Mondrian and Humility
“The position of the artist is humble. He is essentially a channel.”
Mondrian, like Pollock or Rothko, are artists whose work we like to minimize. “I could do that”, or “that’s not so hard,” is often said about their art. Moment of truth, I used to be one of those people. Piet Mondrian is an artist that you probably know, if not by name, then by sight. His paintings of rectangles and lines are famous. I wanted to write about Mondrian today, because he’s an artist I’ve grown to appreciate. The more I’ve learned about Mondrian, the more I’ve come to respect his process and his work. I’ve learned to change how I talk about artists in general from learning more about him, his life, and his creative process.
I remember seeing a Mondrian in person at the Phillips museum in DC (I think this was the first time I saw one, but I could be wrong). Tucked away in a back corner near the stairway, there is a small Mondrian (this is where I remember it being located but I’m not sure if it’s still there) almost hidden, but if you’re looking for it you can find it. I remember scoffing, “I could do that!” as so many of us do when we view Modern or Abstract Art. I can recall, now with some disappointment in myself, that I’ve said similar things about a variety of artists: Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Deibenkorn, to name a few. Artists that I didn’t know much about, but whose reputations precede them.
Not long after, I was in an art class, probably the best art class I’ve ever taken, and the topic of Mondrian came up. I don’t remember how the conversation exactly came about, but my fellow students and I were talking about how Mondrian's work wasn’t impressive, and any of us could do that. We were in Drawing 2 for crying out loud, so obviously, wink wink, on the cusp of surpassing the so-called greats of the 20th century.
“Really?” The professor challenged. “You think so? What if I told you he painted those straight lines by hand?”
All of a sudden Mondrian seemed much more impressive.
If you never attempted it, I suggest you do so now. Grab a piece of paper, the larger the better, and try to draw a straight line without the use of a ruler or painters tape or any such tool. Then try to draw a circle. Try to draw a perfect square. Try to draw a rectangle. Hang it somewhere and stand back. Do your lines look straight? Do they look correct? After years upon years upon years of art classes, I have yet to draw a believable straight line. I’ve been attempting to do so for over 10 years. Even when I’ve worked that line over and over, there is still something just a little off about it when I stand back and look. I rely heavily on painters tape and rulers to achieve any kind of straight lines in my art work.
The truth about Mondrian’s process is somewhere in between. He sits between the myth of Mondrian and the rest of us mere mortals. Mondrian did use tape to help him achieve his lines in his later work, although he never used a ruler (From Ruler to Tape: Stops and Starts in the History of Painted Abstraction, Gottschaller). We also know that he did build the layers of his paintings free hand (Tate Kids). This deep dive into Mondrian’s process forced me to learn more about him. Because Mondrian is so often associated with Abstraction, I thought that was all he could do. However, like in the cases of other artists as well, his repertoire is much more diverse than the primary colors and lines we now associate with him.
Mondrian studied impressionism and was quite proficient in it. I love to look at Mondrian’s tree paintings. He goes from a rendering, which strikes the viewer similarly to that as Van Gogh, and increases the abstraction over the years (Piet Mondrian’s Tree Paintings, Dean). Mondrian wasn’t being lazy in his art, his process of abstraction took years and he worked hard at it. Mondrian cared deeply about his artwork and progressing his process. Dean writes of Mondrian, “Mondrian began by producing simplified representations of natural environments and then took what he learned about balance and relationship into total abstraction. He systematically reduced and simplified in search of an essential truth that underlies beauty. Or, perhaps, a simple beauty that underlies truth…” (Dean).
When I now think of Mondrian, I think of an artist that taught me humility. Mondrian’s lines and primary colors weren’t thoughtlessly put on the canvas. He honed his process over years of hard work and dedication to his craft. Now I stop myself, or at least try to, before discounting an artist before I’ve learned more about him or her. I think the lesson to be learned before judging an artist is to research where they’re coming from and what direction they’re heading in. You don’t start watching Hamlet in the middle and ask what the hell is this kid so angry about? The same with Mondrian or Pollock or de Kooning or any other artist whose artwork might seem simple. When looking at the artist, look at the whole of their work if a singular painting seems nonsensical. Humility, to me, as a viewer of art, means researching rather than dismissing. It means listening, rather than speaking. It means assuming that the artist has something to offer the viewer.
Dean, Remy. “Piet Mondrian's Tree Paintings.” Medium, Signifier, 23 May 2021, https://medium.com/signifier/piet-mondrians-tree-paintings-cef4ccac881.
Gottschaller, Pia. “From Ruler to Tape: Stops and Starts in the History of Painted Abstraction: Getty Research Journal: Vol 10.” Getty Research Journal, 1 Jan. 1970,
Tate. “Who Is Piet Mondrian? – Who Are They?” Tate Kids, https://www.tate.org.uk/kids/explore/who-is/who-piet-mondrian.
“Under the Banner of Piet Mondrian” Mt Masking Tape - News Archive, 24 Nov. 2015, http://www.mt-maskingtape.com/main/pages/index/p/18/165/page/5.