A strict, balanced statement of purity and absolute abstraction, Komposition II, with Red is a remarkably minimal work by Piet Mondrian. Dating from 1926, the picture was sent to Dresden that same year by the artist to be exhibited there with three other paintings (Joosten, B169, B171, B172). Seen together, the four works must have appeared as a particularly firm assertion of Mondrian’s radical aesthetics. Composed of no more than four straight lines and emphasising large squares of white canvas, these Dresden pictures were the result of a relentless process of reduction that, in the 1920s, brought Mondrian to pare down the elements of his paintings to their most significant minimum. Despite their apparent simplicity, works such as Komposition II, with Red are based on a complex system of balance and imbalance, symmetry and asymmetry, related proportions and contrasting forms. Only two of the four Dresden pictures are still known today: the present work and Komposition IV, with Red, held at the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld (Joosten, B172). Komposition II, with Red was also thought to be lost, for it was probably only returned to Mondrian towards the end of his life, as documented by a 1944 photograph, taken by Harry Holtzman, in which the picture is shown in the artist’s New York studio.
Komposition II, with Red presents all the hallmarks of Mondrian’s distinctive aesthetics: straight black lines, primary color and the square—present not only in the composition, but also in the very shape of the canvas. As elemental as they may seem, these fundamentals embodied Mondrian’s artistic zenith, attained after a decade of artistic research. In the early 1910s, the artist had in fact debuted as a Cubist painter. It would take him eight years to arrive at a composition based solely on straight lines crossing at right angles and creating squares and rectangles of primary colours. In 1918, within the context of the De Stijl movement, the seeds of Mondrian’s most significant paintings began to be appear in his works. Yet, in those early works, the forms are still too crowded. Completely covering the canvas, they appear more like interlocking squares and rectangles, rather balanced compositions of lines and colors. Nevertheless, the 1918 pictures marked a breakthrough: they had shown a new direction to the artist, who, eager to explore it further, single-mindedly pursued a progressive simplification that would eventually lead him to works such as Komposition II, with Red.
By the time of his death in 1944, Mondrian had succeeded in creating a dynamic and inexhaustible artistic system out of black, straight lines and primary colours. His art was an art of proportions, balance and harmony, in which beauty stemmed out of utter compositional purity and absolute abstraction. The artist’s biographer and friend Michel Seuphor would explain: “Mondrian, exploring for such a long time the theme of the horizontal-vertical, proved that this theme had a reality of its own, that it was a universal principle, a source of both life and language. A few years later, his comrades on De Stijl went on another track. He alone remained faithful to the fundamental idea. What for Huszar or Van der Leck was just an accident, was for him an ineluctable law” (M. Seuphor, Piet Mondrian: Life and Work, London, 1956, p. 151). In their radical reduction, works such as Komposition II, with Red should be perceived as extreme experimentations with the “ineluctable law” Mondrian intended to prove in his painting. Around the same time the present work was painted, Mondrian executed some of its most essential pictures. Together with the present work, in 1926 Mondrian had sent to Dresden a lozenge-shaped picture (Joosten, B169; whereabouts unknown), whose composition rested onto three single black straight lines, only two of which cross each other. The same year, the artist worked on another lozenge-shaped canvas, on which he reduced the lines to two, the bare minimum consenting a crossing (Schilderij No.1: Lozenge with Two Lines and Blue, 1926; Philadelphia Museum of Art. Joosten, B173). Work such as these and Komposition II, with Red suggest that, in the mid-1920s, Mondrian was indeed testing the very limits of his own artistic principles, achieving force through reduction, compellingly asserting his radical, unyielding artistic ideas.
