Mondrian and the Contemporary

By Sotheby's
“Mondrian has come to mean Modernism. His name and his work sum up the High Modernist ideal.”
Stephen Bayley

Piet Mondrian’s utopian theory of achieving a universal truth through the creation of art had a radical and revolutionary impact on the development of Modern art. In practice, his artistic ideals engendered the supremely refined abstractions that have not only come to define his own career, but have also become a visual shorthand for Modernism as a whole. As explained by historian Stephen Bayley: “Mondrian has come to mean Modernism. His name and his work sum up the High Modernist ideal. I don’t like the word ‘iconic’, so let’s say that he’s become totemic – a totem for everything Modernism set out to be.” A quintessential example of his style, Composition No. II bears all the hallmarks of Mondrian’s innovative and seminal conceptual framework. For Mondrian, the expression of natural truth and beauty meant ridding his work of what he called the “particularity” of the image; he systematically eliminated spatial hierarchy and centrality, resulting in the sublime simplicity of line and color. Using only vertical and horizontal black lines against planes of primary colors and a white ground, Mondrian composed pure expressions of equilibrium.

The full impact of Mondrian’s pioneering theoretical and aesthetic approach is immensely far-reaching and continues to reverberate throughout the contemporary cultural sphere. From the design and architectural tenets of De Stijl or the Bauhaus; to the practices of postwar and contemporary artists working in abstraction; to the fashionable realm of Yves Saint Laurent and Nike; and even to the pop-cultural references of the rock band the White Stripes or the Pac-Man video game, Mondrian’s influence can be keenly felt. One of the first European abstract artists to set foot on American soil, he lived and worked in New York from the onset of the Second World War until the end of his life, where his groundbreaking compositions made him a celebrity in the American art scene and had a profound influence on generations of artists worldwide.

Fig. 1: Alexander Calder, Untitled, 1958. Image courtesy of Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York. Art © 2022 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Fig. 2: Sketch of Piet Mondrian’s 1930 Paris studio from Calder's manuscript "The Evolution," 1955–56. © 2022 Calder Foundation, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Perhaps one of the most famous encounters between Mondrian and a fellow artist is evinced by that with Alexander Calder. Following a visit in October 1930 to Mondrian’s Paris studio, where he was deeply impressed by the environment, Calder made his first wholly abstract compositions and, soon after, invented his mobiles. As he describes, “It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate. And he, with a very serious countenance, said: ‘No, it is not necessary, my painting is already very fast.’ This one visit gave me a shock that started things” (the artist quoted in Jean Davidson, ed., Calder, An Autobiography with Pictures, New York, 1966, p. 113). Calder’s famed mobiles, with their wire armaments and painted metal planes, visually echo Mondrian’s compositions, and overturn traditional boundaries in art by engaging the fourth dimension of time.

Fig. 3: Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1968. Sotheby’s New York, Modern Evening Auction, 14 November 2022, lot 130. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mondrian was also deeply influential on painters of the postwar New York School. Though his compositions are radically simplified, Mondrian’s work was highly intuitive and emotive, inspired by the speed, improvisation, and rhythm of jazz, dance, and urban life. That dynamism finds profound resonance in the work of Color Field and Abstract Expressionist painters, from Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt to Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. Indeed, Rothko was “tremendously impressed” by Mondrian, describing him as “the most lascivious of painters, licking all those brushstrokes on the canvas” (Rothko quoted in Virginia Pitts Rembert, Mondrian, America and American Painting, Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1970, pp. 244, 256). Similarly, de Kooning is said to have advised young downtown artists to keep Mondrian in their back pocket “like a compass” (Tim Keane, “Mondrian Before Abstraction,” Hyperallergic, 11 January 2020, online). Like Mondrian, these painters used abstraction to evoke universal ideals like truth and emotion by emptying their pictures of direct references to the physical world.

