Take a Longer Look at Painting No. 9

As a gallery educator at The Phillips Collection, I have the pleasure of facilitating tours and conversing with visitors about inspiring artworks in the collection. One of my favorite paintings to discuss is Painting No, 9 (1939-42) by Piet Mondrian. As a non-objective painting composed of primary colors and geometric shapes it is easy to walk past and think “Got it.” However, if you slow down and think about what Mondrian is doing in his art, the painting can take on an entirely new and exciting perspective. While visitors may not become Mondrian converts after our tour conversation, I frequently hear “You know, Mondrian may not be my favorite, but I have a much greater appreciation for what he set out to accomplish.”

Much like a visitor to the museum, I encourage you to slow down, click here and spend a few minutes learning to appreciate the simplicity and idealism of Mondrian.

While looking at the painting, ask yourself:  What do I see? (Literally, what shapes, lines, colors?) Imagine removing or adding an additional line or square of color; how does the artwork change? Look at the relationship between the black lines and the blocks of color; does the black line appear to be consistently above or on top of the color blocks? How does the interplay between the black lines and blocks of color suggest depth?

Piet Mondrian was a Dutch artist who dedicated his artistic career to developing an art form that limited painting to its most essential elements:  straight lines (vertical and horizontal), primary colors (red, yellow, blue, paired with black, white, and gray), geometric shapes, and an emphasis on the flat painted surface. In other words, Mondrian did not want to create an inauthentic “window onto the world” by depicting a representational subject. Rather, he aimed to show something truthful:  the application of paint on a flat canvas. Mondrian was interested not only in the formal purity of his art but also believed it possessed a spiritual quality. He viewed the balance between verticals and horizontals as well as the balanced color combinations as reaching a spiritual utopia. I encourage you to imagine eliminating one element from the painting, and see how it alters the asymmetrical balance of the entire composition.

Mondrian was not the only artist interested in an essentialized art form. Mondrian worked in this method with several other artists including Gerrit Rietveld and Theo van Doesberg from the late 1910s to the early 1930s seeking purity and simplicity. Mondrian and his fellow artists referred to this style as “De Stijl” or “The Style” once again removing any reference to the real world. Also, as you may have noted, even the title Painting No. 9 reiterates this notion that the artwork is simply a painting, not a depiction of something else. Although Mondrian continued working in this style for the majority of his career, he formally broke away from the De Stijl movement around 1925 when Theo van Doesburg introduced a diagonal line; a blasphemous gesture in the eye of Mondrian. While Mondrian was not widely collected by Duncan Phillips, Painting No. 9 never fails to fulfill Phillips’s desire to create conversations between the visitors and artworks. I encourage you to take this conversation into the 21st century by commenting here with your insights, observations, and questions.

Ellen Stedtefeld, Gallery Educator

9 thoughts on “Take a Longer Look at Painting No. 9

  1. Now that I’ve really looked at the painting, it has almost a 3 D quality to it. The subtle differences in the black lines make it quite interesting-much more complex than first meets
    the eye. Thanks for the suggestion to slow down and appreciate Mondrian for the unique artist that he is.

    • Thanks for the comment! I love that you think the painting has a 3D quality to it because of the black lines. At first glance it is easy to view this as a ‘flat’ painting but when you spend time actually looking at the painting, you start to notice the subtle way he plays with space/depth with the relationship between the large areas of color and the black lines.

      • Modern art sometimes leaves me wondering why something so minimal, that looks like it could be painted by anyone or even a child, is considered great art. By having an explanation and discussion it helps me understand why this is a specific art style, given considerable thought by a talented artist, and not just random lines painted on a canvas with color inserted here and there.
        Thanks again for making me slow down and really look at this painting.

  2. I really like the way you make viewing this painting an interactive experience by asking questions and encouraging us to ask our own questions. It’s too bad the painting couldn’t have been the picture at the top of the blog because everytime you mentioned another interesting fact about it I had to click over to look at the painting again.

  3. Thanks for your comment! I would love to hear what some of your questions might be. I believe the picture was not posted directly above the post because of a copyright issue and linking it was a creative solution to the problem.

  4. Great discussion on what is (for me at least) a ‘difficult’ piece that isn’t particularly approachable. Understanding where he fits in and why his work is relevant gives it additional weight. I also appreciated the note about his leaving the movement as a result of a diagonal line – a true believer in the simplicity of this style.

  5. I have see this work and others that have a similar style and have never really given it much thought or even asked myself the purpose of the artwork. Thanks for pushing us, non-educated art lovers to see beyond the simplicity and dig deeper for meaning and context.

  6. I find your discussion very interesting concerning painting No. 9. This was at a time when artist were braching out to different concepts. The de Stijl movement was at the same time as the dadaism and instead of rejecting art and naming everyday objects art as the daddaist did, the de Stijl movement went on to simlify elements to the basic colors and lines.

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