Sunday, April 8, 2012

A reductionist exhibition

Last week I visited the much praised Courtauld Art Gallery exhibition on the parallel work of Ben Nicholson and Piet Mondrian. It was a very inspiring visit, not only for the quality of the works shown but also for the questions behind the work. All the praise lavished on it is deserved.

One critic summarized Mondrian’s work nicely, by writing of Mondrian’s ability “to cut to what is central and essential in form”.

Of course, “to cut to what is central and essential in form” – for Mondrian, the straight line – meant eliminating almost all details and all naturalistic representation of form. In the Courtauld exhibition, even colours are more de-emphasized than in many other canvases by Mondrian that I have seen – they are banished to the edge of the canvas, leaving the entire canvas as a set of vertical and horizontal lines whose intersections against a white background constitute rectangles – “the plurality of straight lines in rectangular opposition” as Mondrian himself once put it.

In the process, this art also becomes reductionist art! After all, if you try to reduce all forms to universal elements, what else are you but a reductionist?

And Mondrian said so himself: “To create pure reality plastically, it is necessary to reduce natural forms to their constant elements”.

The straight line also gained a prominent place in physiology with the discovery that there are many cells in the visual brain that respond specifically to straight lines. Such “orientation selective” cells, as they are commonly known, are considered to be the physiological building blocks for the construction of forms by the brain.

I suppose that is a somewhat reductionist approach too.

Inspiring and exciting though Mondrian’s works are, his researches did not lead to any convincing insights into how the straight lines are brought together to construct complex everyday forms.

And, since the discovery of orientation selective cells in the visual brain, neurobiologists have not quite figured out how such cells interact in the brain to construct more elaborate forms.

Of the other artist, a critic wrote that, “Nicholson’s adventure was to strip out all reference to the observed world”. This is not unlike Kazimir Malevich, the Russian Suprematist painter, who once wrote, “The artist has no further need for the objective world as such”.

Like Kazimir Malevich, Ben Nicholson emphasizes squares and, unlike Mondrian, he also has circles. The lines are there, but produced by shadows. I suppose that by concentrating on simple geometric forms alone and stripping away all reference to the observed world, both he and Malevich, as well as many others, were also being reductionist.

As far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong or reprehensible with reductionism in art. But it pleases me to note that neurobiologists – sometimes accused of being reductionists - have such good and worthy companions, as this wonderful exhibition shows..

As an aside, I was a little surprised to learn from this exhibition that Mondrian and Nicholson were quite so friendly. I say this only because of the use of circles in Nicholson's work. Mondrian never used circles or curved lines in his compositions. He even abhorred the diagonal line. He actually stopped collaborating with a fellow artist (Theo van Doesburg), writing to him, “Because of the high handed way in which you have treated the diagonal line, no further collaboration between us is possible”.


Fred McVittie said...

Apparently Mondrian's was also influenced by the spiritual ideas of Theosophy, which I think is evidenced in this desire to reduce the complex forms of the material world to the abstactions of geometry and primary colours. I see this as his moving toward the entire dematerialisation that Malevich speaks about (although for very different reasons) in which the fallen world of objects, and even platonic abstractions are left behind in favour of some aspirational pure 'spirit'.

S.Z. said...

Thanks for these interesting comments. The influence of Theosophy on Mondrian was, I understand, so profound, that he did not ever use green in his abstract composition for theosophical reasons. I suppose the restriction of his palette to red, yellow and blue (plus of course the black lines against a white background) represents a further reductionism.

Mikey said...

How thrilling to know you think this way. I'm still learning what I think about Mondrian. I've seen letters between Blavadski and Ezra Cornell in the basement of Olin Library. The talk about art. I need to see them again.

S.Z. said...

Thanks. Let me know if you find anuything new. I hope my next post will be about a reductionist literary work.

Jef S. said...

Could you give a reference for the discovery of orientation selective cells in the visual brain? I would very much like to read more about this topic. And whether it has any relevance to the brain's urge to look for hierarchal structures in an image. In Mondrian's work there are apparantly no hierarchies, every part of a painting is of equal importance, and this goed for much abstract art, I suppose. Representational art on the other hand always displays, consciously or uncounsciously, a hierarchy in order to convey a meaning. And I wonder if there is a neurobiological process which makes the human brain look for these structures.
Jef S.

S.Z. said...

Thanks, Jf, for your comments.
The original papers on orientation selective cells are by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel and they are to be found in the Journal of Physiology (1959, 1962) and the Journal Of Neurophysiology (1965). Many more papers have been published on orientation selective cells since, but these remain the classic papers.

I have come to doubt whether these cells, fascinating though they are, are necessarily the physiological "building blocks" for the elaboration of shapes by the brain.

Your comments about hierarchy are also interesting. I would add that perhaps a more compelling feature, applicable to the works of Mondrian as much as to representational art, is that of parallelism - the notion that different attributes of a visual scene are processed and perceived separately. This is not to deny a unit for these works, but I am now no longer sure that that unit is built up in a piecemeal way, as we had all supposed.