In the summer of 1996 I organized an exhibition for the Pace gallery, which represented the estate of the artist at the time. Rita Reinhardt, the artist’s widow, had long wanted to see an exhibition of the two artists. The “question” of the exhibition was if and how Reinhardt’s works supported the premise that he had an elective affinity with Mondrian that could be traced visually, whatever their direct contact might, or might not, have been. The exhibition included 30 Mondrians, from drawings of 1914 to a painting of 1942, and 35 Reinhardts, dating from 1940 to 1966.
Reinhardt had been a great admirer of Mondrian, who had emigrated to New York in 1939, and had established his studio as a de Stijl-type installation—a three dimensional environment based on the geometric paintings in which he used rectangles of red, yellow, and blue as hues, with white and black in opposition. Mondrian’s work—and his studio—were visible as a part of the small New York art scene during the war years. He attended openings and art events, artists visited his studio, and his work could be seen at the Valentine Dudensing gallery. He was the “the talk of the town.” While one group of New York School artists may have been indebted to Picasso, mainly because of the presence of Guernica in the Museum of Modern Art, another, which included the members of the American Abstract Artists, looked to Mondrian.
The paintings of the two artists were arranged on the walls so that the viewer could see the work of one painter with that of the other close by, moving chronologically through time so that, in walking through the exhibition, the viewer could see how each artist developed over time, both on his own, as well as in relation to the other. It was a revelatory path for, as one compared the works by each artist, even the early ones, it became apparent that Reinhardt had reversed Mondrian.
Mondrian’s black lines appear as actors moving on a light-filled plane, defining geometric enclosures of various sizes—more precisely, weights—of red, blue, and black. One could see Mondrian’s plus and minus signage as conflating shadow and line into a sign language of oppositions between field and ground, representation and abstraction, in a broken “analytic” grid that derives its formal language from academic drawing.
In a painting titled October, 1949 Reinhardt reviewed Mondrian’s “plus and minus” configuration. Using the stroke of a flat wide brush as his instrument, he gradually “drew” an essentially graphic composition of all-over horizontal and vertical, long and short, black lines, and curves. The result is a rectangle composed of horizontal stacks of brush strokes, constructing a tall, narrow field as a dynamic balance of linear forms.
Reinhardt reversed Mondrian by adjusting hue and value to a virtually monochrome palette, a road not taken by Mondrian. Reinhardt gradually reorganized, and finally reduced—darkened color to a unified chromatic range, which he subdivided into a square format of matte black squares, whose actual “lights” varied chromatically between red, blue, and green.
Watching Reinhardt reflect on Mondrian’s series of elective affinities and oppositions, we see that he began to find his image among the “spaces” left by Mondrian, to whom the vista concept is central. A comparison between the late works of each marked the striking distance Reinhardt had traveled from this original response to Mondrian to a wholly spatial invention.
Reinhardt had effectively reduced, by squeezing out, virtually all illusionistic, aerial light, shrinking and compressing the envelope of light between planes farther than any post-Cubist artist had yet accomplished. He had very nearly, as Donald Judd likely recognized, dismantled the distinction between art-as-representation and art-as-object-in-itself, that had been constantly in play in a great variety of formal propositions since Cubism first opened new possibilities of paradoxical unions and disunions of visual experience.
BERNICE ROSE is a scholar and curator based in New York. She is the editor of the forthcoming catalogue raisonne of the drawings of Jasper Johns and Director Emerita of the Drawing Institute, Menil Collection.