Marcel Knudsen

Mondrian, the City, and the Birth of Abstract Art


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Casey Lange.

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Colors/Composition No. I with Red and Blue, 1931

“Oh perfect beauty of a sunflower!” –Allen Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra”
“Trees! How ghastly!” –Piet Mondrian, reportedly, upon gazing out of an apartment window

Piet Mondrian, Charmion von Wiegand tells us, had such a “general revulsion against green and growth [that] when seated at a table beside a window through which trees were visible, [he would] persuade someone to switch places.” Indeed, Mondrian’s aversion to the color is so noticeable that the minimalist artist Dan Flavin dedicated Greens Crossing Greens to him. But given his belief in the supremacy of city life, Mondrian’s choice of colors and aversion to nature is not surprising. After all, Mondrian developed his artistic philosophy at a time when the contrast between cities and the natural environment was heavily discussed, when the city was ascendant—in commerce, society, and art. In this context, Mondrian’s trajectory is emblematic of the influence of the city on visual art’s path towards abstraction.

In contrast to the art of previous epochs, much of modern art has been distinctly urban; this change can be attributed to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Artists were no strangers to cities, and the emergence of wealthy urban art purchasers and museums shortened the distance between them and their patrons. As art was increasingly produced by urban artists, for urban consumers, the city became not only a motif in art, but an ideology. This ideology preached formal innovation and the importance of progress, and favored the manmade over the natural sublime. This tendency to link art to the city both stylistically and formally is most visible in the work of Mondrian, but it is also present in many of the major abstract artists of the 20th century, especially those who called New York home. After all, artists ultimately draw inspiration from what they can see—and what the New York artists were seeing on a day-to-day basis was walls of buildings and the throng of humanity. The development of abstract art, which de-emphasized natural beauty, was the ultimate product of the ascendance of an urban aesthetic.

Why were artists drawn to the city as their subject? Because it was what they knew, and the methods they had developed seemed best suited to city life. But to some degree it was a chance combination of artistic and economic trends. Artists lived in the city, their audiences and buyers increasingly lived in the city, and so it seemed natural to make work that could speak to urban audiences and champion the urban lifestyle. Minimalist painter Frank Stella stated:

A thing that I can see in a lot of my paintings is that they seem obviously to relate to a kind of urban situation almost or urban landscape, and there’s something about my paintings and the way that they’re done which just seems to relate to city life… A lot has specifically some of the quality of New York or something.
Sounding a cautionary note, Stella continued: “I don’t know that that’s a good idea; in the beginning I couldn’t avoid it and I don’t even try to avoid it now, but I think that it could be limiting in a way.”

Over time, the city came to shape both the form and content of its art, but when it first appeared in the art of the 19th century, the urban landscape seemed to promise artistic freedom and new vistas for expression. The Impressionists were the first artists to turn their easels back towards the city, after a century populated mostly by historical works and country idylls. While the work that sparked Impressionism, Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass), did not explicitly reference the city, it turned the attention of art back towards scenes of everyday life. Other paintings would capture glimpses of the beautiful in the artist’s daily round: views of harbor sunsets, cathedrals, parks, and salons. Impressionism quickly became popular among Paris salon-dwellers who valued innovation, novelty, and the cosmopolitan lifestyle, and who were socially connected to the city’s art scene. The artistic class, which had always resided in the city, relished this freedom from drawing Perseus and alpine ruins, and fixed its eyes on city life. But Impressionism did not aim at moving beyond moments of beauty it found in the urban lifestyle. It would take another movement, Cubism, to incorporate the dynamism and disorder of city life.

The analytic Cubists took a sharp step towards abstraction, and in the process focused specifically on the urban experience. While the Impressionists painted pleasant views from fixed vantage points, the Cubists conveyed the constant motion, chaos, and alienation of the urban landscape. They began to take apart the visual terrain of urban life, abstracting it into geometric shapes that at the same time identified multiple perspectives on an object and the bewilderment of urban living. The monochrome color palate of early Cubist works often makes them seem gritty and confrontational. While the Impressionists derived their content from the urban landscape, the Cubists embraced its formal implications. Their paintings had a way of alienating viewers, yet there was something comforting in the occasional identification of familiar objects.

Mondrian’s early artistic trajectory paralleled the artistic movements engulfing Paris and Europe at the time. His early painting was influenced by Impressionism and the Fauvist emphasis on color. In 1911, he encountered Cubism at a gallery in Amsterdam and moved to Paris to be closer to that scene. But after a brief Cubist period featuring a few highly abstract and terrifying pictures of trees, he moved wholly towards geometrical abstraction and developed an artistic philosophy, “Neoplasticism,” that emphasized non-representational harmony. Regarding his Impressionist and Cubist periods, Mondrian would state: “Gradually I became aware that Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries.” Cubists clung to representation even while disassembling their subjects; Mondrian would try to move beyond this approach to an art that dispensed entirely with the natural world. Living in a series of cities—Paris, Amsterdam, Paris, New York—Mondrian would produce abstract works that he felt captured both the liveliness and order of city life.

