The Lascaux painters knew what they meant; bare minimalism to convey the tree or bison that your brain then colored in. PIET MONDRIAN (1872—1944) went all the way back to the cave and then fast-forwarded to allegory. Though not all at once — like a tree shedding its leaves for winter austerity, he stripped away the particulars of forms in a progression of abstraction, as objects went from familiar representations to truly felt presence. From that tree’s swirly, textured likeness to the more-asserted sweeps of the brush itself to the idea’s sheer linear scallops and slashes, before he broke through to the intersecting black frames and colored windows we know much better. The crossword for semiotic sixth-sensing of the modern city’s verticals and boxes; stained-glass of a universe emptied of god and filled with sensation; the plus-signs of what might fill in these flat, saturated comic-strips of colorful nothingness. Long before you could find them on any mod midcentury dress-pattern or quintessential tragic-hipster touring bus, though, his image-system surrounded you — this is not the austere bare tree of anti-aesthetic rigor; Mondrian always felt he was representing something, and these are the hieroglyphics of machine modernism, the matrix of what all is made of, the god-particle of pictorial process. Other moderns sought to minimize the individual before monuments of flat color, forbidding shape, not the essential humility of Mondrian’s first-brushstrokes of the most-high design; his art and authenticity have lasted because his grand-scale pixels don’t push you away but pull you close.
READ MORE about members of the Anarcho-Symbolist Generation (1864–73).