Anticipated to Achieve in Excess of $50 Million, the Painting is Among the Most Important & Valuable Works by the Artist Ever Offered at Auction
“There are few artists who have staked such an audacious claim in the history of Modern art as Piet Mondrian, whose grid-style of abstract painting is a truly singular achievement in painting history. Composition No. II is an undeniable masterwork by the artist, bearing the signature hallmarks of Mondrian’s groundbreaking, elemental approach to composition – black lines, forms of primary colors, and geometric precision. The work hums with an electricity that mirrors the energy of painting in Europe at this time and remains as vital as it did when it was painted nearly 100 years ago.”
In his recent review of Hans Janssen’s newly translated biography of the Dutch Modern master Piet Mondrian, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl places the artist alongside only Picasso as the premier progenitors of twentieth-century painting: “Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian are, to me, the twin groundbreakers of twentieth-century European pictorial art: Picasso the greatest painter who modernized picture-making, and Mondrian the greatest modernizer who painted.” As one of the earliest and most innovative creators of truly abstract painting, Mondrian is not only among the cornerstone figures of Modern art, but also among the great Dutch masters, in company with Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who revolutionized painting and the course of art history in their time.
Possessing the balance and harmony that drove Mondrian to create the most daring compositions of the twentieth century, Composition No. II from 1930 represents the pinnacle of Mondrian’s mature style, which the artist refined during his time in Paris and immersion in the artistic firmament that took hold there during the 1920s and early 1930s. Works from this period are entirely distinct from Mondrian’s earlier movement toward abstraction before and during World War I, as well as from his later period Boogie Woogie works he produced after emigrating to America in 1940.
Piet Mondrian’s Modern Masterpiece: “Composition No. II”
In Composition No. II, the artist’s signature grid abstraction and geometric composition is on full display; this work is further distinguished by the large red square form occupying the upper right quadrant. Works by Mondrian that have a predominance of the color red are exceptionally rare within his oeuvre, with only 17 paintings of the nearly 120 works executed by the artist from 1921 to 1933 having a focus on the color red, and of this group, only three paintings remain in private hands. Composition No. II comes from a discrete series of square-format canvases, the majority of which are held in museum collections. It is also one of only three of paintings to feature the dominant red square at upper right; the other two works with this feature are both in museum collections (the National Gallery of Belgrade and the Kunsthaus Zurich) and are smaller in size. Composition No. II has an exceptional exhibition and provenance history, and was first exhibited the year it was painted in the inaugural Cercle et Carrée exhibition in Paris.
Reflecting on his artistic evolution, his aims as an artist, and how a primary color such as red would come to feature so prominently in his work, Mondrian recounted how his “work unconsciously began to deviate more and more from the natural aspects of reality...The first thing to change in my painting was the color. I forsook natural color for pure color.”
Coming to auction for the first time in nearly 40 years on 14 November at Sotheby’s Modern Evening Auction, Composition No. II is anticipated to sell for in excess of $50 million, making this work one of the most significant and valuable works by the artist ever offered on the market. When the painting was sold at auction in 1983, it achieved the highest price ever paid at the time for a work by Mondrian and for a work of abstract art at auction, as reported in The New York Times1.
“Quintessential works by Piet Mondrian rarely come to auction as many are housed in the most prestigious museum collections around the world. Composition No. II embodies everything you could want from a Mondrian – it is a seminal painting that is both crucial to the development of Modern art and emblematic of the enduring appeal of the Modern aesthetic, characterized by a serene sense of compositional balance and spatial order, and with superb provenance. On his path towards abstraction, Mondrian reached an epiphany with the works he created at the peak of his career. The opportunity to acquire a painting of this quality is truly a once-in-a- generation occurrence.”
In the popular imagination, Mondrian’s unique style is perhaps the most commonly recognized form of abstract art, which has influenced art movements from Color Field to Minimalism, as well as artists spanning generations and global cultures, including Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, Liu Ye, Richard Pettibone, and many more. Mondrian has not only had an impact within the arts, but also a wide-ranging impact on popular culture. The artist’s geometric motifs and palette of primary colors has also left an undeniable imprint on popular culture, ranging from the designer Yves Saint Laurent’s famous Mondrian-inspired cocktail dresses of the mid-1960s, the architecture of the Eames House in California, the exterior of the Hague’s City Hall, Italian designer Danilo Silvestrin's furniture, a specially designed pair of Nike SB Dunks, The White Stripes album De Stijl and album cover designs by other artists, to name just a few instances of the artist’s influence.
By the time Composition No. II was painted, Mondrian was already well known in international art circles. Peggy Guggenheim and Alfred Barr both courted him for work; Hilla Rebay and Marcel Duchamp stopped by his studio and dozens of young artists visited him in his immaculately designed environment. At the center of the art world in Paris during this time, Mondrian felt at home within the bustling metropolis and the access to new forms of culture, such as jazz, modern dance, and the excitement of fast-moving visual culture that was often associated with nightlife throughout the city. Mondrian was known to stay out all night at Café du Dome and attend the Cirque Médrano in Montmarte. The pleasures of Parisian nightlife were not only for passing the time. As with every aspect of his studied daily routine, these nocturnal outings infused and inspired his work. However, with the deteriorating political situation in Europe, by 1937 Mondrian’s work was being exhibited as Degenerate Art in Germany. Within a year he would leave France, first for England and then, in 1940, for New York, where he would, for the first time in decades, finally abandon the black line in his work as he embarked on a new series within the evolution of his work that was also indebted to the new culture he experienced around him.
Despite being at the vanguard of modernism, and effectively altering its course, Mondrian’s Dutch background and Puritan upbringing were formative influences on his ideas and work, as he sought to infuse a religiously inspired Dutch aesthetic with a radical, modernist fervor. His 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, during which time he confined his pictorial language to planes of pure primary color, planes of non-color and black lines. Over the next decade Mondrian refined this new vocabulary to the highest degree of balance and economy, creating several series of similar works, with each new canvas featuring minor variations in the precise shades of the primary colors, 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, further amplified by Mondrian’s decision to present his finished canvases in recessed frames.
Mondrian’s studio environment in Paris was a vehicle for creating his work and encountering this carefully constructed world was akin to encountering one of his paintings. He had moved to the French capital in 1911, settling into what, with the interruption of World War I, would be his home until 1938. Alexander Calder visited the studio in 1930, the year Composition No. II was produced, and recalled: “I was very much moved by Mondrian's studio, large, beautiful and irregular in shape as it was, with the walls painted white and divided by black lines and rectangles of bright color, like his paintings.” It was through the careful balance of color – or lack of color – and form expressed through vertical and horizontal lines that Mondrian created his ultimate vision.
Composition No. II carries an illustrious provenance and extensive exhibition history, including a Paris-based show the year it was painted. The work was loaned by Mondrian to the Swedish artist Otto Carlsund in the early 1930s and enjoyed a stint in the collection of Dutch artist César Domela in the late 1940s. The work was later held in the Bartos collection, where it remained until 1983 when it last made an appearance at auction, alongside other important works from their collection by Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Mark Rothko.