In 1930, Piet Mondrian painted ‘Composition no. II’. It is an austere painting, an extreme consequence of Mondrian’s yearning for pure painting that would best express ‘universalism’.
After a period in which he painted clearly recognisable landscapes, flowers and portraits, Mondrian was introduced to the Cubism of Picasso and Braque in 1911. He was surprised by this new style of painting in which the subject is dissected into geometrical shapes and the line between subject and background, form and intermediate form becomes blurred. By way of Cubism, Mondrian developed a completely abstract style, arguing that abstract art has a more universal value than figurative art, which is more individual. He opted for elementary shapes and colours to create ordered compositions. These are made up of horizontal and vertical lines and apart from white, black and grey only the primary colours red, yellow and blue are used. Starting from these principles, he used to work on his paintings until they radiated the tranquillity, harmony and balance he aspired to achieve. ‘Composition no. II’ consists of only three lines and is painted exclusively in black and white. Yet it is a lively painting due to the optimum variation that has been realised within the constraints: the white planes differ in shape and size, the black lines have varying widths. The composition was not calculated on the basis of a particular module, but was created intuitively. Mondrian wanted to express the essence of reality, which he believed to consist of harmony and regularity.
The second half of the 20th century saw trends in art that resulted in an even stronger reduction of the visual means used and a more systematic arrangement of formal elements. These trends were found mostly in the U.S. Whereas Mondrian’s compositions were still intended as a reflection of a utopian universe, artists like Robert Ryman and Carl Andre focused entirely on the quality of the painting or sculpture.
Ryman’s work is about the making of a painting. Since 1955, he has been producing square paintings in which he applies white paint onto a substrate in a specific manner. The entire making process is clearly discernible. The support selected remains visible because certain areas (usually the edges) are not painted over. For every work or series of works, Ryman varies the support and the type of paint and the manner in which he applies it. The thickness of the paint, the size of the paint brush, its suppleness or stiffness, and the direction in which he applies the paint determine the image. His work is not about what is painted, but about how it is painted. Ryman’s motto is ‘to paint the paint’. ‘Untitled (Brussels)’ consists of fourteen plastic panels that have all been worked in the same manner. When he painted them, they were taped to the wall. The tape was subsequently removed, exposing the blue background. Since the 1970s, the manner of attaching the paintings has become part of Ryman’s research. His works have neutral titles. The addition ‘Brussels’ alludes to the fact that this painting was made for an exhibition in Brussels. Originally, it consisted of fifteen parts, but one remained behind in Brussels.
Carl Andre’s work is even less personal than that of Ryman. Andre does not create the elements that make up his sculptures himself; they are manufactured industrially. Andre is not interested in imparting emotions. ‘I do not want to create works that overwhelm or blind you. I love works you can be in the same room with and that you can ignore if you want to,’ he says. His works are all about observation, about how a sculpture affects the perception of the space in which it is located, about the place marked by a sculpture. Andre recognises three phases in his work: the development of sculpture as shape, to sculpture as structure, to sculpture as place. The first phase is the most classical one: a sculpture that exists as a shape. ‘Palisade’ is an example of sculpture as structure. A certain element, in this case a wooden pole measuring 90 x 30 x 30 cm, is systematically repeated. The resulting structure clearly affects the space and how the visitor moves through it. ‘Palisade’ functions like a barrier. A work like ‘Twenty-fifth steel Cardinal’ also consists of equiform elements, but because of the thinness of the steel plates, this sculpture does not have a barrier effect. Visitors are allowed to walk on Andre’s floor sculptures, as a result of which they do not actually take up room. They mark a place and because they can be walked on, they are not only visible, but also perceptible and audible.
Andre’s work is an example of minimal art. Ryman’s work is considered part of fundamental painting. Both schools originated from the notion that a work of art is, first and foremost, a work of art. Other functions or meanings are not relevant. That is why artists like Ryman and Andre concentrate on the essential prerequisites for a painting or sculpture.