Sidney Janis Gallery, New York (acquired circa 1958)
Galerie Beyeler, Basel (acquired in 1958)
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in 1959
Paris, Librairie de l’Esthétique, Mondrian, 1927
Kassel, Museum Fredericianum, Dokumenta II, Kunst nach 1945, 1959
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Mondrian, 1964-65, no. 47
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Piet Mondrian 1872-1944, Centennial Exhibition, 1971, no. 101, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Bern, Kunstmuseum Bern, Piet Mondrian, 1972, no. 93, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Mondrian / De Stijl, 2010-11, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Maria. G. Ottolenghi, L’opera completa di Piet Mondrian, Milan, 1974, no. 379, illustrated p. 111
Joop M. Joosten & Robert P. Welsh, Mondrian, Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1998, vol. II, no. B195, illustrated p. 336
Mondrian’s return from the Netherlands to his studio in Paris in 1919 marked the beginning of a period of intense activity devoted to developing the style that would dominate his work of the 1920s. The return to an urban environment was a crucial influence, as the artist himself commented: ‘In the metropolis, beauty expresses itself more mathematically; therefore it is the place out of which the mathematically artistic temperament of the future must develop, the place out of which the New Style must emerge’ (P. Mondrian quoted in Hans L. C. Jaffé, Piet Mondrian, London, 1970, p. 40). Whilst the outlines of Neo-Plasticism had been articulated two years earlier with the publication of De Stijl, an aesthetic manifesto created in collaboration with Theo van Doesburg, it was in his austere Parisian studio that Mondrian developed Plastic compositions using a completely abstract, geometric pictorial language (figs. 1, 2 & 5).
From 1920 onwards Mondrian confined his pictorial lexicon to planes of pure primary colour, planes of non-colour and black lines, abandoning the modular grid and colour gradations which characterised his works from 1918-19. Over the next decade the artist sought to refine this new vocabulary to the highest degree of balance and economy. Mondrian created several series of similar works, with each new canvas featuring minor variations in the precise shades of the primary colours, the thickness of the black lines, and the size and shape of the geometrical grids that delineate his compositions. Each work is a unique attempt to express a principle of equilibrium borne out of opposing elements that was the essence of Neo-Plasticism.
In 1926 Mondrian published ‘General Principles of Neo-Plasticism’ in a special issue of the periodical Vouloir, stating that ‘the Plastic means must be the rectangular plane or prism in primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) and in noncolor (white, black and gray)’ (P. Mondrian, ‘General Principles of Neo-Plasticism’, in Vouloir, 1926, quoted in Harry Holtzman & Martin S. James (eds.), The New Art – The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, Boston, 1986, p. 214). Executed in the following year, Composition with Red, Blue and Grey is a quintessential example of these principles, combining two of the three primary colours with a soft grey tone as well as with black outlines. Shortly after its execution, the present work, together with some twenty other recent works, was shown at a one-day exhibition held on 12th March 1927, organised by De Klomp, a new association of Dutch painters living in Paris. This show was followed by another in April at the Librarie L’Esthétique in which Mondrian was only able to exhibit a few of the paintings, including the present work, which he had lent to the earlier exhibition (fig. 4).
Having focused on a series of lozenge-shaped canvases in 1925 and 1926, executed in response to the work of Theo van Doesburg, in 1927 Mondrian returned to using square and rectangular formats, producing a group of oils, including the present work, centred around the idea of the dominant white or grey shape, with smaller squares and rectangles in primary colours placed along the edges of the composition. Mondrian’s paintings of this period are among the purest and most balanced of his career.
Despite being at the vanguard of modernism, Mondrian’s Dutch background and Puritan upbringing were formative influences on his ideas and work. Brought up in a strict Calvinist household, Mondrian’s aversion to the attractions of sensory perception, attachment to strict discipline and technique and wish to depict a universal reality beneath the phenomenal world are all rooted in the Dutch Calvinist tradition. A religious impulse was at the core of his art, and underlay the utopian direction of his social theory; as he comments in De Stijl, ‘Art, although an end in itself, is, like religion, a means by which the universal may be revealed, that is to say, plastically contemplated’ (P. Mondrian quoted in Hans L. C. Jaffé, Piet Mondrian, London, 1970, p. 54). It is this concern with revealing the universal principles beneath surface reality that link him to the Dutch tradition of Vermeer, Heda and van der Heyden, artists whose work is united by a serene sense of compositional balance and spatial order.
Mondrian infused this religiously inspired Dutch aesthetic with a radical, modernist fervour. The experience of the First World War convinced him that mankind needed to outgrow the wasteful disparities of individualism towards a new universal harmony. This social vision was based on the notion that subjectivity and materialism led to the social disequilibrium that underpinned the cataclysmic events of 1914-18. His art is a messianic vision based on the conviction that ‘a feeling for beauty freed from matter could regenerate this materialist society’ (P. Mondrian quoted in ibid., p. 55). The austere geometry of his compositions constitutes a blueprint for a new society: ‘The pure plastic vision should set up a new society just as in art it set forth new plasticism. This will be a society based on the equation of the material and the spiritual, a society composed of balanced relationships’ (P. Mondrian, 'Natural Reality and Abstract Reality', 1919-1920, reprinted in Michel Seuphor, Piet Mondrian. Life and Work, New York, 1956, p. 322). This work can therefore be seen as a step on Mondrian’s dialectical pilgrimage towards a modernist utopia.
The first owner of the present work was Harry Holtzman, the artist and co-founder of the American Abstract Artists Group. Holtzman’s own form of abstract art was deeply indebted to Mondrian’s Purist style. Upon seeing some of A. E. Gallatin’s collection at the Museum of Living Art in New York, which included two of Mondrian’s works, Holtzman became convinced of the importance of meeting the artist. In 1934 he travelled to France and introduced himself to Mondrian at his studio in the rue de Départ. The pair became great friends and it was Holtzman in 1940 who arranged for Mondrian to escape the Blitz of London and emigrate to America where he remained for the rest of his life. In New York, Holtzman introduced Mondrian to jazz, and in particular, music in the so-called ‘boogie-woogie’ style. Harry Cooper has noted that ‘without Harry Holtzman, there might have been no boogie-woogie’ paintings, and there would probably be no transatlantic works either’ (H. Cooper in Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, p. 15). Furthermore, at the time of his death the childless artist was without an heir and chose Holtzman as the guardian of his legacy. Cooper comments: ‘With the help of Fritz Glarner, Holtzman diligently documented and filmed Mondrian’s studio after his death in 1944. This act of preservation reflected Holtzman’s understanding that Mondrian’s studio décor – the coloured rectangles that he had pinned to the wall, the homemade furniture, the placement of Victory Boogie Woogie – was an integral aspect of his art (ibid., p. 15). Composition with Red, Blue and Grey remained with Holtzman for nearly fifteen years before it was acquired by the father of the present owner through Galerie Beyeler in 1959.
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