An explanation of Piet Mondrian's work by Michael Sciam

Neoplasticism – Part 5

New York City

Black lines open up to colors

To escape the war, Mondrian had moved from Paris to London in 1938 and by the end of 1940 he arrived in the USA. In addition to brushes and oil paints, New York City offered Mondrian a new tool to use in producing his works, namely colored tape, which allowed him to change the positions of the lines and thus work on the composition with greater flexibility. Once a satisfactory configuration had been obtained, it could be made permanent in oils. 

Composition B with Double Line, Yellow and Gray, 1932, Piet Mondrian
1932
Composition in Black and White with Double Lines, 1934, Piet Mondrian
1934
Composition with Yellow, 1936, Piet Mondrian
1936
Composition N. 12 with Blue, 1937-42, Piet Mondrian
1937-42

In New York City (Fig. 5) we see no fewer than twenty-three lines, fifteen of which are yellow, four red, and four blue.

New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 5
New York City, 1942, Oil on Canvas, cm. 114,2 x 119,3
New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Fig. 5a
New York City, Diagram A

The lines expand and contract the white surface of the canvas, which is maintained in a state of unstable equilibrium between the two opposing directions. Horizontal and vertical sometimes attain equivalence and assume proportions of comparatively greater stability.

Squares of variable size and proportions generate and dissolve in a variety of combinations between yellow, red and blue lines. Fig. 5a: Squares 1 and 2 are similar in terms of form but differ as regards their respective distribution of colors:

New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian, Diagram A
Fig. 5a
New York City, Diagram A

The same holds for 3 and 4. Mondrian seems to have been intent above all in square 2 on combining the three colors so as to express not only a synthesis of horizontal and vertical but of yellow, red, and blue at the same time.

A dynamic square

Twenty-two years..

Observe the four canvases below in sequential order:

1920
Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, Piet Mondrian
1932
Lozenge with Yellow Lines, 1933, Piet Mondrian
1933
New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian
1942

A white square field (1920) absorbed color over a span of twenty years and multiplied all over the surface of the canvas in 1942, changing in terms of position, proportions, and relations between the different colors. The single black and white unity of 1920 has undergone interpenetration with manifold space and is now wholly imbued with color and dynamism (1942). Even perhaps too much. The eye scarcely has time  to identify a more stable relationship between opposites (a square) before finding itself immersed in the dynamic and continuous flux of the lines. This happens because when color was applied to lines, the former colored planes disappeared and the painter found himself grappling with compositions in never-ending development:

Composition C, N. III, with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935, Piet Mondrian
Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red, 1937-42, Piet Mondrian
New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian

Three-dimensional?

New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian
Fig. 5
New York City, 1942

Another aspect that appears unsatisfactory in New York City is the fact that the points where lines of different color intersect are no longer marked by a single homogeneous plane, as happened with the black lines, but instead by the predominance of one color over the other. The colors seem to be on three different planes, with yellow, red, and blue appearing respectively on the first, second, and third. This superimposition creates a three-dimensional effect with which Mondrian could hardly be satisfied, since one of his aims had always been precisely the elimination of any perspective-based illusion of supposed and nonexistent third dimensions in order to express reality in the two real dimensions of painting. The problem arising as from this moment was to bring the three different planes of the yellow, red, and blue back onto a single plane. 

Re-establishing a single plane

New York City, 1942, Piet Mondrian, Diagram C
Fig. 5c
New York City, 1942, Diagram C

Fig. 5c shows how the predominance of yellow over red or red over blue is resolved by ensuring that each line allows the perpendicular section covered over to reappear shortly after. A single plane is re-established and the three colors are brought together while preserving their specific qualities: sections of yellow, red, and blue begin to interpenetrate within every line in the shape of small squares and this will give birth to Broadway Boogie Woogie.

From New York City to Broadway Boogie Woogie

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43,
Oil on Canvas, cm. 127 x 127

The painting will be examined in the next page Neoplasticism – Part 6.