Horizontal lines oscillate against vertical lines.
The vertical oscillates back.
White defines Black. Black defines White.
The ground jostles for presence against the figure.
The figure jostles for presence against the ground.
The particular beckons the universal – and the universal beckons the particular in return.
In this 1917 work by Piet Mondrian, entitled ‘Composition in Line’, we see a number of pictorial partners begin a dialectical dance with their opposite. A tango, let’s say, wherein each negates, in order to create, the other.
Recognised by the art historian Joop Joosen as Mondrian’s first abstract canvas, the art historian Yve-Alain Bois echoes this judgment.
A judgment contested, however, by the art historian Carel Blotkamp. Who, with caution, finds it more likely that Mondrian did not cease to work from ‘visible reality’ at this time; at least, not until the second half of 1919 – which is late, Blotkamp contends, within the ‘official history’ of abstract art. As well, Blotkamp adds admonishingly, ‘there is no strict line of demarcation between a figurative and an abstract work of art’.
In support of his point Blotkamp includes in his book ‘Mondrian: The Art of Destruction’, 1994, a second image of the same work at an earlier stage, alongside the resulting work.
Clearly his contention, at first sight, appears justified. For we can easily recognise this earlier stage as an extension of what has been called Mondrian’s ‘Plus-Minus’ phase from 1914 to 1916; a period that finds Mondrian in Holland for the duration of the First World War having lived in Paris for two and a half years just prior. Mondrian returns to Holland steeped in cubism, an influence testified to by his sketchbooks in which a ‘plus-minus’ ebb of bestrewn horizonatal and vertical strokes render sea, pier, church and surrounding countryside: an abstraction of nature, yes.
And yet, this immediate connection is complicated, given there seems to be two distinct works here. The first: a direct reference to nature. The second: a response, instead, to this initial work – a direct reference to art – not nature.
For Mondrian had circulated an image of the work in its first phase to a number of friends in thought of the work as complete. So it is not too difficult to imagine Mondrian retained an image, himself, from which he worked to articulate not nature, but an engagement with painting; where the means no longer expresses an end outside the work, but an end within the work, itself.
In contrast to the initial stage, the resulting work is a swathe of geometric relations that ‘create space’ rather than a shimmer of light’s shadow rippling upon the canvas to ‘represent space’. We learn from those who have seen the work up close that the white ground has been treated with the same pronounced brushstrokes as the black. No longer a ground upon which the figure dominates: the ground, now, is on equal footing through Mondrian’s de-hierarchicising of pictorial space. The black no longer floats above the ground but, instead, is bluntly blocked in by the white to the extent that the white must have been applied on top of the black to block out the rounded ends of the previous paint strokes, to turn the previous black strokes into geometric entities that define each other rather than define an end, or territory (a landscape), that resides outside the canvas.
And so for Bois: ‘Mondrian enters definitively into abstraction: not only does this picture make no direct reference to any natural reality, but any perception of a figural form is rendered impossible there, for the white ground is optically coopted’. This seems right to me.
As for there being no strict line between a figurative and an abstract work of art, Blotkamp is – as well – right to a certain extent, in that the later abstract work did evolve out of the former representational stage. But this is not to say that there is no clear distinction between the two. For the abstract work to emerge, it had first to reject or negate the figurative work that preceded it. This is how the negation of opposites in an Hegelian dialectic works. Hegel, himself, demonstrates this well when he writes in the Phenomenology of Spirit:
‘… The bud disappears in the eruption of the flower, so one could say that the flower contradicts the bud. In a similar way, the fruit declares the flower to be the plant’s false existence, and steps forward in its place as the plant’s truth. These forms are not only distinct; they reject one another as mutually exclusive. At the same time, their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity …’ For Mondrian, abstraction declared representation to be art’s false existence, and stepped forward in its place as art’s truth.
The moments of mutual exclusion between opposites in Mondrian’s ‘plastic painting’, as he calls it, gives rise to a type of space that is not representational. Instead, it is a space created through the movement of a self-generating determination of space. It is, shall we say, a plastic space: a medium that I am identifying, here, as an Hegelian ‘aether’.
