Dialectics of Painting: Mondrian's Diamond Series, 1918-44

TitleDialectics of Painting: Mondrian's Diamond Series, 1918-44
Publication TypeThesis
Year of Publication1997
AuthorsCooper, Harry A.
AdvisorBois, Y.A. (n80039759)
Keywords19th-and 20th-Century European Art

Far from embodying a modernist ideology of immediate presence, Mondrian's painting is deeply narrative, aspiring to describe spiritual evolution as the gradual fusion of such dualities as man and nature, universal and particular. The engine of the process is Hegel's Aufhebung (Mondrian's opheffing), or "sublation," which repeatedly sets opposites in conflict, each time yielding a new synthesis to be opposed in turn until a final unity is achieved.
This basic plot, outlined by Mondrian's writings, is narrated by his art in a parallel, more complex way. Here the oppositions to be sublated include line and plane, figure and ground, stability and dynamism, and, at the highest level, deduction and intuition. This story is legible in individual works as well as in the total oeuvre, but it is clearest at the intermediate level of the series. In the group of 17 diamond pictures spanning Mondrian's abstract career (1918-44), the dialectics of Neo-Plasticism are pushed ahead by the peculiar pressures, or "deductive environment," of the diamond shape.
Mondrian exploits these pressures in a series of 12 works (1921-38) at the heart of the group, developing two unspoken rules and exploring the range of allowed permutations. This becomes clear only when the pictures are viewed all at once, as simultaneous possibilities within a logical structure. But the series also displays a temporal flow, weaving compositional types in a way characteristic of written narrative; and like any narrative, the series is "anxious" about continuity, repetition, and ending. As a hybrid of conceptual array and temporal movement, then, the series is open equally to the structural and textual narratologies of Roland Barthes.
In his last painting, the diamond-shaped Victory Boogie Woogie (1942-44), Mondrian faces the problem of how to end a series and a career. Just as he used jazz and ballroom dance as models for the sharp contrasts of classic Neo-Plasticism, so in New York he turns to boogie-woogie for a "dialectics of similarity." Setting repetition against itself, Mondrian collapses his dualistic vocabulary into the single texture of an end-style. But his trouble finishing the picture betrays a painter's resistance to the end of painting.