For aficionados of the most absolute of all forms of modernist painting-strict geometrical abstraction-the current exhibition at Pace Wildenstein, Mondrian and Reinhardt: Influence and Affinity , is undoubtedly the event of the season. It brings together the work of the greatest pioneer of geometrical abstraction, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), with that of the American painter Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967), the most adamant and accomplished votary of the geometrical tradition in the New York School. Reinhardt himself acknowledged the connection when, in an interview published in the last year of his life, he allowed that “there may be a relation to Malevich and Mondrian” in his work. Yet the current Mondrian and Reinhardt exhibition is, as far as I know, the first to explore the implications of that relation.
No one familiar with the work of these two very different figures would have reason to expect Reinhardt’s own pictorial achievement to equal Mondrian’s, which remains one of the pinnacles of modernist painting. And it doesn’t, of course. Yet the close comparisons that we are now given in Mondrian and Reinhardt do not in any way diminish the latter’s standing as an artist. They may even do something to enhance it by conferring on Reinhardt’s art the aura of an exalted tradition. Yet it must also be said that the comparisons offered in Mondrian and Reinhardt have the effect of reminding us that, in the eyes of posterity, there are inevitably certain differences to be discerned-differences in quality, invention and magnitude-between the art of a master and that of a gifted acolyte.
For myself, the most surprising of the differences to be discerned in this exhibition has to do with a subject that is seldom discussed in relation to geometrical abstraction: the role of spontaneity or improvisation in the creation of a painting. It is a mistake to think that the conventions of geometrical abstraction automatically preclude the possibility for spontaneity or improvisation to play a role in either the conception or the realization of a painting, but it is nonetheless true that in geometrical abstraction, the role of improvisation is severely restricted. Yet it is precisely because of that radical restriction that every decision made by the artist in the course of a painting’s physical realization acquires a heightened importance.
In Mondrian, this restricted element of improvisation makes itself felt at every stage of his artistic development. It is more explicitly discernible, to be sure, in the early paintings and drawings-in the beautiful Church and Pier and Ocean drawings of 1914, and in the marvelous painting called Composition 1916 -yet a distinct improvisational impulse continues to play a role in even the purest paintings and drawings to the very end. There are no formulaic formats in Mondrian’s pictorial oeuvre . Every picture is an individual conception derived from unpremeditated visual decisions. It is indeed in the interplay between the strict rules that govern Mondrian’s neo-plastic abstractions-all forms based on the right angle, all color limited to black, white and the primaries-and the improvised placement of every pictorial element that much of the characteristic quality of his art is to be found.
It was this element of improvised placement that Ad Reinhardt came to dislike and then to abhor in the course of his artistic development. That he had acquired a real mastery of this improvisational element is amply in evidence in the abstract paintings he produced between 1947 and 1950. However much these paintings may now seem to look like “blowups” of certain Paul Klee pictures or to resemble the work of Bradley Walker Tomlin, they are delightful all the same. Too delightful, perhaps, to satisfy Reinhardt’s growing appetite for something more absolute in his painting.
So in the early 1950’s, Reinhardt commenced to impose tighter and tighter controls on his work, controls that finally placed the composition of his paintings-though not, of course, their execution-beyond his own control. Color was first limited to a single range of reds or blues, but that practice, too, proved to be too delightful to be abided for very long. So he embarked upon the all-black paintings of his final period, paintings that he once jokingly described as “the last painting which anyone can make.” It looked as if he had finally achieved his ideal by having, in his words, “got rid of all that other stuff.”
Yet there remained some “stuff” he hadn’t gotten rid of-the use of symmetry in particular-that was probably derived from the Suprematist paintings of Kasimir Malevich. He had certainly moved in a direction that was very far distant from Mondrian’s. Reinhardt was, after all, carrying on a tradition, but it was no longer the tradition established by Mondrian. It is for this reason that the comparisons of “late” works in the Mondrian and Reinhardt show tend to be less interesting than those of the earlier periods. In the company of Mondrian, Reinhardt looks like a painter with closer affinities to Josef Albers or Ellsworth Kelly than to anything Mondrianesque.
It turns out, too, that even in the realm of strict geometrical abstraction, the most absolute of all forms of modernist painting, the absolutes tend, as it were, to be relative. For there is always some remaining “stuff” out of the past that cannot be “got rid of,” however dedicated the artist may be in his pursuit of the unprecedented. Even Reinhardt acknowledged that “I still use a brush and oil on canvas,” which, by the 1960’s, was another absolute that the Minimalists who looked upon Reinhardt as a model of intellectual probity were in the process of discarding. From the perspective of the late 1990’s, certainly, Reinhardt looks more and more like a painter of the 1950’s, like an Abstract Expressionist gone astray, whereas Mondrian still traverses the entire modern era as a master. Mondrian and Reinhardt remains on view at Pace Wildenstein, 32 East 57th Street, through Dec. 13.