Making a home for Mondrian

Wed, 19/06/2013 - 14:36 -- damien
The 2006 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art
How and why do contemporary artists engage with earlier avant-gardes? And what differences do time and place make to modernism? The exhibition ‘21st Century Modern’, the 2006 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art curated by Linda Michael, poses fascinating responses to these perennial questions. In fact, Michael appears to have uncovered a common obsession among contemporary Australian artists of different generations and various orientations, such that we might want to call it a zeitgeist or at the very least a common desire.

Of the twenty-eight artists (plus a collaboration of seven) in the exhibition, many invoke certain quirky or interdisciplinary aspects of the mid-20th century avant-garde, like Robert Rooney’s Balletomania paintings of 2004 based on early modernist choreography, Janet Burchill and Jennifer McCamley’s Barbara Hepworth Table, 2005 and A.D.S. Donaldson’s Untitled (for Mary Webb) carpets. Some artists have constructed miniature museums or perform key moderns, like the Malevich paper-bag puppets in Shane Haseman’s Zero for Conduct (8 masks), 2004, Gareth Donnelly’s miniature Art of the Twentieth Century, 2004, or Domenico de Clario’s seven times thank you series of 2004. As Michael underlines in her catalogue essay, all these dialogues suggest quite a different relation to earlier modernisms than that of the appropriation strategies of the 1980s. She writes that this contemporary art enacts ‘a shift away from the melancholic collapse of certainty that underpinned post-modern art and reveals many life-lines from the past to the future: artists respond to the collaborative, experimental or utopian spirit of modern art movements, give a digital twist to modern forms, pay homage to modern artists, and revive childhood encounters with modern design across its multidisciplinary forms’.1

To track the implications of this common desire, I want to take one thread, that of Mondrian in Australia, though it does require a historical preamble to appreciate the present work. This may at first sound quite perverse as it is regularly lamented that no Mondrian paintings are to be seen in Australia. In the 1939 Herald exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art, the first modernist blockbuster to tour to Australia, no Mondrian was exhibited, and with one or two exceptions this has continued to the present. Amongst the effects of his absence has been the great significance lent to the traffic in copies. For instance, those first dedicated disciples Ralph Balson and Grace Crowley began geometric abstract painting after reading Mondrian’s essay, ‘Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art’ in Circle, the 1937 international survey of constructive art.2 Mondrian’s singular model of painting—in proposing both an image of ideal harmony and displaying its process of making—offered what Paul Wood has called ‘a sort of absolute democracy’.3

The democratic diffusion of Mondrian’s work was identified quite early by Alfred Barr in an influential essay ‘What is Modern painting?’ written to accompany a Museum of Modern Art circulating exhibition which arrived in Australia in 1944. With classic American pragmatism, Barr claimed that ‘Mondrian’s pictures almost in spite of themselves have achieved practical results to an amazing extent. They have affected the design of modern architecture, posters, printing layout, decoration, linoleum and many other things in our ordinary everyday lives’.4 It was just this mass culture that the American critic and then Trotskyist Clement Greenberg railed against in his 1939 essay ‘The avant-garde and kitsch’, claiming modernism as the only hope of keeping culture alive in the face of advanced capitalism.5 In Australia the reception of Mondrian is made all the more complex for having been experienced principally through mass design and architecture. Mondrian’s grid with coloured squares became ubiquitous as a signifier of modernity at a time when high art, being so closely aligned to a landscape tradition, was still dogged by an institutional resistance to abstraction.

In the 1960s, several Australian artists who studied Mondrian overseas used his work as a way of coming to terms with ‘American-type’ painting. Ironically, it was Mondrian’s abstraction that helped Fred Williams remake landscape relevant to a new generation in the 1960s. Williams tried to paint a dozen Mondrian style paintings in 1961. These uncharacteristic works are generally acknowledged as weak but do testify to a serious interest in Mondrian. It was the failure of Williams to make convincing abstract painting that became the basis for his breakthrough in the 1962-63 landscapes. Like Mondrian’s transitional works of pier and ocean, Williams reconceived the deep space conventionally associated with landscape within a spare geometry delineated by stumpy verticals and lumps of pigment across a flattened surface.

A major generational shift in the reception of Mondrian’s ideas informed many modular works that came to be known as Minimal art. In 1966, when Carl Andre configured floor pieces from blocks of standard industrial bricks of the same mass and weight but differently shaped, he named the series Equivalent, in deference to Mondrian. Equivalence is a relationship that estranges the familiar. The writer David Batchelor has described how in such work ‘many presumed or conventional oppositions…are momentarily dissolved into a play of equivalence where everything is balanced but nothing fixed.’6 This concept of ‘equivalence’ draws together that which is usually distanced including historical and cultural distance, which makes it particularly interesting in Australia where space and distancing are such cultural obsessions.

