As noted in the introduction, Mondrian executed the carefully finished second charcoal study (lot 5) as a work he felt to be a more fitting gift to Arnold Newman in appreciation of the striking and insightful portraits that the photographer had made of him (see introduction, p. 19). The present Study I for Broadway Boogie Woogie, seen from a vantage point a half century later, is hardly less remarkable, and indeed stands as a fascinating point of origin and counterpart to the second drawing. The lines here have been drawn quickly and freehand, without the aid of a straight-edge. The residual images of the tentative lines that the artist first laid down, then rubbed away and partially erased, coalesced during the course of the drawing to form a shadowy, ghost-like under-image, creating a sense of depth that one does not normally associate with the completely flat pictorial surface of a Mondrian painting. In this regard, Study I brings to mind Brice Marden's layered grid drawings of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Mondrian's methods of developing the layout of his late compositions were clearly intuitive and involved trial and error. This approach is visible in two unfinished and unpainted Compositions from 1938-1939 that Mondrian had shipped to New York, in which he drew with charcoal on canvas (Joostens B290 and 291). There is, moreover, a painting that he began in New York, Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, ascribed to 1940 (B297), in which the remnants of the charcoal under-drawing are clearly visible alongside the thinly painted black lines and sections of color. In the process of working on the three New York City compositions done in 1940 (B300-302, fig. 5), Mondrian devised a practical solution for establishing the grid: he pasted down strips of colored paper, which he could easily lift up and shift in one direction or the other, until he arrived at the particular equilibrium of lines and color that he was seeking. Victory Boogie Woogie, the last painting that Mondrian worked on, shows pieces of colored paper still affixed to small sections that he intended to paint in, but did not live to complete.
Study I displays a similarly informal and improvisatory approach. Yet, despite its seemingly transient and shifting aspect, or rather because of it, so different from the far more rigorous and deliberate Study II, no other drawing in Mondrian's later oeuvre reveals as much about the complexities in Mondrian's process of thinking pictorially. Study I is an image that comes at this critical, final juncture in Mondrian's work; it lays bare all the varying stages of its evolution, from its inception to the moment when the artist left off, including all steps in between.
Mondrian executed this drawing on a sheet taken from a sketchbook that he used in 1925. There is a sketch on the verso that dates from that year showing a slight indication of a composition with color notations. The verso drawing has its own number and entry in Joostens' catalogue. Study I, within its own small confines, therefore marks both the near beginning, and very nearly the end, of the difficult path that Mondrian took in his mature and iconic work.
(fig. 5) Piet Mondrian, New York City 1, 1941. Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. BARCODE 20627928