The date Van der Leck placed on the reverse of this canvas (fig. 1) bears silent witness to his doubts, his uncertainty, his inability to let go - for how could one be sure that the painting was finished? In this particular case, however, he cannot have returned to it too many times, as the paint layer is fairly thin, and for once there is little to be seen of his characteristically pastose surface, the result of his repeated 'painting away' of the edges or corners of his patches of colour.
The catalogue entry on Composition (1918) cites Van der Leck as saying he had 'never been much inclined to what they call abstraction. That's still the way I feel about it now.'11 He must have had this painting on his easel around the time he expressed this view, and the validity of that statement as a general truth is open to debate. From the mid-1950s on, Van der Leck executed completely abstract paintings, for the reasons suggested in the introduction to this catalogue. He had not been a stranger to abstraction since the early 1930s, when he started designing carpets on a regular basis for Metz & Co. At first, he still based them on 'old' compositions from 1918, and these - notwithstanding their methodical geometric shapes and primary colours - could be traced back to an identifiable motif, which was perhaps not entirely appropriate for a floor covering.12 But he was soon producing non-figurative designs, aspiring mainly to achieve balanced compositions and colour schemes and, needless to say, open spaces within the composition. For Van der Leck, the applied arts were a stepping stone to abstraction.
Judging by the geometrical structure of the present Composition, he continued to pursue 'transparency in spatial mathematical unity' with unabated enthusiasm.13 But Van der Leck seems to have done everything in his power to prevent that geometry from becoming all too obvious or too predictable. The patches of colour on his virtually square canvas are set within an upright rectangle. The corners are marked by four small fields, from each of which, starting with the square at lower left and moving anti-clockwise, an increasingly large corner has been 'painted away'. If, in our minds, we join up the fields of the same colour, we find that they are all located on the vertex of a triangle. These red, yellow and blue 'triangles' are methodically 'woven' through one another, almost literally illustrating the quotation above. It may well be possible to discern other 'patterns', and what they all have in common is a minor quirk, a patch of colour that is not entirely consistent with the pattern, that 'does' something to surprise us. Van der Leck catches us slightly off guard, perhaps to prevent the work from seeming static. In my opinion, he has succeeded entirely in this truly outstanding canvas. [c.h.]
11. Lot no. 202
12. See, for example, exh.cat. Bart van der Leck, Otterlo (Kröller-Müller Museum) 1994, p. 94, fig. 134. This carpet harks back to a design from 1918, which was not executed at the time: ibidem, p. 67, fig. 88. The design incorporates his Composition 1918 no. 4 and Composition 1918 no. 5; the latter is an adaptation of a farmyard scene with two heads of cattle; see Hilhorst 1982, figs. 162-163.
13. See 'Introduction', note 7.