Random Abstract: Experiments in form and sound

The digital art I have created for this project is based on the ideas of Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). Throughout his life, Mondrian's paintings became increasingly abstract as he rejected the realistic representation of worldly objects, in favor of using basic colors and rectilinear shapes to represent the universal, spiritual aspect of things. This is not an attempt at reproducing Mondrian's art -- seen in person, his paintings are subtle, textured, decidedly non-digital artworks. Yet many of his paintings were inspired by music of the time, particularly jazz, and to me this is a fascinating case of cross-media thinking. Mondrian's writings, both published and private, reveal even more interesting ideas about media and the past, present and future of art. He sought to take art into a realm of pure intellectual abstraction, as opposed to the more emotional, individualistic depiction of the natural world. Mondrian could not, of course, fully remove himself from his work; he will forever be associated with the minimal, grid-based abstract paintings he created. And I do not claim to have created anonymous, completely random artworks. However, with digital technology, I have been able to take Mondrian's in a certain direction. Mondrian's subjects became increasingly abstract -- from landscapes, to cityscapes, to depictions of ideas and experiences. My subjects are the abstract computational world, framed by the urban world I live in. I have given the computer the power to determine the initial composition of the piece; more accurately, the composition is somewhat randomly generated. Yet I have created the framework for interaction, by determining colors, sounds, shapes, and programming structures. Like a musical score, you will interpret it in different ways. So the artwork becomes a collaboration between creator, computer and user.

In my research, I studied the writings of various media -- film, music, writing, painting, architechture -- and consistently came across descriptive and formal terms which cross media. These include harmony, rhythm, symmetry, equilibrium, dynamism, composition, arrangement, tone, movement/motion, structure, form, dimension, value, and proportion. These became the basis for my own programming and composing .

This project evolved from the convergence of several events. The foremost was an exhibition of the works of Piet Mondrian, which appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from October 1995 to January 1996. Before I experienced that exhibition (I saw it three times), I, like most other people, had seen reproductions of a few of Mondrian's works -- the famous, rectilinear compositions from the 1920s. Like most people, I regarded them as purely abstract, graphical works, whose style was easily and ubiquitously copied.

The show opened my eyes in a number of ways. First, the famous "New Plastic" works of the 20s are, when viewed "in person," very subtle and complex paintings. They are, in fact, paintings -- not mere graphic compositions. They have texture, and subtle colors -- there is more than one white, more than one black, for instance. The canvases have been worked and re-worked, things scratched out in places, and brush strokes built up in other places.

Another amazing thing about the show was that it showed a very clear evolution of Mondrian's style. He apparently progressed through all the styles of painting -- from realism to impressionism to cubism, before he arrived at his signature abstract style. One can trace the evolution of his depictions of a tree, for example, and watch the tree become more angular and abstract as years pass. One can trace Mondrian's travels throughout his life: from his Dutch landscapes, to his cubist depictions of Parisian rooftops, to his rectilinear, abstract compositions based on New York and its music.

Paintings based on music, specifically jazz: this is what ultimately inspired this project. How could Mondrian create a visual work from music? What was his method for achieving this cross-medium transformation? Did he transform the music in a systematic way? These were the questions I asked, followed by: What does a painting sound like? What does music look like?

Around the same time as the Mondrian show, I happened to be working on a CD-ROM project that involved using a painting to make music. The painting we had chosen was a realistic one, however, and I wanted to explore more abstract worlds. Mondrian came along at just the right time.

I had been designing and programming multimedia projects for a few years, and had seen a lot of work both good and bad. I was disturbed by two related trends in the multimedia field: the first was the increasing realism in multimedia work (and also broadcast TV) through the use of 3D and special effects software. There seems to be a drive to make the virtual world as real as the real world. The second trend is the drive, by software and hardware companies primarily, to continually upgrade to the very latest version, the latest and fastest computer, when it seemed that a lot could be done with the software and hardware we had.

