T he last time Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. II (1930) came to auction it sold for $2.2 million US, making it not only the artist’s most expensive painting ever sold – but also the most valuable work of abstract art, according to the New York Times. Almost forty years later, this Mondrian masterpiece is returning to the block on 14 November as part of the Modern Evening Auction in New York, where it’s expected to sell for over $50 million.
Such a high estimate is deserving of a painting that’s so emblematic of a pivotal period in Modern art. “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,” says Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s Chairman of Europe, in a press release. “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 one hundred years ago.”
A cornerstone of modern art and one of the earliest innovators of European abstraction, Piet Mondrian refined his mature style in Paris during the 1920s and early 1930s. Well known in international art circles at the time, the Dutch painter counted Peggy Guggenheim and Alfred Barr among his patrons, and artists such as Hilla Rebay and Marcel Duchamp made frequent visits to his immaculate studio. Alexander Calder visited in 1930, the year Composition No. II was produced, and later 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.”
Composition No. II stands at the pinnacle of Mondrian’s most significant period. Balanced and harmonious, its gridded abstraction and geometric composition became hallmarks of the artist. Perhaps surprisingly, the artist’s vanguard sensibility belies his traditional background and Calvinist upbringing. Upon returning to Paris in 1919, following the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, Mondrian made his mature developments in abstraction, which he saw as an effort to infuse a religiously inspired Dutch aesthetic with a radical, modernist fervor. In the decade that followed, he refined his new aesthetic vocabulary of primary colors and empty planes divided by stark black lines. Each canvas from this period consists of minor variations in shapes and shades of color, and each is an attempt to express a principle of equilibrium among opposing elements.
“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 one hundred years ago.”
Mondrian once said that as 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.” The large red quadrant in Composition No. II is rare among this body of work – of nearly 120 oils from this period, seventeen are dominated by this striking shade, only three of which are held in private collections.
First exhibited in 1930 in the inaugural Cercle et Carré exhibition in Paris, the work was loaned by Mondrian to Swedish artist Otto Carlsund in the 1930s and it briefly spent time in the collection of Dutch artist César Domela in the late 1940s. Later, Composition No. II was held in the Bartos collection until 1983, when it was sold at auction alongside important works by Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and Mark Rothko.
By 1937, Mondrian’s work was exhibited as “Degenerate Art” in Nazi Germany. Within a year, he left France, where he’d mostly lived since 1911, and decamped to England and then New York City. There, beginning in 1940, he finally abandoned the use of stark black lines in his paintings.
Still, Mondrian’s immediately recognizable abstractions have played an outsize role in both art history and the popular imagination. Artists from schools as wide-ranging as Color Field and Minimalism to Pop Art have counted Mondrian among their greatest influences. His geometric motifs and primary-color palette influenced iconic designs from Yves Saint-Laurent’s famous cocktail dresses of the mid-1960s to buildings such as the Eames House in California and the Hague’s City Hall.