and Naturalism, foreground his later abstract works?
We did a kind of introduction through pairing the earliest painting in the show [Woman with Spindle (ca. 1893–96)], which shows a woman sitting in an interior, next to what was considered very radical painting [Composition in Black and White, with Double Lines (1934)] at the time it was completed. Mondrian gave that piece to friends in Dallas, Texas, where it remained for a long time before it was sold to a private European collection. This is the first time it is being shown in Europe.
What made it so radical is that it’s only composed of white and black lines. By leaving out the colors, he’s showing pure structure. If you compare this painting with the early interior scene, you can see that he was already interested in painting structure in 1893. He was doing what many painters do in creating a grid before adding the paint. Of course, he didn’t yet know that he would become an abstract artist in 1893. What I’m showing with that pairing is that he was very interested in the structure of his paintings. And from the beginning, that structure was based on rectangles.
Another pairing includes Bosch (Woods); Woods near Oele , a large painting of a forest scene against the setting sun. You can see this expansive space, but as you get closer you realize that the oil paint is very thin and appears to get flatter. You can see in this piece how Mondrian plays with space. We combined that with the latest painting in the show, New York City 1, from 1941, which is composed of oil paint and paper strips, wherein he shows the relationship between space and flatness.
What other themes are present in the show?
The show further develops with thematic, rather than chronological, rooms. There is one dedicated to earlier oil paintings and another that focuses on vertical compositions. There, we have a lighthouse painting [Lighthouse at Westkapelle in Orange, Pink, Purple, and Blue] from 1910. I placed that next to a vertical composition [Composition with Double Line and Blue] from 1936 to show his continued use of vertical lines.
There are some interesting clashes when Mondrian goes to Paris at the end of 1911 and, influenced by Cubism, changes his style completely. The work becomes very convex, but he still shows structures in space. Later, he’s in the Netherlands and develops a figurative painting style, which ends up combining these structures in space with these farmhouses at Duivendrecht, near Amsterdam. These farmhouse paintings from 1916 are really eye opening because you can see that abstraction doesn’t equate to nonrepresentational. And you see that the nonrepresentational paintings he did in 1914 appeared to have more space than the surprising flatness of these farmhouses. It’s as if he tested being as abstract in figurative painting as possible.
These are the kind of clashes that show that this is an evolution. The idea that modern art basically is a development from figuration to non-figuration is far more complex.
Yes, that’s what makes the juxtapositions in this show so fascinating because his early works are seemingly so disparate from his later works but in actuality the formal elements still remain.
And even in these early paintings, I believe he is in total command of every style he tries. Mondrian is extremely experimental and open to surprising himself. After he painted these farmhouses, he painted windmills. The next step is just one before he begins his later abstractions, for which he became known.
Can you explain how the Piet Mondrian Conservation Project informed the exhibition?
We have these seven paintings in our collection and, with the help of a sponsorship from La Prairie, our conservators were able to conduct further research. They found very interesting things, for example, Mondrian never used a ruler. The paintings have this appearance of precision, but they are based on intuition. In the mid-1930s he began roughing out lines in charcoal, but he often didn’t follow them. He painted everything freehand, which creates a wobbly quality when you view them up close.
We have this fantastic painting [Tableau No. 1], made between 1920 and 1925, and there is one zone with a regular charcoal grid underneath the paint. It was interesting to see how he follows this grid and where he departs from it so that he can be freer in his composition. They also saw that the black lines in the piece have at least six layers of black paint and the white, which is the same white he normally used, looks different because of the direction of his brushwork. All these details are a result of very long and thorough work. And, of course, it explains why he became an increasingly slow painter.
How did you conceive of the inclusion of Lars Kraume’s short film Piet & Mondrian in the show?
We think that the film can provide viewers with a better understanding of the artist and the art. The film uses the text from Mondrian’s trialogue “Natural Reality and Abstract Reality.” There, it outlines Mondrian’s thoughts about horizontal and vertical lines being the base of all art as well as his thoughts on flatness.
Mondrian believed in the spirituality of his works so much so that he developed “neoplasticism,” his own mode of painterly expression. How did you approached Mondrian’s connection to the spiritual?
He was a theosophist all his life, and there are many important years, mainly 1908, when he got very involved in that thinking. And this is when he really tested the possibilities of primary colors. He was influenced at the time by theosophist Rudolf Steiner and kept copies of his lectures in the studio. But Steiner’s paintings always remained figurative. One of the advantages of neoplasticism is Mondrian’s ability to create a spiritual space in his abstract paintings. Mondrian’s work is an offering to this spiritual dimension.
Through formal elements that appear in both nature and his abstract works?
That is the fascinating openness of Mondrian’s art.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the upheaval in Mondrian’s life—World War I and moving to Paris, London, and New York, among other places—and the recent events we’ve experienced such as the Covid-19 pandemic.
I completely agree. There are so many turning points in Mondrian’s life, but he never left focus and had this higher goal. I should mention that he was very helpful and open to younger artists. When he came to New York, he was already a revered avant-garde painter, but he immediately got in contact with people like Peggy Guggenheim. Apparently, Mondrian told Peggy Guggenheim that of all her artists, he was most impressed with Jackson Pollock, even though his work was completely different from what Mondrian was doing. He was also friends with Willem de Kooning and Lee Krasner, who went out dancing with him. Mondrian believed in the rhythm of her work and told her to keep to that. And his experiments with paper strips were likely inspired by Krasner’s collage paintings.
Over the years that I’ve been working on Mondrian, it was nice to learn that he was encouraging of others, especially when he felt that they had this strong inner rhythm. He had this inner rhythm too, which comes through in his love of jazz music and dance. He would spend his nights at ballrooms and jazz clubs. When he came to Paris in 1919, the dance was Foxtrot. And there is this idea that the beginnings of neoplasticism are based on Foxtrot because the dancers move in a very organized, linear way.