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Composition in Black and Gray

1919
Piet Mondrian, Dutch, 1872 - 1944

Composition in Black and Gray came at a key moment in Piet Mondrian’s progression toward his characteristic geometrical style. Mondrian believed that painting needed to evolve beyond naturalistic representation to achieve a more universal and purer beauty in geometric abstraction. In this work, the picture plane holds two regular grids of black lines on a white ground. These grids are positioned at a forty-five-degree angle to one another to yield a complex network of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines. Notice the cadence of lines of different thicknesses, as well as the optical flicker that occurs where lines cross. This painting was also one of Mondrian’s first applications of the so-called lozenge, or diamond, format. Mondrian turned a square canvas on one of its points, causing the surface of the work to seem to expand at the four corners and the composition to appear to almost float on the wall.

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Object Details
Purchased from the artist through Marcel Duchamp as agent to Louise and Walter C. Arensberg, Los Angeles, 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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