Talking at Cross Purposes: Piet Mondrian & Ad Reinhardt

By Naves, Mario | New Criterion, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Talking at Cross Purposes: Piet Mondrian & Ad Reinhardt

Naves, Mario, New Criterion

Devotees of geometric abstraction this season would be hard put to find a gallery exhibition more impressive than "Mondrian and Reinhardt: Influence and Affinity"(1) at PaceWildenstein. Borrowing important works from museum and private collections, the gallery offered a tete-a-tete between the seminal modernist and a painter known for his forbiddingly austere canvases. PaceWildenstein has garnered a reputation for mounting museum-caliber shows matching artists whose connection is, at times, tenuous. That commercial considerations play a part in such pairings is understood. Hitching Reinhardt, whose estate the gallery represents, to Mondrian is a gambit designed to enhance the formers stature. Still, perhaps a specialized exhibition such as this one--which required an eye sympathetic to an often difficult brand of abstraction--could only be attempted by a gallery. If "Influence and Affinity" was not as provocative as the recent coupling of Bonnard and Rothko, it was first-rate nonetheless.

The question that arises is, What artist who has pursued geometric abstraction doesn't share an affinity with Piet Mondrian (1872-1944)? The genre itself all but stems from Mondrian, not to mention the fact that he is arguably the greatest abstract painter, geometric or otherwise, of this century. The uncompromising nature of Mondrian's vision has inspired even those artists whose work diverges stylistically from that of the Dutch master. (William Baziotes, that painter of cryptic biomorphs, considered him a hero.) Yet the school of Mondrian was never as influential as Cubism. Mondrian's Spartan aesthetic--with its dramatic reduction of pictorial elements--had a finality to it that seemed closed. Yet, it wasn't entirely. There has been accomplished and important painting by followers of Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism. There were his cohorts in de Stijl, of course, but also underrated American artists such as Burgoyne Diller and Ilya Bolotowsky. One could add Philip Guston during his Ab Ex period and, maybe, the hardedge painter John McLaughlin to the mix as well. Seen in this context, Reinhardt seems as likely a painter as any for bouncing off Mondrian.

Or is he? Although Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) was associated with the New York School, he was far from the typical "action painter." His commitment to a stern geometry is characterized by symmetry and anonymity: no (as the artist had it) "wiggly line" painting here. Reinhardt's best known--and, in the case of his black paintings, infamous -- canvases are closely valued cruciforms that, at first glance, read as monochromes. His rejection of the incidentals of painting, or what Reinhardt thought of as the incidentals, was unyielding. He wasn't interested in essentializing painting so much as negating it. For some, Reinhardt's stoicism is imbued with spirituality, as if the more vacant a painting is the closer it comes to God. Yet, given the convolutions of artistic practice since his death, Reinhardt's hardheadedness is, if not awe-inspiring, then honorable. Reinhardt may have been something of a nihilist, but he never gave up on painting.

What was illuminating about "Influence and Affinity" wasn't the colloquy that took place between the two painters, but that such a dialogue never really got started. Put another way, there was less affinity than met the eye. True, both artists pursued a stringent kind of geometric painting. Reinhardt was up-front about the influence of Mondrian on his own work, and the installation stressed the two painters' stylistic correspondences. But such similarities can be misleading. Placing Reinhardt's October (1949) near Mondrian's Church at Domburg (1914) made for a rudimentary kind of sense: both works are in black and white and composed of gridded lines. In their approaches to art-making, however, they are different--indeed, radically so. October's staccato markings establish an all-over pattern, but the rhythms are less enticing than lulling. …

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