Critique | John Beattie, ‘Reconstructing Mondrian’

Hugh Lane Gallery; 1 February – 8 August 2023

John Beattie, Reconstructing Mondrian, 2013-2022, 4K colour video projection with surround sound, 60 mins, produced and directed by John Beattie; image © and courtesy John Beattie John Beattie, Reconstructing Mondrian, 2013-2022, 4K colour video projection with surround sound, 60 mins, produced and directed by John Beattie; image © and courtesy John Beattie

Making a note of the exhibition title, I wrote “Reconstructing Modernism”, before quickly realising my error. ‘Mondrian’ and ‘Modernism’ may be synonymous, but until I saw Mondrian’s paintings for myself, I mostly associated them with advertising. The painter’s primary colours and no-nonsense straight lines sold everything once, except for themselves, of course, which, untethered from their canvas supports, meant precisely nothing. In filming a reconstruction of the artist’s Paris studio (circa 1921 to 1936), John Beattie reminds us of the paintings made there, but also of everything that has happened since – our fables of reconstruction, our endless era of aftermath. 

“Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue”, Barnett Newman famously asked, riffing on Edward Albee, while confronting his audience with acres of flat colour. “John Beattie is”, I might flippantly answer, on the evidence of the five large photographic prints included in his pristine show. Respectively titled, Black, White, Red, Yellow and Blue (all 2022), these hand-printed photographs, covering the spectrum from pale to dark, are resolutely grey. Taking a closer look at the labelling, one learns that the flat, square shapes (all are subtitled “Depicting oil paint on canvas”) of Black and White have been shot on colour film, while the series named for the primaries have been shot on monochrome. “What you see is what you see” Frank Stella said, but it’s not always as simple as that. Newman and Stella both owe a debt to Mondrian, but then, we all do. 

Primarily a utility, artists’ studios can also have mythic dimensions, especially when transformed into a repository. In his writing about archives, Achille Mbembe suggests that the reassembling of remains can be a kind of miracle, “bringing the dead back to life by reintegrating them into the cycle of time.”¹ This resurrection comes at a price, though, as the spectre (as remnant of death) is removed from their own lifetime and put into the service of history. However sensitive and respectful – and Beattie is both – when artists make work about other work, a paradox inevitably ensues; the original is highlighted, but only to be overwritten.

The heart of the exhibition is an hour-long film showing the arrival, construction, and eventual deconstruction of a life-sized version of Mondrian’s former workplace. The film is beautifully shot and edited – put together like the flat-pack version of the building itself – and has the unhurried atmosphere of real time. The surround sound makes you feel like you’re in the space of the reconstruction, sharing in the verbal exchanges, the thumps and whizzes of assembly. There is an emphasis on measurement, as we see a tape drawn across the empty floor and the careful placement of hand-drawn marks. By circumstance, we are invited to think about the reconstructed Francis Bacon studio, permanently housed in the Hugh Lane. Bacon must be smiling at that forensic accounting of his trashy den, its catalogue of dust, but like Mondrian, he knew the surfaces that counted.

On the hangar-like film set and site of the reconstruction, a stocky figure, bald and sporting a blue-stripped Breton top, is in charge. He looks strikingly like Pablo Picasso. Is this merely a coincidence? The imposter is Frans Postma, Dutch architect and founding director of the STAM foundation.² Calm and methodical, he orchestrates the building process – one inevitably compared to the compositional process of Mondrian – and offers final touches like the delicate placement of the artist’s pipe and spectacles. We see him dressed differently later on, but I couldn’t shake the impression that Pablo was roaming about in Piet’s careful house. 

Mondrian, in his own way, was also an architect, but his best buildings were entirely facade. In his actual atelier, the living, breathing Mondrian was fastidious, practicing the fox-trot in the mirror before getting down to work in his neat, white coat. In the glow of Beattie’s film, I reminisced about seeing his paintings for the first time in New York. I was extremely jet lagged, but it was an afternoon of revelation upon revelation. You have to look carefully, but when you do, you see that his fragile, human geometry is more real than any reconstruction can convey. You have to look hard to see, and John Beattie makes a place for that. 

John Graham is an artist based in Dublin

¹ Achille Mbembe, ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’, in Carolyn Hamilton et al (eds), Refiguring the Archive (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002) p. 25.

² STichting Reconstructie Atelier Mondriaan (STAM).