For Hegel this aether is: “… the absolute ground and essence of all things… that which is absolutely elastic and despises every form, but which is likewise absolutely plastic, giving itself and expressing every form. … The aether … is absolute spirit’.
Hegel’s quote, here, may have us listen to a point up until, that is, we reach ‘absolute spirit’. But let’s not be spooked by this. It is important to realise, here, that what Hegel means by spirit, by Geist, is not connected to some outer worldly existence – of which, within Hegel’s philosophy, there is none. Consciousness, as the Hegelian Robert Pippin explains, is ‘spirit’, is Geist: a shared consciousness is, in fact, an intersubjective space between living, breathing beings. Pippin explains that:
Hegel attempts to reformulate the notion of subjectivity itself, attacking virtually all of the post-Cartesian assumptions, denying that consciousness is “private,” “inner,” or a “spectator” of itself and the world, and asserting that it is, in a special sense of the term, “communal,” “public,” and even socially interactive.
In this sense, the Hegelian Paul Redding finds Hegel’s philosophy to be post-metaphysical.
Take, for instance, this situation between us here where we find this space or reason at work between us, as you struggle to work out what on earth I’m trying to say, and I struggle to work out how on earth I might say it in a way that you might understand. Consciousness, here, is in motion, as it takes shape right now: consciousness between me, the speaker, the other – the opposite – to you, the audience. This aether or ideational space between us, then, is a dialogical space in which we recognise meaning through each other.
‘Speech’, Paul Redding tells us,
‘is the ‘middle term’ of intelligence recognising intelligence … its bodily form is well suited to the ideational aether in that it is [quoting Hegel] ‘infinitely vanishing … a light and ethereal body which passes away as it is formed’. … the entire effect of speech is achieved only in virtue of its being recognized as containing intelligence or meaning. Without this recognition, how could this momentary minor fluctuation of the air have any significance?’
This aether, then – or plastic space as per Mondrian – is a determination of space within which two opposing forces are at work: a force of destruction or dissolution, which breaks thought down, and a force of reconciliation that unites that which dissolution has broken apart.
If knowledge is a breaking down of thought and not an accretion as one might presume – an accretion where thoughts build one atop the other until they form a mountain of impressive height upon which one stakes one’s intelligence, for all to see – what is left, then, after this act of self-negation, of destruction: nothing? Is Mallarme’s blank page the most any one can say, now, post-Hegel?
Let me explain. In a 1965 text by Richard Wollheim entitled ‘Minimal Art’ – a text that later coined such work, much to the disgruntlement of its practitioners – Wollheim compares Minimal Art to the blank page of the poet Stephane Mallarmé. Wollheim refers to this page by writing:
‘In an historical passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper before him on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, Why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely, the poet’s feeling of inner devastation than the virginal paper?
And so: Is Mallarmé’s blank page the most anyone can say, post-Hegel?
Well, no. The action of dissolution, here – or destruction as identified in Mondrian’s work – is not the wiping out of thought or meaning to leave a blank page, but the contrary – it is thought’s becoming.
The artist, Mondrian once said, must create in a sphere that is not concrete … – that of thought.’
But before we toss this blank page away as an errant conclusion, it may still help to describe the action of dissolution, to a certain extent. If we treat, for a moment, this blank page as subject matter and fold then unfold it, a crease will differentiate one side from the other in an opposition of mutually exclusive but dependant moments. Dissolution, here, is the action of this differentiation. Recognition of a part as a part is enabled through its relation to the other part of the page; a relation that cannot be conceived unless the parts belong to a whole.
With the development of further creases made in the page — an ‘in-crease’ of determination, of knowledge, might I say — a self-generating diversity of content takes place where the boundary of each shape is not defined by itself alone, but in relation to other shapes that abut it. It is perhaps in this way that for Hegel:‘…the matter is not exhausted in its goal, but in its development; and the actual whole is not the result, but the result together with its becoming.’ By this I understand Hegel to mean that the goal, alone, is dead, is without actuality. When taken together with its becoming, it becomes actual.
