'Whatever lies outside of time and space is not unreal. At first only an intuitive concept, it becomes real as our intuition grows purer and stronger. The new plastic is intuition that has become plastically determinate' (Piet Mondrian, in 'Het Neo-Plasticisme', Merz, no. 6, October 1923, quoted in Harry Holzman & Martin S. James (eds.), The New Art-The New Life. The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, London, 1987, p. 177).
Consisting solely of three straight lines and two primary colours on a white background, Composition with Yellow and Red is a highly important and very minimal painting made at the height of Mondrian's career. It pursues the reductive Neo-Plastic aesthetic of his art to its extreme.
It was probably a consequence of Mondrian's break with Van Doesburg in 1925, that in the latter half of the 1920s Mondrian's abstract paintings are distinguished by an ever-increasing reductivism, in which the artist pared down even further the sparse pictorial logic of Neo-Plasticism to its barest essentials. Neo-Plasticism was the carefully thought out principle that Mondrian had devised towards the end of the First World War, of creating an idealised pictorial form of equilibrium, using only the fundamental elements of painting: the straight line, primary colours and the three non- colours of black, white and grey, as a way of reintegrating a fundamental sense of beauty into life. For Mondrian, the white and black elements of his painting related to empty space, which could be articulated and held into a beautiful state of tension and balance by only a small, intense and carefully placed element of pure colour. Towards this end, Mondrian saw his paintings not as mere objects, but as architectural statements, that posited new ideas about the nature of form and space that could and, he hoped, one day would, be integrated into the structure of the life of 'future man'.
As a response to his quest for an absolute, for Mondrian his painting had to both respond to and interact with the modern environment in which it was created. In this respect, of course, most importantly, art had to respond to the metropolis. 'The truly modern artist', he wrote, 'sees the metropolis as a formal equivalent of abstract life; it is closer to him than nature and gives him a stronger feeling of beauty. For, in the big city, nature has already been constrained and ordered by the human spirit. The proportions and rhythms of architectural surfaces and lines speak more directly to the artist than do the whims of nature; henceforth, the big city is where the artistic - mathematical temperament of the future will develop, the place from which the New Style will emerge' (quoted in S. Lemoine Mondrian and de Stijl London, 1987, p. 30).
In accordance with these sentiments, Mondrian saw his paintings as working towards the end of easel painting. The formal and spatial principles they extolled should, he believed, be extended beyond the picture frame into life. To this end, in the mid-1920s, he extended these principles into the realm of his own life, by applying them to the arrangement and form of his own living space. In his studio at 26 Rue du Départ in Paris, he covered the white walls with coloured cardboard shapes, arranged, like his paintings, according to his carefully worked-out Neo-Plastic principles. He painted all the objects in the studio (the few pieces of furniture he had and his treasured gramophone player) in primary colours, so as to create what he described as 'a new design for living'. In order to propagate this utopian message of his art as a blueprint for the future, in 1926 he even had a series of photographs taken of this studio which he published as widely as the reproductions of his paintings.
Deceptively simple with its tension between yellow and red rectangles, balancing one another in opposite corners of the work, Composition with Yellow and Red stands like a cornerstone of Mondrian's art. Reduced to the most simple and essential of elements, its harmoniously resolved composition creates a tension and dynamism with only the barest of means. In this it articulates and expounds the principles of Neo-Plasticism, which, one year earlier and with the help of Michel Seuphor, Mondrian had painstakingly translated into manifesto form, exhibiting all the non-symmetrical balance between form and space and between the notion of 'mind and material' that Mondrian had here demanded of art. 'Balance through the equivalence of nature and mind, of that which is individual and that which is universal, of the feminine and the masculine - this general principle of Neo-Plasticism can be achieved not only in plastic art, but also in man and society', Mondrian had asserted. 'In society, the equivalence of what relates to matter and of what relates to mind can create a harmony beyond anything hitherto known' ('The General Principles of Neo-Plasticism', 1926, quoted in M. Seuphor, Mondrian. Life and Work, London, 1956, p. 168). In reducing the language of his art to its finest point, Mondrian was also fiercely demonstrating the power of the painterly system he had devised to articulate form and space. He did this however not out of a sense of personal pride but out of a sense of mission. 'To be concerned exclusively with relations, while creating them and seeking their equilibrium in art and life, that is the good work of today, that is to prepare the future' (ibid.).