I had the occasion to see a demonstration/performance by Mark Coniglio of Troika Ranch. Mark was using a pretty sophisticated motion tracking technology, in an interactive dance performance. But what astounded me was that he committed himself to working with this particular technology for ten years, in order to try to take it as far as he could.

I liken Mondrian's reaction against natural representation to my own reaction against increasing realism in digital art. I do create naturalistic art and interface designs for my commercial work, and I accept that they are appropriate for a lot of work. But too little real abstract work is being done in the digital world, and especially minimalist work. There is a great deal to be done with one, two or a few colors, with simple lines and shapes, with simple but inventive programming. Much of my work here has been done in Macromedia Director 5.0, but could easily have been done in an earlier version, or in a simpler program such as Hypercard.

Mondrian's paintings were never rigorously planned; they were always done intuitively and somewhat improvisationally. Theories came later. What's more, no painting was really considered "finished": Mondrian constantly revised and re-worked. He might keep revising a painting for years, and finally decide to simply move a single line an inch or so.

The natural world was the stimulus for Mondrian throughout much of his career; even some of the most abstract works are depictions of natural subjects. Later, the urban landscapes of Paris and New York served as subjects. (New York and the virtual world are the inspiration for my work here.) This parallels Mondrian's philosophy that as mankind1 progresses from physical/natural states to more spiritual/abstract ones, the natural becomes more "automatic" (Holtzman and James, p.28). This concurs with positivist anthropological theories of Mondrian's time, which categorized "primitive" and "advanced" societies. This also mirrors psychological constructs, like Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs," which depict individuals progressing from having basic survival needs, to those of love and companionship, up to "self-actualization" states. An anthropological truism states that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." That is, the evolution of the species is reflected in the growth of the individual. Similarly, Mondrian's painting style progressed through nearly all the styles of painting, before arriving at his ideal (self-actualized) style of the New Plastic.

Mondrian subscribed to the principles of Theosophy, which holds that there are constant, fundamental laws which are usually invisible, but are occasionally uncovered by special, gifted visionaries. Naturally, Mondrian and his peers saw themselves as having sufficient vision to see and make clear these universal truths. They believed that humanity evolves from physical to spiritual levels of being, and they related the spiritual with the abstract. Art was seen as a means for facilitating the evolution of mankind (Holtzman and James, p.18), because all art was, more or less, a direct aesthetic expression of the universal (Ibid, p.41). Indeed, Mondrian saw his Abstract-Real art as so highly evolved that it tended toward non-art: it was the beginning of the end of art itself. Some art historians agree with this view, but the fact is, many other artists of Mondrian's time and later, proclaimed that their own art was the ultimate art or the end of art. They must be seen in historical context: we must remember that socialism was on the rise in Europe during the 1920s and 30s, and one can detect in Mondrian's writings a wish to abolish all individuality in favor of a single style of art (Mondrian's), and a celebration of "universal" values over specific or individual ones.

Mondrian seems to stand for the 20th century. He saw increasing abstraction in all fields, including machinery (with more complex machines and social systems, more removed from natural resources), and fashion (with its intensification of color). Like current generations, Mondrian's reacted against positivism and materialism.

To Mondrian, naturalistic representation is always tied to individual style, and one of his goals was to eliminate the particular, the individual, from art. Painting had already perfected natural representation, and in doing this, it was ready to take on abstraction.

Impressionism was the first step toward abstraction, but to Mondrian, it was too laden with emotional content and personal style, and these were to be abolished in his ideal style of painting. Symbolism was a step in the right direction, with its increasing attention paid to finding inner, universal themes. But Symbolism still depicted real objects. Cubism was a great leap, to Mondrian, because it placed the focus on the composition itself, rather than the content. All that was left was to eliminate the natural, the subject, and to focus exclusively on composition, with intense primary colors and simplified shapes. Mondrian could then proclaim, "Painting is ready to merge with architecture" (Bois et al, p.72)

In his Cubist phase, Mondrian painted Parisian rooftops, cathedrals and other urban, manmade forms. Later, influenced by the incredible metropolis of New York City, Mondrian's "Abstract-Real" or "New Plastic" paintings became emblems of urban, abstract life. As mankind evolved from the natural to the spiritual, the city became his ideal world.

