Charles D. Tarlton – Three Degrees of Abstraction: Klee, Mondrian, and Delaunay 

Paul Klee’s Red Balloon

1. Paul Klee: Where There’s a Balloon

Is there a way of saying, without reverting to cliché, what any abstract painting represents, or if you don’t like – represents – then what it suggests?  Take, for example, Paul Klee’s Red Balloon (certainly not a balloon but for being round) with a line hanging down and an impossible basket.  But no sooner does your eye satisfy itself and start to see the balloon, then it strays outward to the edge where the world becomes geometry.  How a balloon can be round, and how round is like a balloon, but here there are only triangles and squares, rhombuses and trapezoids, and fading colors; and, “Oh yes,” you’ll say, “something like a tree.”

I want to make a tree in imitation of this tree in my yard and replicate every grain and cell and shadow and smell of redolent turpentine from every fallen needle; I hurry to put them in the picture. I am always and forever falling short, and as I hurry to get the details in, the tree slowly changes and I drag out new canvases and mix new tints till I’m down to black, and the leafless tree stands silhouetted in the setting sun.  I reach madly for a clean brush, but it’s too late.

Piet Mondrian, Tableau No. 2/Composition No. VII

2.  Piet Mondrian: Keys to a Vanishing Tree Puzzle*

The lifework of Mondrian presents the extraordinary case of a world in which a maximum of stability combines with a sense of nowhere and everywhere.            
                                                                                   – Rudolf Arnheim 

it might be a tree then
despite itself, truncated
branches reaching into
the air, its roots in the ground
this could be autumn, the leaves


are turning color
whose gnarled trunk wets with silver
fastened to the earth
air turns to mud at the branch’s
end, halos twist in the light



what’s real, what’s abstract
a maze of ceramic tiles
thrown against a wall
beguiling hints of density
fiddling with composition


Robert Delaunay, Les Fenêtres simultanée sur la ville

3. Robert Delaunay: The Idea of a Window is Enough


Entonces el jardin desaparece a nuestros ojos y de el solo vemos unas masas de color confusas que parecen pegadas al cristal. [Then the garden disappears to our eyes and we see only confused masses of color that seem stuck to the glass].

-José Ortega y Gasset

A point is reached in anyone’s experience of painting when the prejudice in favor of figurative art at last exhausts itself and the need to find real objects depicted under the cover of brightly colored simple shapes is abandoned. For a while, then, a distant geometry (or worse) seems everywhere to want only to leap from the canvas, but beyond that to mean nothing at all. But, what did you love about those Cézanne apples that you cannot find in Jasper John’s flags and targets? Did they make you reminisce about romantic sideboards and kitchens, one representation begetting another, and so on? A beautiful thing is a beautiful thing, and you know (don’t you?) that Constable’s fields and rivers never looked exactly like that? It is the painting that’s the thing, the weight and color, shape and balance, brush strokes and material, and how it’s playful on the eye.

thoughts on an angle
or Euclidean straight lines
from here to the moon
reveal structure underneath
the world, flowers and song birds


beauty up or down
and from where you’ve wrapped flowers
around a thistle
out to patterns in the stars
it’s the thing’s shape and rustle


silence of dogwood
in the green morning forest
shards of white light
down from the sun through the leaves
all of it at once, at one time

Author’s Statement on Beauty:

Imagine driving down a familiar country road. Houses, barns, and fields roll by all but unnoticed. Your thoughts are on the ordinary things — what to cook for supper, why is the electricity bill so high, why haven’t the kids called? The road makes a sudden big curve to the left and you wake up. You see an old wooden bridge crossing a little silver river, wide fields of tall corn crowd both sides of the road, a white farmhouse with purple shutters sits in the shade, and half a dozen tobacco barns are aging genteelly in the sun. On the horizon, just over the tops of the yellow, red, and orange autumn woods, the clouds pile up slowly into the sky. It’s as if you were seeing these things for the first time; they are so perfect. This, you think, is beauty, unspoiled beauty, and you know now what it was that John Constable was chasing in his landscapes, to catch just such ordinary precious perfection as this before it dissolved.

Charles D. Tarlton is a retired professor of political theory who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts with his wife, Ann Knickerbocker, an abstract painter. He has been writing poetry and flash fiction since 2006, and a collection of his ekphrastic prosimetra, Touching Fire (Kyso Flash) will appear early in 2019.