Piet Mondrian on How to Be an Artist

Alexxa Gotthardt
Nov 12, 2019 5:44PM

Piet Mondrian’s particular brand of pared-down abstraction—pulsing grids in a palette of primary colors—revolutionized painting.

Already by the mid-1910s, before he developed his signature style, the Dutch painter’s canvases were being hailed as distinct from their Cubist predecessors. “Mondrian descends from the cubists, but does not imitate them,” wrote critic and poet Guillaume Apollinaire in 1913. “His personality remains entirely his own.”

Several years later, in a radical departure, Mondrian jettisoned the remnants of naturalistic content that Cubists had clung to. In the process, he forged a new, total abstraction—one he believed more fully expressed the essence of reality and universal harmony. “Gradually I became aware that Cubism did not accept the logical consequences of its own discoveries,” he remembered decades later. “It was not developing abstraction towards its ultimate goal: the expression of pure reality.” He called his practice Neo-Plasticism, an offshoot of the De Stijl, the movement he co-founded with critic and fellow artist Theo van Doesburg in 1917, to propagate harmony in both art and life.

Over the next 27 years, until his death in 1944, Mondrian worked doggedly to harness these concepts in grids that fluctuated subtly in tone, composition, and scale. He extended this thinking in extensive writings and letters to peers. “The rhythm of the relationship between color and dimension…permits the absolute to appear,” he wrote in 1917, in the introduction to “De Nieuwe Beelding in de Schilderkunst” (“The New Plastic in Painting”), a series of articles published in De Stijl magazine.

Mondrian consistently questioned and reinvented his work—all while navigating countless personal and professional challenges. Below, we share advice from the great iconoclast, extracted from his writings and interviews. His wisdom touches on the importance of self-advocacy, camaraderie, exposure to new environments, and patience.

Lesson #1: Find your people and band together


As a young artist fresh out of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, Mondrian already had ambitions to become a great painter. But upon entering the prestigious Prix de Rome competition in 1898 and 1901, his figure-drawing skills were roundly criticized. Judges for the prize were “entrenched in the conventions of academic painting,” as art historian Susanne Deicher explained in Piet Mondrian, 1872–1944: Structures in Space (1999). This led the artist to move away from traditional circles and towards the avant-garde. By 1903, he became active in communities fighting all forms of the establishment, from art to politics.

From then on, Mondrian allied himself with a host of radical circles. Through his friendship with Dutch painter Kees Spoor—the “unofficial leader of a colony of avant-garde artists,” according to the 1994 MoMA catalogue Piet Mondrian, 1872–1944—Mondrian was introduced to Neo-Impressionism. He also joined the Dutch Theosophical Society, whose esoteric beliefs fostered the concepts of universal harmony and balance in his work.

Pro-modernist critics of the day also became close friends and powerful confidantes. Mondrian exchanged many letters, bandying ideas of abstraction, with critics Israel Querido and Van Doesburg. Early positive reviews from both sparked lasting relationships. In a 1915 article, Van Doesburg captured the power of Mondrian’s increasingly abstract work: “A line on its own has almost become a work of art, and one can no longer treat it as casually as one could when art concerned itself with depicting things seen.…Each extraneous line, each misplaced line, each color applied without sufficient care and respect, can destroy the whole, that is to say, the spirit.” Soon after, the two friends launched the De Stijl movement, which went on to inspire the Bauhaus.

Later in his career, when Mondrian relocated to Paris and New York, he sought the camaraderie of fellow modernists Walter Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Hans (Jean) Arp. They not only exchanged ideas, but supported one another in times of need. In 1930, when Mondrian was struggling financially—his work was often too irreverent for collectors—Arp, Gropius, and Moholy-Nagy, among others, banded together to host a lottery to support him.

Lesson #2: Set your own narrative

Long before art schools offered professional practice courses, Mondrian was carefully honing his public persona and making shrewd decisions about the context in which his work was shown. An early manifestation of this was the deliberate staging of a 1905 photographic portrait, which shows the artist working in his Amsterdam studio. A hat hangs casually from the corner of an unfinished painting, set on an easel, while Mondrian sits in front of it—seemingly deep in thought. He’s dressed in a suit and holds a brush. As Deicher pointed out, “The photograph is no random snapshot.” The artist’s intention was two-fold, according to Deicher: “to present an image of Mondrian to the public and to reassure potential purchasers unsettled by modern experimentation as to his method of working.”

Later in his career, as he became more established, Mondrian’s on-camera persona transformed. He shed suits in favor of a more rough-and-tumble painter’s coat, and posed in front of unfinished paintings. These more informal portraits supported the painter’s bid to be seen as a “technician of the new,” Deicher noted. His studio was now presented as a laboratory.

This attention to detail extended to the way Mondrian exhibited his work. Throughout his career, he emphasized how important the right placement and lighting was to the experience of viewing his paintings. When the canvas Composition 1916 (1916) was exhibited at the Hollandsche Kunstenaarskring in 1916, Mondrian wrote to his friend and collector Salomon B. Slijper, “I have now hung that last piece…in a place that is less brightly lit, and it now strikes me once again as outstanding.” He also gave installation instructions to collectors. In a letter to Hilla Rebay on October 10, 1930, he explained, “I am very happy that my painting brings you peace. I advise you not to hang it too low, and to give it full light.”

