In choosing to write about Mondrian’s Oval with Colored Planes (1914), I find it hard to bypass several mysterious paintings by Piero di Cosimo or, for their sheer enchantment and many other qualities, the works of Giovanni di Paolo. I return to that world again and again to encounter and confirm the power of painting. But at the moment it feels like a stretch to relate a painting of mine to works so deeply rooted in mythology or the Bible. So, for the sheer immediacy of seeing what lies at the heart of making a painting, I turn to this early Mondrian. I want to look closely at how this painted surface, devoid of representational content or narrative, manifests and embodies its own unique, complex meaning.
This Mondrian has a marvelous, lilting, adventurousness to it: an improvisational, searching liveliness. These are life enhancing qualities. The oval hovers just above the bottom edge of the canvas. Equidistant from right and left, it appears to sway slightly. It floats. It breathes. It is alive and has a pulse. It has an anti-gravitational thrust, with greater definition and weight toward the top where the circumscribing oval line is more sharply drawn and explicitly cropped. To name the colors suggests the primaries: red, blue and yellow. But this yellow is ochre, an earth color left over from the Cubist palette. The blue and red are cut with white, avoiding the full color saturation of his later work. Line and color are constantly negotiating for territory, competing and displacing one another while maintaining a respectful distance from the inscribed oval. The greyed-out surrounding area invites and rewards close inspection. The painting is many layered, generous in what it reveals about how it is painted.
Oval with Colored Planes spoke to me on first sight and it has never disappointed. But, when I first encountered it the delicacy of Mondrian’s touch here surprised me. At that point I only knew his later, iconic 1920s, hard-edged paintings in which the exact placement and definition of color and shape became paramount. I soon discovered his roots and motifs in traditional landscape painting, and his rejection of Cubism’s volume building in favor of using its tools to dissolve volume, to open and re-structure the surface.
I continue to marvel at the radical logic and speed of the trajectory of Mondrian’s work in the few years leading to the Oval with Colored Planes. Only months earlier in Tableau #2/Composition #VII we see a very rough and raw battleground of hurried, scratchy zig-zag brushwork. Color areas establish themselves while redrawing their own ever shifting black boundaries, always maintaining some distance from the edges of the canvas. There seems to be an effort to deny and retract the corners, to reject the shape of the canvas. There is no embarrassment about covering up what may at first glance appear as corrections. Erasure is positive. Throughout there is a sense of the vitality and urgency characteristic of early work. The color palette is still Cubist, but the space is not. We look into it and under it as we see the canvas simultaneously painted on and over. Still visible alongside the outer edges of the canvas are segments of a thin straight black framing line. Sometimes that line is barely visible, buried under the covering white, at other edges it is clearly painted over the white as if to reassert that this is still, after all, a rectangular canvas.
The resolution of the Oval was yet to come. When it did it appeared almost effortless.
Over decades of painting Cloud Paintings I have felt a kinship with Mondrian’s quest for openness, conveying and implying motion, weightlessness and the use of white as color. I was deeply moved when I first came upon his 1907 painting The Red Cloud. I responded in 1971 by painting my Homage to Mondrian’s Red Cloud without a horizon. His Pier and Ocean drawings were on my mind recently while painting Winter Harbor with Ellis Island in 2011.
Jacqueline Gourevitch lives and works in Lower Manhattan. www.jacquelinegourevitch.com