Piet Mondrian, with his obsession with flat backgrounds and basic colours, rigorously separated by rigid orthogonal black lines, is a point of reference for the “Puritan” culture from the last century. Of course, the images in circulation do not do justice to this author since the stickers published in textbooks suggest an executive precision that the live works repudiate from the first glance: the traces are jagged, the lines are trembling, the mechanical precision is completely absent, in the sense that the principle and the assumption of thought are indeed the basis of a rigorous design process, but are then betrayed by an execution that we can rightly consider summary, or rather uncertain.
However, the rigor and the influence that the creed of Neoplasticism had on the entire twentieth century culture, from Constructivism to the rationalist architectures and the most vacuous abstract-geometric currents, is undoubted, so much so that we can ask ourselves the question: when Le Corbusier thought of the Unité d’Habitation (with its regular walls but played on chromatic schemes), did he perhaps have in mind a painting by Mondrian or did he explicitly refer to it in some way? Now, an exhibition, curated by Andreas Beitin together with Elena Engelbrechter, with the collaboration of Carla Wiggering, for the Kunstmuseum Wolfswburg, pays homage to the cultural significance of his work and the flows that followed. Between a painting by Mondrian from the 1920s (when the optimistic and regenerative thrust of the avant-garde was running aground on the shallows of realism and the political reaction that was about to take hold in Europe and which even led to the closure of the Bauhaus) and a dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent (“Mondrian Cocktail Dress” 1966) which pays homage to him, almost half a century passes and in the meantime the author, the Dutch-born master, had been dead for the past twenty-two years.
Which is to say: it takes some time before the language and motivations of the authors of the De Stijl group have been able to consolidate; but is it really like that? Does a young artist really know Mondrian’s creed and postulates today? And if this young man instead of being a student of an art school in the city of Milan were a Japanese or Chinese student, would he have a few more or less points of knowledge? How to say, in the heads of the generations facing the turn of the new millennium, have the utterances by Philip Dick and Banana Yoshimoto, manga and comics perhaps taken the place of great history? Almost useless thoughts and considerations. Let’s rather come to the exhibition and its deep substratum.
The basic idea is that a formal message can become a collective, recognizable and understandable sign, like a Coca-Cola bottle, which leaves me a bit perplexed: the Coca-Cola bottle is something you uncork to drink its content, while a dress along the lines of Mondrian’s orthogonal silhouettes is recognizable, but certainly does not explain its original meaning. We can catch the sense of a composition based on the principle of an elementary geometry, a sort of cardo and decumanus of the vision, but can we really understand how the radicalism that was hidden behind that synthesis hid the presumption of renewing the whole Western society, in a sense of not only pictorial but also architectural palingenesis? His associates are in art history books and bear the names of Theo van Doesburg, Gerrit Rietveld, Bart van der Leck, J.J. Peter Oud. A partnership that encountered various difficulties, frictions and quarrels, so much so that an inclined line by van Doesburg caused the break between Mondrian and the aforementioned. Stories of ordinary revolution or of ideological jealousies, we could say today, with hindsight.
Apart from the stupendous dress by Saint Laurent, the exhibition itinerary does not lack other examples of successive contaminations: real gems of a stylistic figure that indicates a persistence of memory, as in a surrealist nightmare, in a sequence of about one hundred and twenty exhibits. They range from the boots by Sylvie Fleury (from 1992, citing the civilization of goods and their exuberance) to the “134 Composition with Yellow and Blue” from 1996 by Tom Sachs, a real replica of a painting by Mondrian (a bit along the lines of Mike Bidlo?), but what changes in this case is the support: Mondrian painted on canvas, while this work is on a wooden support!
Furthermore, Mondrian’s spirit also hovers in the works by Remy Jungerman (“Guardian Havana” of 2009), where the orthogonal scheme acts as a display on which to hang shelves or in the conceptual work by Joseph Kosuth and in the more irreverent one by Iván Argote, up to the briefs in an ethnic sauce painted by Ndidi Emefiele. And so on. What it must be understood is that all these examples provided here do not indicate a flow of thought, a continuity of linguistic poetics or the root that has continued its development, but only a momentary quotation, a formal invention to be brought back to a completely provisional context. And the Saint Laurent dress is clear proof of this, since no one today wears a dress of that shape, with that fabric, with that decoration, since a collection of dresses after being paraded on the catwalk is forgotten six months later by a subsequent wave of novelties.
Therefore, this exhibition becomes a starting point not only for a profound reflection on the roots of the twentieth century in the West, but also a construction of curiosities and antinomies, a collection of quotations and references, a game of analogies and visual cues that sometimes leave even stunned, as in the case of the environmental installation “Pier and Ocean”, a four-handed work from 2014, a real homage to Mondrian, signed by François Morellet and Tadashi Kawamata and whose formal developments (beyond the will declared in title) remain uncertain. This very articulated and curious exhibition will have a subsequent stop at the Wilhelm Hack Museum in Ludwigshafen, from 9 September 2023 to 7 January 2024.
A.A.VV., Re-Inventing Piet (Mondrian und die Folfgen)
11/03 – 16/07/2023
+49 (0)5361 26690
He is editorial director of Juliet art magazine.