In 1965, Mondrian also served Ian Burn as a bridge to Minimalism, when Burn was working in London. He reworked Mondrian’s Lozenge with Grey Lines, describing the process as ‘a bit like Frank Stella meeting Mondrian on St Kilda beach’.7 The original 1918 grey symmetrical grid derived from the lozenge shaped canvas had a cubist inflection, as vertical and horizontal lines were selectively doubled, what Frank Stella would dismiss as ‘relational painting’.8 The repetition had troubled Mondrian because it ‘privileges only one type of relationship between the various parts of the painting’ and after 1919 he never again used a diagonal.9 In remaking the work as an ‘American-type painting’, Burn substituted the grey paint for clear flat yellow stripes applied in an even mechanical surface like those of Stella, adopting Mondrian’s two thicknesses of lines, though Burn’s doubling is systematic or ‘constant’. The following year Burn and his collaborator Mel Ramsden conscripted Mondrian to oppose a contemplative art, claiming in 1966 that ‘today the barrier is abstract images’.10 By then it appeared that abstraction had turned into an entirely conceptual matter.

This brings us to a new generation who came of age in what was then dubbed postmodernism, but now seems much closer to modernism’s nervous breakdown, to use Ramsden’s term.11 The contemporary shift in relation to the history of modernism suggests that something is now recoverable from the crisis of the ’60s which Minimal and Conceptual art precipitated. In 1986, when Debra Dawes framed her entry into abstraction with an elaborate tableau of twenty-one works entitled, Three Narratives: An Autobiography, she painted a series of Mondrian-like works tracking his development towards planar space against another narrative based on still-life painting, and then positioned herself symbolically between the two pictorial languages. While her early pastiche of Mondrian is as awkward a copy as Fred Williams’s, it is significantly distinguished from the appropriation strategies then raging among many of her contemporaries. In all subsequent work she includes autobiographic connotations in an abstract grid making a perceptual painting that, for example, can reference such quotidian matters as the brick patterns of suburbia in Starlight, 1993.

Dawes’s current series clock wise, begun in late 2003, of which three are shown in ‘21st Century Modern’, looks deceptively like 1960’s colour field painting until you begin to notice certain distinctive features. Before being painted, each rectangular canvas has been divided up by barely visible parallel pencil lines which represent the days in a particular month, after which the work is sub-titled. The only variables are the colour or width of each stripe that represents a passage of time and Dawes’s own circadian rhythms. She does not use Mondrian’s primary colours but intense high key psychedelic combinations reminiscent of 1960’s wallpaper, like hot pink and orange or lime green, cooled by overlays or intervals of white. Their intense dynamic is countered by the methodical process of working from left to right across the canvas over the span of a month. Using paint to mark time is reminiscent of the Conceptual date paintings of On Kawara, though Dawes does not use language but, like Mondrian, varies tones and colours in a play of dynamic equivalence, where everything is balanced but nothing is fixed by a horizon.

Back in 1967, the New York painter Ad Reinhardt warned young artists that ‘You have to choose between Duchamp and Mondrian’, posing these as the two originating ‘father-figures’ of modernism.12 A quarter century later, Ian Burn reasoned that ‘it has perhaps been difficult to reflect upon Mondrian as a choice, much less the combined resource of Mondrian and Duchamp…with art practice today constrained between Duchampian spectacle and (academic) theorisation of postmodernism’.13 In fact, Burn combined readymade amateur landscapes with Mondrian’s schema of primary colours in the Artist Think series. Here, Mondrian’s schema is set among gum trees allowing ‘conflicting cultural traditions [to] see eye-to-eye without appearing to look at each other’.14 At the time, Burn had observed how Jacky Redgate restaged Mondrian’s primaries by denying any mixing, confining each of the colours in deep white cylinders in Untitled Red, Yellow, Blue, 1992.15

