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Composition

Piet Mondrian, Dutch, 1872 - 1944

Date:
1936

Medium:
Oil on canvas

Dimensions:
28 3/4 x 26 1/16 inches (73 x 66.2 cm)

Curatorial Department:
Modern Art

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

Accession Number:
1950-134-152

Credit Line:
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950

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Additional information:
  • PublicationTwentieth-Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Mondrian passionately believed in art as the expression of pure and universal form. The liberation of color and line from the duties of naturalistic representation, he insisted, allowed for the fullest and most direct demonstration of art's essence. The best defense for Mondrian's theories is his own achievement as a painter. Relying on starkly limited means, his paintings are individually captivating; collectively, they tell a story with dramatic twists and turns.

    Composition stems from a time when Mondrian's art had entered a phase of rhythmic animation that would govern his work for the rest of his life. His vocabulary—planes of white or primary colors and black lines—remains what it was since 1920. But structural innovations create a radically new mood. In Mondrian's classically calm compositions of the 1920s, independent black lines separate the surface into discrete planes of color or white. Here, however, Mondrian employed lines running across the canvas, parallel to each other at varying intervals. As a result, the lines divide the canvas so that they no longer read as boundaries but engage equally with the planes as actors on the painting's surface. The lines possess multiple and simultaneous identities, partnering with different mates and viewable in different segments. No one particular rectangle asserts itself as exclusive or definitive, as each belongs to a network of overlapping and intersecting possibilities that never come to rest.

    Mondrian had a predominantly ascetic temperament, but his last decade of work reflects the part of him that loved to foxtrot and listen to jazz. While it was only the final paintings of his life that he would dare to call "boogie-woogies," paintings such as this reveal the excitement of having become gloriously fluent in a language of one's own invention. Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000), p. 74.

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 from Duchamp in Paris?) from the Arensbergs in Hollywood, with one of the "earlier things" being the 1919 work (PMA 1952-134-151), and the one he is busy "finishing" being this 1936 work. 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). In another letter, to Ben Nicholson, dated May 9, 1936, Mondrian enclosed a photo of this painting in an unfinished state, writing, "J'enclus une photo d'une chose recente de moi en état non achevé. Je l'ai pu vendre ici par un de mes connaissances [Duchamp?] pour le prix de 4.000 frs." (see Joosten, v. 2, p. 384). 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 Lucien Lefebvre-Foinet on the stretchers bear consecutive numbers (nos. 433 and 434).


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