Composition in Black and Gray
Composition with Grid 4 (Lozenge)

Piet Mondrian, Dutch, 1872 - 1944

Date:
1919

Medium:
Oil on canvas

Dimensions:
23 5/8 x 23 11/16 inches (60 x 60.2 cm) Framed: 30 x 30 x 3 7/16 inches (76.2 x 76.2 x 8.7 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Modern and Contemporary Art

Object Location:

* Gallery 188, Modern and Contemporary Art, first floor (Brodsky Gallery)

Accession Number:
1950-134-151

Credit Line:
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

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Label:
Inspired by Cubism, Mondrian moved away from the naturalism of his earlier landscape paintings and began to explore the possibilities of working with a grid pattern to define an entire painting. In this composition, narrow, diagonal lines map a network of diamonds while horizontal and vertical lines divide them into 256 triangles. A flickering optical illusion is created by lines of varying thickness that suggest rectangular and square compartments of different sizes.

Additional information:
  • PublicationPhiladelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections

    Piet Mondrian's four diamond-patterned paintings of 1918-19--of which this is the second--mark the artist's final step toward the abstraction of his mature style. Composition in Black and Gray is composed entirely of linear elements that diagonally divide the painting into 256 approximately equal triangular units. Mondrian thickened sections of the horizontal and vertical gray lines to create another pattern, an accent distinct from but in harmony with the overall grid. The canvas (now discolored by age) was rubbed with white paint, so that the grid of the woven fabric would remain apparent. The flickering optical effect of the intersections of the lines suggests their visual source in the starry sky. Mondrian, who began as a post-Impressionist painter working after nature and then integrated the Cubist vocabulary, remained committed to an art that retained a basis in nature. He spoke of these diamond paintings as the key to achieving this goal, as their abstract formal structure metaphorically corresponded to our experience of the sky at night, in which we supply harmony and equilibrium to a seemingly infinite, random field. Ann Temkin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 317.
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Mondrian is best known as the creator of perhaps the most rigorously abstract paintings of the first half of the twentieth century. His austere approach, which he called Neo-Plasticism, defined a picture plane only by vertical and horizontal lines, and by black, white, and the three primary colors. This style has become a cliché of modernism, its popular translations ranging from couture dresses by Yves Saint-Laurent to oversized beach towels. Less well known, however, is the long road Mondrian traveled to arrive at his signature idiom. The journey began in his schooling at the Royal Academy in Amsterdam and charted a course that only gradually took him from an approach based on observed nature to one of supposedly pure and universal pictorial relationships.

    This painting, made when Mondrian was forty-seven, comes on the eve of his invention of Neo-Plasticism. The impact of Cubism had already taken him away from the descriptive colors and rolling contours of his early landscapes. Here Mondrian explored the visual possibilities of working with a regular grid pattern to define an entire painting. He limited his resources to linear elements in dark gray that overlay a thin white wash. Narrow diagonal lines map a network of diamonds echoing the orientation of the stretched canvas, while horizontal and vertical lines divide the diamonds into 256 triangles. The verticals and horizontals vary considerably in thickness as they span the canvas, creating the sensation of intersecting rectangular and square compartments of different shapes and sizes. The result produces an optical illusion of subtle flickering and an animated pictorial architecture that transcends its elementary means. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 52.

Provenance

Louise and Walter C. Arensberg, Los Angeles, purchased from the artist through Marcel Duchamp as agent, probably in 1936 [1]; gift to PMA, 1950. 1. See a letter by Mondrian of March 31, 1936 to Van den Briel, in which he mentions that he has been approached by Valentine Dudensing asking for exclusivity for America, and also that "Besides I got a request from someone here for photos of two earlier things I still have and a new one I am busy finishing. They will be sent and there is every chance of success; the photos came out well" (cited in Joop Joosten, Catalogue Raisonné, v. 2, p. 163). Joosten believes the request for photographs must have come indirectly (possibly through Duchamp in Paris?) from the Arensbergs in Hollywood, with one of the "earlier things" being this 1919 work, and the one he is busy "finishing" being "Composition" of 1936 (see PMA 1950-134-152). Already in 1933, Galka Scheyer had written to Mondrian from Hollywood, attempting to purchase on the Arensbergs' behalf two Mondrian paintings she had seen in his studio; however, as she reported to Hans Arp a few months later, Mondrian had already sold both paintings in question (letter to Mondrian August 31, 1933 and letter to Arp November 28, 1933 in Scheyer archive, Norton Simon Museum). Duchamp's own notes on the provenance of the Arensberg purchases for which he acted as agent, compiled long after the fact in 1951, record that "Composition in Black and Gray" was purchased "from the artist in 1937," and "Composition" "from the artist in 1938" (letter of Duchamp to Arensbergs, September 8, 1951, PMA, Arensberg Archives). However, supporting Joosten's view that the paintings were actually acquired at the same time is the fact that, as Joosten points out, the transport labels of the Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet company on the stretchers bear consecutive numbers (nos. 433 and 434).


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