Despite, or rather because of, the radical reduction of its elements, Komposition II, with Red achieves a remarkable visual complexity. Of the four employed lines, only two meet to create a clearly visible cross in the upper left part of the composition. The device, which automatically creates two diagonally opposed squares, was often employed by the artist. But while, on a number of times, Mondrian painted the small upper square in primary colour, in Komposition II, with Red the artist painted it white. Color—a primary red—is instead employed on the very edge of the canvas far below, filling in an area created by a specular crossing. Situated too close to the edge to be perceived as a veritable form, this intrusion of color—as minimal as it may seem—is powerful enough to transform the large white square which dominates the composition. Sharing with it two of its lines, the red area thrusts the white square into relief, differentiating its white space from that of the other three remaining sections. Opposed to the red, the white square acquires a certain materiality, appearing less as space distancing the lines and more as a delimited surface. This impression is reinforced by Mondrian’s decision to clearly close off the square with a fourth black line, situated on the picture’s right edge. This detail introduces a dynamic contrast in the composition, while the red area lifts the white square pushing it outwards, the black line on the edge of the picture contains it, pushing back in the opposite direction. Carefully orchestrated, the elements in Komposition II, with Red animate each other by proximity, setting lines and forms into a muted movement. In all of its simplicity, the present work proves just how dynamic Mondrian’s restrained artistic language can indeed be.
Closely related to another work (Joosten, B175, whereabouts unknown), Komposition II, with Red also reveals how inexhaustible Mondrian’s vocabulary could be. A 1926 photograph of the artist’s studio at 26 rue du Départ in Paris shows an almost identical composition displayed on Mondrian’s easel (see: J.M., Joosten, Catalogue Raisonné of the Work of 1911-1944, Antwerp, 1998, vol. II, p. 133). That work, now lost, differs from Komposition II, with Red in some slight, yet decisive respects. According to the surviving photograph documenting that nearly identical composition, Mondrian had removed the square’s enclosing line along the right edge of the canvas, he had lifted the lower horizontal line higher (giving the read area slightly more height), finally, he had arranged the crossing of the two perpendicular lines, in the upper left corner of the composition, to compose a small square. However small, these changes shift the dynamics of the composition, altering the overall impact of the work: although virtually the same, Komposition II, with Red achieves a denser, more vigorous composition. This illustrates how subtle Mondrian’s artistic system is, as meticulously constructed, its concern is that of harmony and variation. What ultimately makes the core of Mondrian’s painting are not its elements—although their nature, geometrical, rigorous and indisputable, was of paramount importance for the artist—but their union, their orchestration, the relations they establish. John Milner explained “all that changes [in Mondrian’s work] is the number of elements, the proportions of the parts, and the rhythm they establish. This was enough for Mondrian. Here were the fundamentals of his paintings. Their relationships stood for all that existed, and he could see in those infinite relationships the visual evidence of his view of the world, his own cosmology” (J. Milner, Mondrian, London, 1992, p. 163).
The pure abstraction attained in Komposition II, with Red (Composition in a square) expressed for Mondrian far more than a purely pictorial statement. Abstraction stemmed indeed from a wider idea of modern life itself. Modernity, the artist claimed, was an urban phenomenon that belonged to the realm of the city. And the city—rationally built, geometrically planned and idealistically conceived—was the expression of a certain abstraction itself. Metropolis, organising the life of their inhabitants and the spaces of their activities, obeyed to ideals of order, harmony and structure, which, in their essence, were not dissimilar to the plastic ideals of pictorial abstraction. Mondrian explained “the truly modern artist regards the metropolis as an embodiment of abstract life; it is closer to him than nature is, and gives him greater feeling of beauty. For in the metropolis, nature has already been straightened out and regulated by the human spirit … In the metropolis beauty expresses itself more mathematically; therefore it is the place out of which the mathematically artistic temperament of the future must develop, the place out of which the New Style must emerge” (H.L.C. Jaffé, Mondrian, London, 1970, p. 40). Mondrian’s words seem to propose a dichotomy: if nature—irregular, biomorphic, capricious—had been the referent of figurative and representational art, then the metropolis’ architecture—geometric, rational, rigorous—would provide an appropriate analogy to abstract art. It may not be surprising then to discover that, in the 1960s, Komposition II, with Red entered the collection of one of the most illustrious, passionate supporters of modern architecture, the scholar Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr. A fervent supporter of Frank Lloyd Wright, in the 1930s Kaufmann had advised his father on the commission of the world-famous Fallingwater, in itself a feat of architectural abstraction and harmony.