These conditions were not only important to the presentation of Mondrian’s canvases, but also directly tied to the concepts that drove them. In 1917, during an exhibition of Mondrian’s work at the Stedelijk Museum, the painter wrote to Van Doesburg, “The light in the [museum] does seem to change the color values. In my (too small) studio, the effect was different.…I believe that my work should be made in the place where it is to hang, and in direct relation to that environment.”

The same year, in his seminal article “New Plastic in Painting,” Mondrian elaborated on the relationship between working environment and the success of a painting: “Although the New Plastic appears to have given up all technique, its technique has actually become so important that the colors must be painted in the precise place where the work is to be seen. Only then can the effect of the colors and the relationships be precise, for they are interdependent with the entire architecture; and the architecture in turn must harmonize completely with the work.”

Lesson #3: Consider a change of context

Throughout adulthood, Mondrian led an itinerant life, moving between Amsterdam, the Dutch countryside, Paris, London, and New York. While several relocations were essential, spurred by the threats of World War I and World War II, they also fed the artist creatively. On several occasions, moving sparked radical shifts in his work. One such break came in the summer of 1914, when Mondrian returned to Holland after a two-year stint in Paris, where he’d been absorbing the tenets of Cubism. By leaving the Cubist hotbed, Mondrian was able to further develop his unique approach to abstraction and move stylistically away from Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, from whom he’d learned much from.

Between 1914 and 1916, working from the small town of Domburg, Mondrian developed a series of abstract drawings and paintings inspired by the façade of a local church. By translating this concrete form into vertical and horizontal lines in canvases like Composition 10 in Black and White (1915) and Composition 1916, he began his quest to dissolve the figure-ground relationship. This was “his nearly exclusive focus from 1917 to 1919, and an essential component of his pictorial program until the end of his life,” as Joop Joosten and Angelica Zander Rudenstine explained in the 1994 MoMA catalogue. By 1918, grids filled with rectangular planes of color began to emerge on Mondrian’s canvases.

Likewise, his final departure from the Netherlands and return to Paris in June 1919 precipitated another profound development: a complete abandonment of the regular grid and shifting color gradations in favor of irregular grids and a restrained palette. For the latter works, he only employed primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and what he described as non-colors (black, white, gray). In a December 1919 letter to Van Doesburg, Mondrian described a new composition that characterized this shift: “I have now made a painting that pleases me more that [sic] all my previous work.…It has been a long quest.” By 1920, he’d finished Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray, “the first genuinely neo-plastic picture,” according to Joosten and Rudenstine.

Mondrian’s last significant move came in 1940, when he boarded a ship to New York. Again, relocation inspired a radical new direction in his practice: Here, rather than employing only black lines to demarcate his grids, he introduced multicolored delineations. In paintings like Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937–42) and Composition No. 9 (1939–42), “the impression of playfulness reappears, with intersecting lines in different colours producing visually brilliant, flickering effects,” Deicher wrote.

Several canvases, like Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), painted in the years before the artist’s death in 1944, completely eschewed black. Built from small intersecting cubes of various hues, the works pulse with the energy of Manhattan’s crowded streets and the boogie-woogie music Mondrian obsessively sought out in the city. In these paintings, “the systematic contrast between colour and non-colour disappears completely,” Deicher continued. “Here in this city he no longer staked out an imaginary terrain for a new life, in strict demarcation from reality.”

Lesson #4: Evolution happens slowly—practice patience

Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1957

Mondrian’s artistic evolution happened slowly; he only reached his signature style—the gridded apotheosis of Neo-Plasticism—in his late forties. By all accounts, he was patient and valued slow, measured creative progress. This often manifested in reworking canvases over and over until he achieved the desired formal balance. In a March 1917 letter to his friend, the art teacher H.P. Bremmer, he explained the drawn-out process of perfecting Composition in Line: “This year I worked and explored a great deal, and much of what I had done had to be changed. I was searching for a purer expression: that is why nothing satisfied me yet.” He restated this habit in a 1917 letter to collector Reverend H. Van Assendelft: “I am rather pleased with the watercolor [Composition with Color Planes 1], which is a considerable comfort, since my work goes so slowly: the great search is over now (at least for the time being), which means that I can steadily rework various canvases, in between all the other things I have to do.”

Mondrian also understood that the general public and the art establishment wouldn’t be ready for total abstraction (or “the absolute,” in his parlance) immediately, and suggested that the introduction should be gradual. In a November 1915 letter to Van Doesburg, he wrote that “the absolute must be realized relatively for the time being. I found that my closed rectangular form was too absolute [for the viewer]; thus, also for me. [The resolution of] what will be possible, and will come later.”

Even in the last months of his life, after the establishment had generally warmed to his paintings, Mondrian continued to search for new, more complete modes of abstraction that would “[liberate] our vision.” Writer James Johnson Sweeney remembered Mondrian’s dissatisfaction with the final painting he completed before his death: “I am only satisfied insofar as I feel Broadway Boogie Woogie is a definite progress, but even about this picture I am not quite satisfied,” Sweeney recalled the painter saying. “There is still too much of the old in it.”

In his 1957 article “Mondrian in New York: A Memoir,” artist Carl Holty recollected asking Mondrian why he consistently struggled, destroying paintings he finished one night only to rework them the next morning. “I don’t want pictures,” Mondrian answered. “I just want to find things out.”

Alexxa Gotthardt