Redgate’s current series Straightcut, 2001-06, of which five are exhibited in Adelaide, continues to use the readymade to unpack de Stijl aesthetics. The direct inspiration is the avant-garde photography of Florence Henri, who in the late 1920s brought Bauhaus photography into Mondrian’s circle. Henri’s distinctive signature lay in her use of mirrors that turned the genres of still-life and portraiture into cubist compositions of disjunction and spatial ambiguity. Redgate takes Henri into the 21st century by systematically unfolding or rotating a series of hard, brightly coloured objects against a stark white set fitted with either one or two mirrors. The doubling and tripling in reflection, with stripes or grids aligned to horizon and vertical lines, confounds conventional figure/ground relations. For instance, in one single mirror construction, a thick yellow wedge assumes a powerful lever effect as it intersects a horizontal gridded band of blue. Such dynamics are a legacy of Mondrian’s experiments and delay our reading of scale or origin. It is only slowly that we can decipher the shapes, uncovering their utilitarian origin as food containers, a modern esky or sushi boxes. Rather than employing immersive digital effects, Redgate uses the outmoded genre of photo-tableaux, framing the plastic objects in the fixed front-on perspective of a conventional table top converted into a white shadowless cube with the aid of mirrors. The construction leaves traces of its making, like the torn edges of paper or a slightly uneven seam where the mirror leans. Is this a return to modernism’s medium specificity, exposing how the materials of photography prompt and delimit production? In part it is, yet Redgate’s interests are as divided as her formal compositions are contaminated by the shells of food packaging. Her homage to earlier modernist aesthetics is made out of the disposable world of contemporary domestic life which feminises the grid of Mondrian and the serial logic of Minimalism.

A similar manoeuvre of domesticating or bringing home high modernism informs the work of Narelle Jubelin. Her eleven petit point renditions were provoked, in part, by a casual remark made by the curator, Linda Michael, who had observed that a number of the artists involved in the exhibition had ‘grown up modern’. They form part of Jubelin’s ongoing series known as Boxed Set, which in the Biennial were laid out on a shelf midway down the entrance in the gallery stairwell, as if to introduce hidden histories underpinning the show. Each circular miniature, representing a modernist house or portrait, is encased in a brown rubber frame and perched on a modern plastic clam shell ashtray, accessories of interior design. The needlework miniatures nest uneasily within the 1970’s cool designer aesthetic. As a group, they allude to an intensely complex network of sites and moments in a vast intersecting grid of modernist reception and circulation, supplemented by annotations from the subjects. For instance, Vanilla Netto’s commentary on Jubelin’s Boxed Set 15, Beige, draws attention to a local architectural element that frames her 1960’s family snap from Brazil: ‘I thought the brise-soleil element interesting. They were commonplace in houses with a modernist bent in the 1960s over there. They are called combogos. Niemeyer used a lot in his quadras residencias blocks in Brasilia.’ Jubelin’s stitch selectively introduces colour—rendering the sun screen [brise-soleil] in a grey/black grid of Mondrian-like horizontal and vertical marks; the diminutive figures are little more than patches of flickering light, drawing the eye down to a bright red ball on a tiny white frock.

Jubelin, who is based in Madrid, had approached Raafat Ishak, Anne-Marie May, Callum Morton, Vanila Netto and Jacky Redgate by email inviting them to send her digitised snaps from their earliest entanglements with modernism. These were supplemented by a broader circle of encounters with international modernism, like Harry Seidler’s domestic and corporate architecture. Jubelin knew of a Mondrian doppelganger in Redgate’s Untitled Day series, 1999, a work based on the Redgate family album, which documented their migration from England to Australia. In the petit point group, Jacky and her twin sister are dressed in frocks adapted from a ‘Mondrian’ Vogue pattern by their mother at Adelaide’s Henley Beach in 1967. The third degree copy came into domestic currency following Yves St Laurent’s haute couture version. At the beach, de Stijl geometry is almost obliterated by a sandy ground and cardigans. The thread thickens the image, and faces blur beyond recognition, the residue of two black verticals set off by white, red and an unlikely green act like distorting mirrors framing the arrival. Is this debasement? Jubelin describes how in these works only


the bare essentials are sewn … I wanted them to pare down to fairly unspecific thought bubbles which has given a real strangeness to the rendition … you will see that they are far less polished than before … Jacky and her family literally fuse into their new beach sand… 16


The other Mondrian in the sequence also takes the form of a dress, designed by Ian Burn and modelled by his wife Avril in 1965. The rendition in pink, white and grey threads breaks all the formal rules of Mondrian’s aesthetic, yet the single black line on white in the lower centre marks its tenuous lineage.

It is possible to see in these 21st century grids—made out of paint, plastic multiples or coloured thread—some distance from and some equivalence with the unfinished business of modernism, particularly if we think of the state of flux in those small woven and pasted coloured papers in Mondrian’s Victory Boogie Woogie. These encounters with Mondrian—and other lines could be traced in the show through Malevich, Soviet Agit-prop, Duchamp or the Bauhaus—suggest a broader impulse underlying much of the work in ‘21st Century Modern’.