In Mondrian’s third text on neo-plasticism entitled ‘Natural Reality and Abstract Reality’ (published in installments in De Stijl between 1919 and 1920) – a dialogue between three characters – Mondrian has character Z say, in the first scene: ‘Yes, all things are a part of the whole: each part obtains its visual value from the whole and the whole from its parts. Everything is expressed through relationship.’
In the final scene, however, Z ponders as to whether the room can be treated as a ‘whole’. ‘Doesn’t painting still remain too much a ‘thing’?, Z asks.
In asking this it is easy to read Mondrian’s trialogue of as a long march from the reproduction of nature in art (as the characters stroll from the country in scene one to Z’s studio in the city in the final scene) towards art’s evolution into a plastic environment: into an actual plastic space, not painterly plastic space. The answer to Z’s question is, therefore, yes. The thing is though, Mondrian, we learn, recognises this as impossible a few years later.
To lose sight of the relationship between the parts and the whole is, for Mondrian, to return to the figure/ground problem we see sculpture struggle with, and thereby lose sight of ‘the real’ created by plastic painting.
Which is to say the given space of a room is not as real, for Mondrian, as a created space, an ideational space, within which a dialectical movement between opposites takes place. This is not so odd when, as TM Knox ( translator of the 1975 edition of Hegel’s lectures on Aesthetics) writes, for Hegel, ‘What is actual is not the real, … that the ideal is more really real than the real‘.
You see for Hegel a painting of a landscape, for instance, is far worthier than the landscape, itself, aesthetically; given the painting is the work of spirit, of the communal aether.
‘In this sense’, write Hegel, ‘the discovery of any insignificant technical product has higher value, and man can be prouder of having invented the hammer, the nail, etc., than of manufacturing tricks of imitation.’
Hegel, it appears, values ‘the actual’, as a product of communal understanding over imitation in art. Mondrian endeavoured to create a space that was actual, a plastic space, the aether of communal – not private – consciousness.
And yet, what became of this ‘Real’, then, in the 1960’s?
In a broadcasted interview with Donald Judd and Frank Stella by Bruce Glaser in 1964, after Stella denied any connection between his work and Mondrian’s – Glaser asked Judd: ‘What makes the space you use different from Neo-plastic sculpture? What are you after in the way of a new space? In reply Judd basically said, ‘actual space’.
In the exhibition ‘The Art of the Real: USA 1948-1968’, the curator EC Goossen writes: The ‘real’ of today as it is posited by this new art has nothing to do with … any kind of metaphysics. It is not the ideal Hegelian essence … . Today’s ‘real’ … makes no direct appeal to the emotions, nor is it involved in uplift… but instead offers itself … in the form of the simple, irreducible, irrefutable object.’
‘The Renaissance artist’, Goossen continues, ‘labored over perspective in order to create an illusion of space within which he could make believable the religious and philosophical ideals of his time; the contemporary artist labors to make art itself believable … forcing the spectator to perceive himself in the process of his perception.
Of course, the 1960’s artists of the real rejected the metaphysics of the past (of Europe) and, in so doing, rejected Mondrian and Hegel. Yet the problem here is that without Hegel’s post-metaphysical aether, this left the spectator without the medium within which to perceive herself in the process of her perception. This medium is the communal space of public consciousness (Geist): Hegel’s aether.
Hegel tells us in the Aesthetics that ‘Art acquires its real ratification only through philosophy’. Which is to say only through the medium of ratification – the communal aether – might art meet its truth as art.
And if anything, it is this that most distinguishes minimal art from the art before. For although ratification of a work of art previously occurred outside it, minimalism – through Mondrian – incorporated the aether of this ratification within the so-called ‘actual space’ of the work of art, itself.
Without the ideational space of speech, however, without as Hegel describes it the ‘infinitely vanishing … light and ethereal body which passes away as it is formed’ — the thing taking place between us now — minimal art will forever remain Mallarmé’s blank page, a page riddled with spatial determinations, but without the medium through which these spatial determinations can be recognised.