Mondrian split with previous traditions by focusing entirely on the relations between geometric shapes, harmoniously arranging rectangles and lines on a canvas. Whereas Analytic Cubism broke everyday objects into geometric fragments to convey subjectivity, Mondrian’s Neoplasticism claimed that there was an abstract, pure beauty contrasting with and superior to representation. “The cultivated man of today,” he claimed, “is gradually turning away from natural things, and his life is becoming ever more abstract.” This level of abstraction emphasized the entire visual experience, and associated itself more closely with architecture and urban life. Mondrian argued that by generating abstractions linked to city life, he would allow viewers to come into harmony with their everyday existence. This is not to say that Mondrian saw existence as bare and colorless—his last works attest to his love of jazz and swing rhythms—but that he believed a deeper harmony operated below the activity of the city.

I might make a brief detour here into my own opinions on the matter of visual harmony with the urban terrain. To be frank, I think an urban environment conflicts in many ways with our aesthetics. Consider that the geometric elements of the city—lines and blocks—are nowhere to be found outside of human artifice. Certainly attempts have been made to describe the city as beautiful and sublime, but they ultimately fall short of making the city a compelling alternative to nature. Abstract art, to some degree, was an assault on natural beauty, a fact acknowledged by Mondrian but often lost by later artists.

Mondrian believed that abstract beauty was superior to natural beauty. He claimed that if you depict nature you must include “whatever is capricious and twisted in nature.” In this respect, he was fairly radical, but he heralded the direction of art to come. Natural beauty contains emotional components that distract from visual harmony and order. Mondrian wrote:

“If you follow nature you will not be able to vanquish the tragic to any real degree in your art. It is certainly true that naturalistic painting makes us feel a harmony which is beyond the tragic, but it does not express this in a clear and definite way, since it is not confined to expressing relations of equilibrium. Let us recognize the fact once and for all: the natural appearance, natural form, natural color, natural rhythm, natural relations most often express the tragic . . . We must free ourselves from our attachment to the external, for only then do we transcend the tragic, and are enabled consciously to contemplate the repose which is within all things.”

Harmony, in other words, can only be found when painting is stripped of representation. The cycles of life and death in the natural world lend it its beauty, but distract from the “pure” beauty present in lines and elementary shapes—shapes that dominated cityscapes. For Mondrian, this meant that the harmony one could feel with the city was fundamentally different and superior to that of the country.

This claim is what I meant when I stated that modern art is ideologically aligned with city life. While we tend to think of abstraction as divorced from representation, the harmonies in abstract art take as their basis the artist’s everyday environment. This tendency was particularly visible in the minimalist artists after Mondrian who lived in cities. Their visual harmonies were often dominated by crisp lines, sharp angles, and other products of artificial existence and urban architecture. A generation of artists such as Stella, Donald Judd, and Sol Lewitt generated works that were not representational but nevertheless very urban. The cause was not, as Mondrian claimed, that abstraction and the city were intertwined. Rather, the artists based their abstraction on the urban landscape that surrounded them, producing works marked by linearity and duplication.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Lake George Reflection, ca 1921-2

The exception that proves the rule is Georgia O’Keeffe, probably the most well-known natural artist in American art. Her early works focused mostly on city scenes, and particularly New York’s skyscrapers, and her painting style sometimes gave even those elements of the city an expressiveness not present in the art of many of her pre-war contemporaries. But after settling in New Mexico in 1929, her art changed dramatically. Her color palette became more vibrant, her shapes less geometric, and she focused on flowers, skulls, skies, and the desert landscape. Her most famous abstract works were inspired by extreme close-ups of flowers and the shape of the landscape and sky. OKeeffe’s urban works were vibrant in their own right, but her artistic vision widened when she moved from the city. That is perhaps the clearest consequence of art’s urban orientation—the curtailment of visions and perspectives that do not mesh with urban existence.

According to Mondrian, art is an essential means for coming into harmony with our surroundings. Given that we are entering the first decade in which the majority of the world lives in cities, it is more essential than ever to create art that cures our alienation from the urban environment. While Mondrian’s disavowal of nature was fairly extreme, city-dwellers should heed his goal of imbuing life with harmony. A harmonious relationship with one’s environment is clearly not necessary to live in the city, but it may be integral to one’s mental well-being. What the right approach for art is, I cannot say, but it is important that it maintain a foothold in the natural world even as the world grows increasingly artificial. Anything else risks losing the harmonies that only nature can produce, as we descend into a world of lines, boxes, and rectangles.

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