Mondrian Abstractions

On San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy 2016

by James Conley 


The Frame

Art is a method by which humans observe nature and each other. Art requires both an observer (the artist) and a spectator (those who view the artist’s interpretation). 

The Canvas

Piet Mondrian said:

For when I construct lines and colour combinations on a flat surface, it is with the aim of portraying ‘universally beauty’ as consciously as possible. Nature (or that which I see) inspires me, provides me – as it does every painter – with the emotion by which I am moved to create something, but I want to approach the truth as closely as possible, abstracting everything until I come to the foundation – still only an outward foundation! – of things. It is for me a clear truth that one does not want to say something ‘specific’, it is then that one says what is most specific: the truth (which is of great universality).

I believe that it is possible by means of horizontal and vertical lines, constructed ‘consciously’ but not ‘calculating’, guided by a higher intuition and brought to harmony and rhythm – I believe that these fundamental aesthetic shapes – where necessary supplemented by lines in other directions or curved lines, make it possible to arrive at a work of art which is as strong as it is true. For anyone who sees more deeply, there is nothing vague about this; it is only vague for the superficial observer of nature. And ‘ chance ‘ must be as far removed as ‘calculation’. And for the rest it seems to me that it is necessary to keep breaking off the horizontal or vertical line: for if these directions were not countered by others, they would themselves come to signify something ‘specific’ and thus human.

In a letter to H. P. Bremmer, Paris 29 January 1914; as quoted in Mondrian, – The Art of Destruction, Carel Blotkamp, Reaktion Books LTD. London 2001, p. 81.

Artist Hiroshi Sugimoto said:

I don’t like to have people in my pictures. I want quiet things. The seascape – that’s the most simple, minimalistic landscape. Just one line and the sky and the water. [People] are noisy. I want to meditate, I want to concentrate. I think about humans without humans.

May 6, 2016 Interview of Sugimoto by Una Meistere and Daiga Rudzāte. 


Abstract Struggles

Temporarily, on San Giorgio Maggiore, sits a tea house. Titled “Glass Tea House Mondrian,” it is designed by Hiroshi Sugimoto. A glass cube which hosts a Japanese tea ceremony sits within a long pool. The garden is surrounded by high walls. Not even the sound of water in the lagoon surrounding San Giorgio Maggiore penetrates.

Sugimoto is a photographer who uses an 8x10 view camera to make images—mostly seascapes. His work is beautiful and iconic. Mondrian was a painter who sought fundamental artistic truth through the simplest of forms: horizontal and vertical lines.

Both artists did not find it necessary to represent people in representing what is human (though Mondrian dabbled in figurative painting, and Sugimoto has a book of portrait photographs). Sugimoto’s tea house reflects their shared aesthetic—a gestalt structure meant for people, but without them.

It is not, however, my aesthetic. I’m a humanist, and my photography reflects it. I like people, and I am interested in how people interact with their environment—whether that environment be man made or in nature. 

In this Mondrian tea garden, however, I was conflicted. I wandered and sat. Then wandered and sat again. It took me quite a long time to be moved to pick up the camera. And like my motion, I repeatedly picked it up and put it down again. Abstract is not my thing, and it was difficult to orient. Still, the place held me. And eventually it began to make sense.


The buzz of Broadway Boogie-Woogie was present even standing still. Sugimoto had made Mondrian’s 2D energy into 3D. But I knew the reverse wasn’t possible—Mondrian relied on the timing difference in the perception of color, and Sugimoto relied on both the water feature and the shifting perspective of lines as the visitor walked the path. I rely on the motion of people in my frame. There were no people. 

But there was me.