Mondrian himself had been sensible to architecture and space. While in Paris, he insisted in trying to attune the space of his studio to the abstract harmonies of his paintings. Walls, surfaces and colors had to correspond and complement the lines and forms of his artistic universe. The spare pieces of furniture of his studio were painted in either white or primary colours. On the walls, carefully arranged, the artist had stuck coloured rectangular and square cards, expanding the harmonies of his paintings to the space of his life. This transformation of the studio seemed to prove, Mondrian argued in 1919, that the absolute abstraction of his work was indeed able to govern and extend to modern life. “Since I cannot paint directly on the wall I have merely placed painted cards on it. But I have come to see clearly that it is indeed possible for the New Plastic to appear in a room in this way. Of course, I had to paint the furniture as well…” (quoted in Milner, op. cit., 1956, p. 157).
It was in that legendary studio that Mondrian would paint until 1936, often living in very difficult financial conditions. Considered today as fundamental statements in the history of Modern Art, Mondrian’s 1920s paintings were largely ignored by their contemporaries. For years, Mondrian had to paint flower pictures and watercolours in order to support himself. In 1923—barely three years before Komposition II, with Red was painted—Mondrian almost resolved to abandon painting altogether, after his paintings had failed to sell at a De Stijl exhibition at Paul Rosenberg’s Galerie L’Effort Moderne. By 1926, however, the situation had started to change. Seuphor explained “The year 1926 was important in Mondrian’s life. That year he was visited by Miss Katherine S. Dreier, who bought one of his large, lozenge-shaped canvas, which was exhibited that same year in Brooklyn, at the International Exhibition of the Societé Anonyme. In the book, published on the occasion…, the courageous organizer of the exhibition wrote: ‘Holland has produced three great painters who, though a logical expression of their own country, rose above it through the vigour of their personality—the first was Rembrandt, the second was Van Gogh, and the third is Mondrian…Mondrian, who, starting from that strongly individualistic expression, has attained a clarity that has never been achieved before him’” (M. Seuphor, op. cit., 1956, pp. 163-164). Finally, in 1926, the artist was beginning to receive the attention he deserved.
In Dresden, where Komposition II, with Red was sent to be exhibited in 1926, Mondrian found further support to his art. That year, collectors Ida Bienert and her son Frederich, who together had recently bought a number of paintings from the artist, commissioned Mondrian to design a library-study for Ida’s house in the city. At the same time, one of the artist lozenge-shaped composition, (Tableau no. 1, 1925; Joosten, B165), had also been bought from the Kunstausstellung Kühl by the dancer Gret Palucca who, to the artist’s delight, hung the work at a specific place on the large empty wall of her dance studio “as a point of rest for when she takes a break” (P. Mondrian, Letter from Piet Mondrian to Oud, quoted in Piet Mondrian, exh. cat., New York, 1995, p. 221). In 1926, not only were Mondrian’s paintings gaining recognition, but his ideas—relating painting and space, abstraction and architecture—were starting to be understood and appreciated. His ideas were being more widely circulated. In 1925, the Bauhaus had translated into German Mondrian’s 1920 “Neo-Plasticism” pamphlet and other articles the artist had written for De Stijl and other magazines. A year later, Mondrian himself had expressed his ideas in French, in a succinct text for the magazine Vouloir. Although not published in the end, the essay reveals the great idealism that was at the core of Mondrian’s aesthetics: “Neo-plasticism,” the artist argued, “demonstrates the exact order. It stands for equity, because the equivalence of the plastic means in the composition demonstrates that it is possible for each, despite differences, to have the same value as others. Equilibrium, through contrasting and naturalizing opposition, annihilates individuals as particular personalities and thus create the future society as a real unity” (quoted in Seuphor, op. cit., 1956, p. 168). Professing an uncompromising, rigorous abstraction and imbued with a confident idealism, which married ideas of pictorial harmony with societal order, Komposition II, with Red commemorates an important moment in the career of Mondrian, ranking among the most daring, extreme compositions ever created by the artist.