Architecture, then, occupied an increasing proportion of Mondrian's attention, with its "mathematical-aesthetic expression of relationships" (Bois et al p.72). To him, architecture surpassed the naturalism of painting and sculpture, but it was not the ideal art, for Mondrian felt that by having three dimensions, architecture impaired the perception of relationships, and the latter is what would reveal the universal. Two dimensions were the ideal way of expressing binary relationships; architecture must become planar if it were to succeed. In addition, architecture presupposes enclosure; this can be contrasted with the open forms of Mondrian's most minimal New Plastic compositions. And architecture was tied to the use of materials; painting, at least, could attempt to transcend its own form by using pure color fields and solid lines.

In this respect, perhaps Mondrian would have embraced computers, since they are ignorant of materials. Given, they are constrained by the frame of the screen; but their media are pure light and, potentially, pure sounds. In addition, we see computers merging with architecture, as manmade spaces become more abstract, complex information spaces.

The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was a contemporary of Mondrian's, and he had some boundary-breaking ideas about his own art. Like Mondrian, he drew from socialist concepts, particularly the dialectical approach of Marx and Engels, and, by extension, Hegel -- one of Mondrian's chief influecnes. To Eisenstein, film was more an extension of language than of the visual arts, and he developed it as a dynamic conversation -- a counterpoint of the visual and aural.

Eisenstein's dynamism came from the interaction of the organic (emotional) and the rational (abstract). This dualism mirrors Mondrian's counterpoint of the natural and the abstract. To Eisenstein, "the spatial form of this dynamism is expression. The phrases of its tension: rhythm. This is true for every art form, and indeed, for every kind of expression" (Eisenstein, p. 106). Again, we come across terms which cross media.

Conflict, in an Eisenstein work (such as The Battleship Potemkin), came from the counterpoint of visual and aural; in Mondrian's art, it came from the counterpoint of adjacent colors and forms. In jazz, counterpoint comes from different instruments, or adjacent tones, or polyrhythms. In all these arts, the conflict produces dynamism. Each part of a composition is merely information; the overall emotional (to Mondrian: universal) effect comes from montage: conflict, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony.

Peter Greenaway, a present-day film director, has similar ideas about montage and composition, and he uses digital technology to achieve his goals. Like Eisenstein, Greenaway sees film as an extension of language, but he explicitly ties it to written language and the linear narrative of fiction. Greenaway's films (such as Prospero's Books and The Pillow Book) are direct references to written text, and are full of calligraphy and type floating across the screen.

Greenaway also draws from painting:

The cinema has been put to the services of telling stories. The narrative model of the last 300 years, with a very few exceptions, has been to set up immorality and then rectify it; crime followed by punishment; solving a puzzle; finding a solution.... Painting does not do this. Even moralistic Dutch seventeenth-century painting does not do this. It states a case -- maybe indicates an attitude -- but there are no closed solutions to offer. (Owen, p. 27)

Greenaway's post-cubst cinema sounds remarkably like Mondrian reacting against realistic painting, recognizing the increasing abstraction that began with the impressionists, and striving to make more vague, universal works -- works that call for multiple interpretations, and that are meant to represent ideas instead of simulate the real world. Yet where Mondrian subracted the real, the particular, in order to reveal the univeral, Greenaway adds text and image, layer upon layer, to simultaneously reveal underlying themes, and subvert them.

Digital media are not "pure," for they are usually composed of other media. In a digital "multimedia" work, you click on a picture, and hear a sound, perhaps, or see a movie or animation. But why not click on a single color, instead of a picture or an icon? Why not use the media of pure information -- color and light, sound and tone?

