Thursday, March 17, 2011

painters I love - part I - Piet Mondrian

I want to occasionally share with you some artists that inspire me. I may be factually incorrect on some of this, and that's fine. This is about my personal reality as it relates to the artist. If you want the "real" facts, there's plenty of places to find them.

PIET MONDRIAN grew up in the early 1900's, probably. He started by painting things realistically. Mostly trees:

What I love most about painters is watching their evolution. Watching them learn and grow, and seeing their thoughts literally projected onto the canvas.

So Piet realised that painting every single branch was a pain in the ass. He started trying to dissect the tree, to understand it's components - to simplify it into the essentials:

I think he was probably watching Picasso and Braque blow peoples' minds with the whole Cubist thing, which really pares down a subject into simple shapes. Then you can get free and innovative with the open space between the shapes. So he jumped onto that exciting way of thinking.

So this is a four-year period so far. Look at how much time and thought he put into just trying to understand the shape of a fucking tree! I love that. Pure intense focussed visual and intellectual exploration.

So far he's been following other peoples' styles, but working them in his own way. Then he has some crazy revelation that only he will ever really understand:

This is called "Ocean and Pier." What? Awesome! Piet's on a roll, he's got all kinds of ideas now. Here's a town or a building or something:

This is starting to seem really intellectual and personal now. Yes, he's still trying to make a pleasing and balanced composition, but he don't give a shit if someone is going to want to hang it on their wall.

Now there's no subject-matter whatsoever, and not even a variety of shapes. This is a pure mindfuck of colour composition. I can just imagine him stewing away at this, trying to balance it nicely but also give it life and movement.

A unique thing about painting as an art form is that you're working out a problem, live. You think something and you try it and that brushstroke is forever recorded. If you wipe it off, some of the paint still remains and your thought is still a part of the painting. So a painting is just one big map of a thought-process. I think that process is really evident in Mondrian's work, because he throws out pretty much everything except the basic elements he needs to solve a problem.

Case in point- This is Mondrians's longest phase, and it's what most people associate with his work:

I'm sure most people think "This is incredibly boring, and pretentious and intellectual. This is what I hate about abstract painting. Is that even art? I could do that."

And I would tend to agree with you. I have no idea why these paintings are so famous. But here's what blows my mind about them:

This dude spent TWENTY-THREE YEARS painting hundreds of paintings that look almost like this!

If you ever see them in a gallery, you'll see that some were whipped off pretty quick, and others were slaved over - getting just the right colour of white by putting other colours underneath - and mixing and layering colours oh-so-subtly to get the right red / yellow. The compositions are all different, but every single one of them is white, with black lines, and the primary colours filling some holes. They all had dry names like "Composition 27" or "Composition with Yellow."

Twenty-three years of his life.

It's like he zoomed in on the smallest portion of a "compostion" that he could, in the hopes of at least trying to master this small and simple combination of shapes and colours. But every one looks different. I get the feeling he was trying too hard to control and intellectualize things. It makes me think he was probably a serious dude, and in a rut, and not fun to hang out with. And he was getting sick and old, too. Not long left in life.

Then he started hearing Jazz music and moved to New York, and after so many years of painting the same thing, he went "BOO-YAH! THE FUTURE IS NOW, BITCHES!"

"Broadway Boogie-Woogie", the last finished painting of his life. You know when you've been in a funk for a long time and you finally break free, and you're like "FUCK! Why have I been acting like such a dry-heave for so long?!?" I get that sense of excitement and energy in this painting. It's especially amazing because he was really sick at the time.

"Victory Boogie-Woogie" - unfinished. Turned the fucking canvas, and died. Just take a look at that painting for a second. I don't know about you, but I see a lot of joy and music in there.

. . .

These last two paintings are why Piet Mondrian stands out for me. In the last days of his life, he was still working and thinking and trying. Even on death's door, it's possible to have this kind of huge energetic exciting breakthrough. I think he died happy.

Everyone's life happens as it does, but I can't help wondering what else ol' Piet would have painted if he got over the hurdle of those years of painting the same zoomed-in compositions. This also inspires me not to get in a rut. To keep pushing and taking risks.

Scroll back and look at where this guy went, in his mind, over the period of his life. It's amazing to watch someone's growth, visually, like this. It's not just about one painting, it's this recorded process of intellectual evolution and growth that makes a painter interesting to me.


  1. Mondrian is one artist I never had to study and memorize for those art history tests... I mean who can forget a title like "Broadway Boogie Woogie"? Also I will totally be adopting dry-heave into my lexicon as used in your context so thanks!

  2. This is beautiful. I get what your saying, it is so satisfying to see someone evolve with time. He was very focussed and his progress was very clear. Nice.

  3. Mondrian found out that the greatest compositions were expressed much like Jazz itself, 0% intellectualisation, 100% feel.
    Luckily this made a more interesting image.
    However the people only really care about his earlier pieces..geometric abstraction is hard to stomach for most, sadly the ones who make the decisions on art and its imperial value are the contemporary/classical type and visually for them his latest work was more primitive even though to Mondrian it was more superior & satisfying. going back to 0% intellectualisation, 100% feel!
    to me this is another form of physical proof that feeling is naturally more superior than the intellect, the meaning doesnt matter..the feeling is always everything!
    youtube: byronleemae: