Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue, oil on canvas, 1929 (original date partly obliterated; mistakenly repainted 1925 by Mondrian), oil on canvas, 15 7/8 x 12 5/8″ / 40.3 x 32.1 cm (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:02] Here we are at the Museum of Modern Art, and we’re looking at Mondrian’s “Composition No. II, with Red and Blue,” and the date is 1929.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:13] Even though the canvas actually says 1925, with a little initial by the artist, incorrectly.

Dr. Harris: [0:20] Well, you know, artists do that sometimes. They make mistakes.

Dr. Zucker: [0:23] They do, and that especially happens when artists go back later and try to date paintings that they had done earlier. We’re looking at a really tough painting. Here’s a painting — and the title certainly is a perfect reference — it’s a rectilinear form. It’s this rectangle that has white and blue and red and black, and that’s it. This is a kind of incredible pure abstraction.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] And it’s a wild thing to see after walking in from the previous room, which has Monet’s “Water Lilies” and paintings by Vuillard and Bonnard.

Dr. Zucker: [0:55] Which is all naturalistic.

Dr. Harris: [0:56] You’re in the middle of this figurative Western tradition, and then you walk in here and it’s in modern.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] It’s so austere. It is modernism, exceedingly.

Dr. Harris: [1:05] The white walls of the gallery look different. Everything looks different.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Even the frames are incredibly spare.

Dr. Harris: [1:13] I don’t know that they’re even frames in a way.

Dr. Zucker: [1:15] Yeah, they’re almost platforms. How does a viewer get access to the meaning of a painting like this? Can you just look at it and feel a certain way about it? Is that enough, or is this something that we really sort of want to pull apart in an art historical manner?

Dr. Harris: [1:28] I think probably both. The presence of the earlier Mondrians in the gallery, the ones that look more like Analytic Cubism, shed some light on Mondrian’s use of a grid here.

Dr. Zucker: [1:41] Right, because, in fact Mondrian did start out replicating nature in a much more direct way, sometimes with wild, Symbolist color.

[1:46] But it actually does help when you look at these grids that Mondrian ends up with to understand that he began by really looking at Analytic Cubism and looking at the relation of the way an object falls over a ground and the way in which the ground between forms actually becomes ever more present, ever more powerful. There are those fabulous images.

Dr. Harris: [2:08] Trees?

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Yeah, exactly. The flowering apple trees, for instance, where the sky between the boughs takes on a physicality and a presence that is actually overwhelming of the branches themselves.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] I think that began with Picasso, with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” when the space between the figures is — and maybe even with Cézanne — is just as palpable as the volumes themselves.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] The conversation is really not with the apple tree ultimately, but with what’s happening in the canvas, this very formal discussion. This is a system that he called Neoplasticism, right? We have this incredibly reduced kind of palette, obviously, pure…

Dr. Harris: [2:44] Primary colors.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] Right, and black and white. Although if you look at the bottom right corner, the white rectangle.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] Looks a little gray.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] It’s a little off-gray. I don’t know if that’s original, if that’s intentional, but Mondrian was very careful.

[2:57] What’s interesting is actually when you’re up close looking at this canvas, it’s very much like a Malevich. It’s actually got a human touch to it. He’s not obliterating his brushstrokes.

Dr. Harris: [3:05] No, you can see the brushstrokes. It’s not painterly.

Dr. Zucker: [3:08] No, but within the very sort of simplified format of the canvas, it does actually seem like it’s got a bit of facture. It is kind of painterly, even in this context, whereas in a Delacroix, of course, this would not be.

Dr. Harris: [3:20] It’s not an Andy Warhol print.

Dr. Zucker: [3:22] No, it’s a made thing.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] Why choose the primary colors? Why is he using black?

Dr. Zucker: [3:27] I think it’s about purity. I think he’s trying to get to an elemental kind of purity and a kind of elemental balance as well. I mean, when I see this, I see that blue in some ways held in place, and the red held in place, by those black bars almost as if it’s the grid of a stained glass window.

[3:42] At the same time, I see other things, much more complex things, begin to happen, where the blue pushes forward, the red can, in a sense, sink back into a sort of a deep space.

[3:51] I think that there’s an incredible kind of play of harmony that exists not only as a left-right balance, but as a vertical balance, and perhaps even a balance that has to do with what moves towards us, and what in a sense creates the illusion of space.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] Black usually recedes, doesn’t it?

Dr. Zucker: [4:08] It does, but in this case, it can recede. But it can also be a kind of forward armature, in which those planes of color are placed, except that those planes refuse also to be planes.

Dr. Harris: [4:20] In what way?

Dr. Zucker: [4:21] Well, I can see that red as having real volume, having a kind of volume that goes back in space, which is interesting, because in Matisse’s case, red often pushes forward. Here, it can exist forward, but it could also have…It has a kind of wonderful ambiguity, that kind of plasticity, visually, so that I think it can really move back.

Dr. Harris: [4:39] Let me ask you, why is Mondrian so interested in purity at this moment in 1925 or ’29? So interested in balance, so interested in reducing things to their basic elements? What is it about the ’20s?

Dr. Zucker: [4:54] Think about what’s going on in the world in the ’20s. Europe had just…Here we have a Dutch artist, he’s just come out of the First World War. Europe had been devastated. I think that there was this incredible utopian notion that art could have a kind of agency that could help to actually create harmony in the world.

Dr. Harris: [5:09] To sort of rebuild the future in a better way.

Dr. Zucker: [5:12] It’s really utopian. That is, if we can construct balance and harmony in our surroundings, in our architecture, in our painting, in our visual and physical world…

Dr. Harris: [5:22] Environments.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] …then perhaps we can have that harmony in politics and in life throughout.

Dr. Harris: [5:26] I guess that vision makes sense, but it’s so hard to recapture. I feel like we’re so jaded now.

Dr. Zucker: [5:31] We are. There was a kind of heroicism, a sense of possibility.

Dr. Harris: [5:35] That artists could be part of that transformation now seems a little bit misplaced, in a way.

Dr. Zucker: [5:40] It’s an extraordinary hopefulness. And it’s extraordinarily ironic considering that this man lived through not only the First but ultimately the Second World War in part, as well.

Dr. Harris: [5:49] Yeah.

[5:49] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue," in Smarthistory, November 25, 2015, accessed July 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/piet-mondrian-composition-no-ii-with-red-and-blue/.