Colors have their own personalities, and in my work, these personalities are made manifest through the use of sound and relationship. Size and position make some colors dominant over others. The personalities interact: harmonious colors (usually) produce harmonious sounds; intersecting color planes produce intersecting sounds.

This could be a framework for more interesting, true "multimedia" work. I have created other experiments where a particular color plane might contain a picture, a live television broadcast, an animation, or could be used as a palette to create a drawing. I envision also a multi-user version, where each color plane is manned by a different person, who endows it with their own personality.

The World Wide Web is a particularly interesting multi-user environment, one whose capabilities are only beginning to be explored. I attended a very interesting talk by the conceptual artist Julia Scher, on April 15, 1996. She proposed using the Web as an artistic medium, instead of a gallery, a repository for static art. Currently, she said, the Web is like television, but changing the channels is really slow. She would like to see it more as a musical score, with users interpreting it in different ways.

Language, as a medium, shares many of the featuresof Mondrian's Abstract-Real art. The list of terms in the introduction to this paper contains many words that describe a conversation, or a well-written novel or poem. Poetry, in fact, has rhythm and meter, dynamic equilibrium, and a visual counterpoint. Fiction, too, can be a dynamic composition. In fact, I was tempted to borrow the name of a Paul Auster novel -- The Music of Chance -- for the digital art I created. (Instead I have borrowed the title of a jazz recording by Branford Marsalis.) Auster's books read somewhat like improvisational jazz, especially The New York Trilogy and Leviathan. The labyrinthine writing of Jorge Luis Borges is incredibly dimensional and dynamic; it's virtually an altered state of consciousness, with its contradictions and twisting composition.

An image that came to mind repeatedly while working on this project was from the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which a language of music and color is used to speak to an extraterrestrial civilization.

Music can communicate what words cannot. Leonardo da Vinci called music "the shape and form of the invisible." This project strives to make music visible, and conversely, to make the visible heard.

In music or in visual art, the composition, the message, the universal, is not restricted to what is heard or seen. The white spaces in Mondrian's New Plastic paintings are just as important as the color fields; figure and ground are merged. Similarly, jazz musicians use the blank spaces -- areas of no sound -- as much as they do the notes. No one did this better than Miles Davis, whose career was just beginning when Mondrian died in 1944. Davis' spare, minimal works, such as Kind of Blue, are compared to modernist paintings, and Japanese spontaneous painting. The title Kind of Blue points up the fruitful comparisons between the visual and aural arts. Davis' contemporary, Thelonious Monk, created music that is often described with visual terms such as "angular" and "asymmetrical." Every artist needs a framework; in music, it is time, and in painting, it is space.

Goethe said, "Music is frozen architecture." (Eisenstein, p. 103). Jaron Lanier, a modern techno-philosopher, wants to see cathedrals come out of a piano; he believes a piano to be a much more spiritual machine than a computer, and he wants computers to be more like musical instruments. He would like to spontaneously create virtual worlds as easily as creating music.

The New Plastic
Mondrian said, "People generally think of my work as rather vague: at best it reminds them somewhat of music." (Holtzman and James, p.14)

In his "Abstract-Real" or "New Plastic" art, Mondrian strove to remove all vestiges of the particular, the individual, the natural. This, he felt would reveal underlying, universal truths. "By not trying to express anything determinate, one expresses what is most determinate: truth (the all-embracing)." (Ibid., p.14)

His was a reaction against realism in painting. "For in nature the surface of things is beautiful but its imitation is lifeless. The objects give us everything but their depiction gives us nothing." (Ibid, p.16) This was, he said, not negation of matter, but love of matter; he saw himself depicting real objects, in the most intense manner. In nature, the universal is bound to the particular; in art, it must be free, and is bound only by time and place. He did not negate the particular because his abstract work expresses the universal core of all things -- to him, it represented things more completely.