Conversely, American Pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein found inspiration in Mondrian’s work for entirely different reasons. Rather than seeking to express any deeper spiritual meaning, Pop art focused on the surface, and referenced Mondrian as a popular and instantly recognizable style. Lichtenstein in particular, with his interest in parody and reproduction, returned to Mondrian frequently; some of his first paintings from the 1940s were geometric abstractions in Mondrian’s style, while his late 1980s Plus and Minus series was inspired by Mondrian’s early Pier and Ocean works. Lichtenstein’s famed Ben-Day dots – noted for their equalized size, highly intentional distribution, and restricted palette of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black – echo the limited pictorial means of Mondrian’s compositions.

Fig. 4: ROY LICHTENSTEIN, Plus and Minus V, 1988. Private Collection. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein
Fig. 5: DONALD JUDD, Stack, equidistant arrangement, 1972. Centre Pompidou, Paris. Photo: Philippe Migeat / Art Resource, New York. Art © 2022 Judd Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Mondrian’s style can further be seen in the developments of the Minimalists of the late 1960s, who also opted for reduced forms and a pared down palette. Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and Ellsworth Kelly have all cited Mondrian’s effect on their work. Like Mondrian, Judd holds that in traditional art “the necessities of representation inhibited the use of color”: color cannot be pure when light and shadow must affect it (the artist writing in “Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular,” ArtForum, Summer 1994, p. 72). And like Mondrian, Judd concludes that the artist should concentrate on pure color and abolish illusion of any kind from his work. Stella, though less extreme than Judd, also sought to remove the mimetic from pictorial space, and focus instead on shape and surface. While Mondrian’s abstraction relies on elements placed in relation to one another and within the whole, Stella’s compositions breaks with this formula to emphasize the pure visual impact of his geometry.

“[Mondrian was] one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Between the Forties and the end of the Sixties, he was held in higher regard in advanced circles than either Matisse or post-Cubist Picasso.”
Bridget Riley quoted in “Reading between the lines,” The Art Newspaper, 30 June 1997, online

Decades later, artists working today still remain captivated by Mondrian. Renowned Op artist Bridget Riley calls him “one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. Between the Forties and the end of the Sixties, he was held in higher regard in advanced circles than either Matisse or post-Cubist Picasso” (the artist quoted in “Reading between the lines,” The Art Newspaper, 30 June 1997, online). She continues, “For many painters who, like me, grew up during that period, he was an immense figure. His insights and achievements underpinned a huge range of artistic ambitions, both in east and west Europe and in New York itself. I learned many things from Mondrian” (Ibid.). It was Mondrian’s uncentered, nonhierarchical approach to composition, form and space that stimulated Riley’s first experiments in abstraction, and ultimately to the famed allover geometries and optical patterns that characterize her work.

Fig. 6: BRIDGET RILEY, Fission, 1963. Tempera on board, 35 x 34 in (88.8 x 86.2 cm), The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: Art Resource, NY. Art © Bridget Riley 2022. All rights reserved; Fig 7: GERHARD RICHTER, 192 Farben, 1966. Sold Sotheby’s London, 14 October 2022, lot 107, for £18.3 million. © 2022 Gerhard Richter Digital Image © The Museum of M

Gerhard Richter was likewise led to abstraction by Mondrian’s example. Richter’s very first abstract work, 192 Farben from his Color Chart series, pays homage to Mondrian with its geometric grid of relationally colored squares. The Color Charts would ultimately lead to Richter’s quintessential Abstrakte Bilder, in which his carefully arranged zones of color are smeared, scraped and blurred with a squeegee. Though he would return to figurative painting throughout his career, Richter’s abstractions embody the motivation at the heart of his practice: “I am suspicious regarding the image of reality which our senses convey to us and which is incomplete and limited” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat., Düsseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle (and travelling), Gerhard Richter, Bilder 1962-1985, 1986, p. 61). Echoing Mondrian’s manifesto of nearly a century before, Richter encapsulates the contemporary drive to investigate new modes of examining and representing the world. Mondrian’s utopian vision of art as a method of expressing nature’s true forms has influenced the work of generations of artists to follow him, leaving a profound and lasting impact on contemporary visual culture in a way that no other artist has ever achieved. His paintings, including Composition No. II, are manifestations of the unparalleled role he played in shaping the course of Modern art, and history itself.

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