The entire installation of the ‘21st Century Modern’ could be read as one extended living space for the homeless state of modernism in Australia. There is Arlo Mounford’s wooden play pen with screens to restrain the unruly avant-garde offspring. The ultra cool lounge rooms of David Rosetzky and Anne Wallace, May’s sky-light fountain, Jubelin’s mantelpiece of family snaps, the domestic accessories of Netto and Redgate, Donaldson’s carpets, John Meade’s screens, Frank Bauer’s lights, John Nixon’s readymade ceramics, the imaginary architectural blueprints of Ishak, all those wallpapers by Rose Nolan, Brook Andrew (and maybe even Dawes and Robert Owen), and the various TVs all furnish the museum. Even the least homey of works from the youthful Slave collaborators improvises an anarchic squat from snaps, flag, T-shirt, table and stool.

However, this is not a relaxed and comfortable space. The visitor confronts The Man, Brook Andrews’s towering figure of Australia’s own prize fighting Black Muslim and eavesdrops on domestic psycho dramas. The carpet is not to be walked on, the table has holes and there is no space outside. All is interior in this dialogue between different generations and locations which returns a complexity to modernism. It seems that the desire to make a home for modernism is of necessity accompanied by estrangement.


1. Michael, Linda, 21st Century Modern: 2006 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, ex. cat., Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, p.8.

2. Mondrian, Piet, ‘Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art’, in Nicholson, Ben, Gabo, Naum, Martin, Leslie (eds), Circle: An International Survey of Constructivist Art, London, 1937.

3. Wood, Paul, ‘The Idea of an Abstract Art’, in Art Of The Avant-Gardes, Yale, 2004, p.258. Wood draws on Yve-Alain Bois’ essay ‘The Iconoclast’. in Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, The Hague, 1994. Quote from p.315. Bois’ text reads: ‘The principle of neo plasticism is a dialectic roughly reminiscent of Hegel, which Mondrian also calls the “general principle of plastic equivalence”. It involves not merely the plastic arts or even the arts as such, but all human activity, all cultural production, all social existence. It is an apparent dualism meant to dissolve all particularity, all center, all hierarchy…Mondrian’s texts of the twenties refer to a universal ‘repose’ and absolute balance, and dream of a perfectly equilibrated future society where every element will be ‘determined’. Mondrian considers each of his neo-plastic canvases as the theoretical and microcosmic model of a macrocosm yet to come.’

4. Barr Jr., Alfred H., What is Modern Painting?, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1943, p.27.

5. Greenberg, Clement, ‘The Avant-Garde and Kitsch’, Partisan Review, #6, Fall, 1939, pp.34-49. Reprinted in C. Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, 1961, pp.3-21 and Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism, J. O’Brian (ed), 1988, pp.5-22, 1988.

6. Batchelor, David, ‘Equivalence is a strange word’, in Carl Andre and the Sculptural Imagination, ed. Ian Cole, Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, 1996, p.12.

7. Burn, Ian, letter to Mel Ramsden, 22 April, 1988.

8. Stella, Frank, ‘Pratt Institute lecture’, 1959, in Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Harrison, Charles and Wood, Paul, eds., Blackwells, p.805-806.

9. Bois, Yves-Alain, Painting as Model, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1991, p.106.

10. Burn, Ian and Ramsden, Mel, ‘Soft-Tape’, 1966, in Modernism & Australia: 1917-1967, Stephen, Ann, McNamara, Andrew, Goad, Philip, eds., Miegunyah Press, (forthcoming 2006).

11. Ramsden, Mel, ‘Remembering Conceptual Art’, The 5th Ian Burn Memorial Lecture, February 2000, unpublished.

12. Reinhardt, Ad, ‘Skowhegan lecture’, 1967, in Lippard, Lucy, Ad Reinhardt, Abrams, New York, 1981.

13. Burn, Ian, ‘Looking at Seeing & Reading’, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, College of Fine Arts, Sydney, July 1993, np.

14. Burn, Ian, ‘Glimpses: On Peripheral Vision’, Dialogue: Writing in Art History, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1991, p.199.

15. Burn, Ian, ‘Looking at Seeing & Reading’, op. cit., np.

16. Jubelin, N., email to the author, January 2006.

Ann Stephen is a curator at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. Her latest book is On Looking at Looking: The art and politics of Ian Burn, Miegunyah Press, 2006. She is developing an exhibition on Modernism & Australia.