Individual details fade into the darkness, and we become conscious of the universal. "Line and color become plastic means in themselves," he says (Ibid., p.62). The universal is plastically expressed as the absolute: straight lines, pure color planes, relationship, equilibrium. Form and color are exaggerated to where they become the means of expression. Real things are reduced to primary colors and flat planes.

Pure colors, Mondrian believes, are a "purer manifestation of light." (Ibid., p.36) Marshall McLuhan says that light, as a medium, is pure information; Goethe says that "color is troubled light" (Eisenstein, p. 105) For Mondrian, the colors must be intense and pure hues: "the color must be free of individuality." And context matters -- in the composition, color is governed by relationship. It becomes tone or value through relationship.

Relationship dominates over the colors in Mondrian's New Plastic. He says, "Beauty in art is created not by the objects of representation, but by the relationship of light and color." (Holtzman and James, p.63) Line, straight and solid, establishes the boundaries of form. The right angle expresses exact opposition; the plane expresses space. Plasticity accentuates planarity and angularity.

The only subjective aspect in Mondrian's New Plastic art is the composition. The composition, as in music, contains in it the rhythm, the elements and their arrangement. In Cubism, composition came to the forefront; Mondrian's art expresses composition itself, free of symbols and particular objects. As in the music of Duke Ellington, as in the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Mondrian's compositions create movement through the unity of movement and countermovement. The absolute is manifested by the relative.

While Mondrian strove to remove particularity and individual style from art, he emphasized that the artist must remain subjective. He often makes comparisons to religion (Mondrian turned against his strict religious upbringing). He relates an artist who is completely objective to an ascetic or priest -- one who is pure in his relation to the universal. Similarly, an art that is completely objective would be universal truth itself.

Therefore, the artist maintains his subjectivity, and it is manifested in the rhythm of his composition. By "pure vision" of the outward," Mondrian says, "The contemporary artist learns to express the inward purely." (Ibid, p.47)

In Mondrian's Abstract-Real art, then, the unbeautiful (the straight line, the plane) becomes beautiful; in nature, the curved and corporeal are beautiful. Outward beauty, to Mondrian, is not the highest beauty. He compares his art to Symbolist art of India and the Far East, and early Christian art, all of which strove to capture the spiritual essence of the outward world. But he wanted to take it further -- to depict the universal itself, free of the outward world. "Whatever has form is not yet spiritual... the path to ascension is away from the material." (Ibid., p.14)

Can this spiritual aspect be found in digital art? Jaron Lanier and others think so. Perhaps by stripping away the vestiges of the particular -- of other media -- can we attempt to find spirituality in digital art. Mondrian called his style a "mode of expression for the future generation." (Ibid., p.61). Marshall McLuhan said, "An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs." (McLuhan, p.24) It is quite likely he was referring to Mondrian. As the latter said, "Each art must discover the plastic possibilities in its own bounds." (Holtzman and James, p.29)

The Metropolis
The metropolis is abstract life given form, as Mondrian says. Here, even the natural is tamed -- our sprawling parks are as engineered as our skyscrapers. "In the metropolis, beauty is expressed more mathematically," and Mondrian embodied the "mathematical artistic temperament." His most famous paintings are inspired by the sights and sounds of New York City. And New York is the context and the inspiration for the digital art I have created. If any particular idea is represented by these artworks, it is the merging of place and information -- the cacophony both of New York and of New Media. It is as Mondrian might have envisioned these subjects; as Thelonious Monk might have heard them (he once said "New York is jazz"); and as I have interpreted them in the digital realm.


1. Mondrian was a product of his time and place. From a contemporary perspective, many of his writings contain statements and concepts that appear dated. For example, his language, and to some extent his philosophy, is virulently sexist. His ideas about removing the individual and the particular from art in order to make it "universal" are consistent with socialist theories of his day.


Bois, Yve-Alain, Joop Joosten, Angelica Zander Rudenstein, Hans Janssen.

Eisenstein, Sergei

Holtzman, Harry and James, Martin S.

McLuhan, Marshall

Owen, William

1999 Kevin Walker

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