Léger arrived in the port of Hoboken, New Jersey on November 12, 1940, one of the first of many European artists to arrive in the United States at the outset of the Second World War. Remembered fondly from three visits during the preceding decade, Léger was soon featured in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" section, which reported: "Léger, who is fifty-nine, seems much the same as on his past visits here--rugged, ruddy, gentle and full of curiosity... He likes shooting galleries, marionette shows, and the photomicroscopic enlargements of tiny under-sea animals in the Museum of Natural History, which he has used in some of his paintings. He considers Fourteenth Street the most beautiful thoroughfare in New York" (quoted in C. Lanchner, "Fernand Léger: American Connections," Fernand Léger, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, pp. 52-3). Léger took up residence at the Tudor Hotel on West 42nd Street. Immersing himself in the grittiness and frenzied intensity of the metropolis, he was especially drawn to novelties such as "girls in sweaters with brilliant colored skin; girls in shorts dressed more like acrobats in a circus than one would ever come across on Paris street" (ibid., p. 56).
Soon after Léger settled in New York, Arthur Neumeyer, director of the Mills College Art Gallery in Oakland, California, invited him to teach at the college during the summer semester of 1941. Léger boarded a cross-country bus bound for San Francisco in June of that year, and his experience of the American heartland--particularly the epic monumentality and visual diversity of the Far West--would become an important point of reference for his subsequent work. Impressed by the open horizons of the desert landscapes, he wrote on July 21, 1941 to his pupil Simone Herman in Paris: "One of the most beautiful memories of traveling will be my bus trip--Texas and Arizona. Monumental... It's as big as New York but part of nature. In an oven of heat, you would have screamed, yelled before an epic parade of giant cactus, rocks, sand, oil wells in perspective, and plants balancing like the sexes of horses and around that, violent odors that change every ten miles... And some clouds rolling in the blue above" (quoted in ibid., p. 53).
Resonances of this American pastoral surface in Composition en noir et jaune, painted upon his return to New York the following year. In the cool southwestern color scheme--the adobe background, filled with rich russet reds and tawny yellows--there is a nod to the vitality and saturation of the native landscape, here abstracted in invented and loosely geometric forms. The organicism of his lines, which interlock and interpenetrate with the biomorphic polygons, describe a compacted space that breathes with the intense energy and atmosphere that Léger found in the American West. These landscapes comprise a natural counterpart to the dense and frenzied figuration of the Plongeurs ("Divers") series which concurrently occupied him. As Gilles Néret has observed, "It was not so much a discovery that the American landscape offered Léger, but rather the new raw material for his unending study of contrasts" (in F. Léger, New York, 1993, p. 217).