Wiegand Memoir

Mondrian: a memoir of his New York period
by Charmion von Wiegand
published in the Arts Yearbook 4, 1961

Twenty years ago, in October of 1940, Mondrian arrived in America. The man who came down the gangplank and stepped on American soil for the first time was old, delicate in health, solitary, and an exile in a strange land. At sixty-eight, a refugee from the London blitz, finding a haven here through the kindness of American friends, he was no success by worldly standards, and he was only one among many European artists and intellectuals fleeing from the catastrophic march of Hitler's armies across Europe.
New York was suddenly the center of free European intellectuals—writers, artists, architects, scientists, composers and poets. Their coming was to act as a yeast for a decade, providing an unprecedented intellectual and artistic ferment. In art the quest for the new means of expression, going on in Europe since the turn of the century, was transplanted to the United States. In the end this was to bring American art to crisis and change, leading to its emergence on the world stage as an independent expression.
Since the early thirties stories had been circulating among New York artists about Mondrian: his life as a recluse in Paris, his oddly decorated studio, where he lived and worked, cooking his own meals and rarely mingling in the cafes and gatherings of artists, devoting himself to painting straight lines on white canvas. Photographs of these works and a few actual paintings —three in the Gallery of Living Art and one in the Museum of Modern Art—disclosed what looked like the answer to a problem in the geometry book: rectilinear designs of black lines and rectangles in primary color. The consensus at the time among critics, and also among insurgent artists, was that these were not unpleasant, but were certainly not paintings, and no doubt represented some personal obsessive drive on the part of the artist.
For the general public, familiar with the Mexican muralists and just getting introduced to the distortions of Picasso, the lone Mondrian painting in the Museum of Modern Art had left no impress at all. From Frederick Kiesler—a late member of the De Stijl group—who had used Neo-Plastic principles in designing his space-house for the 1925 Paris World's Fair, I had heard stories about Mondrian, how for almost a quarter of a century he had worked alone in Paris, how his development had been the most consistent and logical of all the artists who stemmed from prewar Cubism, and finally how his "immemorial square" had left an indelible mark on our visual environment—in architecture, design, typography.
Mondrian had been in New York six months when I first made his acquaintance. Harry Holtzman, a young abstract painter who had worked with Burgoyne Diller on the Federal Art Project and had visited Mondrian in Paris, obtained his visa and found him an apartment at 353 East 56th Street. The American Abstract Artists, then the avant-garde art group in New York, with George L. K. Morris at their head, had celebrated Mondrian's arrival with a reception for him and Leger, who had also settled here. The New Yorker devoted a column to Mondrian and his eccentricities. Already recovered from the strain of the London bombings, he was now hard at work. He had just completed his first New York picture, to be shown at the annual exhibition of the American Abstract Artists. Valentine Dudensing, who headed the foremost modern gallery in the city, had offered him an exhibition. All this was told to me by Carl Holty, friend of Mondrian and charter member of the A.A.A., who on my expressing an interest in Mondrian's work offered to arrange a meeting.
The sign "Mondrian" seemed strange at the entrance of a row of brownstone walk-ups that faced First Avenue. When I rang the bell in the little courtyard, the latch clicked and I walked up three flights. The door was opened by a slight man with ascetic features. He shook hands cordially and led me into his front room. Two narrow, tall windows were open to the noise of First Avenue traffic.
The small room contained no furniture, only an easel and a drawing board. In the tiny foyer was a small kitchen table with two stools. Pictures were ranged all around the room, their faces turned to the wall. Everything was spotless white, like a laboratory. In a light smock, with his clean-shaven face, taciturn, wearing his heavy glasses, Mondrian seemed more a scientist or priest than an artist. The only relief to all the white was large matboards, rectangles in yellow, red and blue, hung in asymmetric arrangements on all the walls. Peering at me through his glasses, he noticed my glance and said in a Dutch accent, "I've arranged these to make it more cheerful."
His English was precise, the enunciation slow, the vocabulary excellent. His was the speech of an intellectual—a man who thought before he spoke, wasted no time on light conversation, and came straight to the heart of the matter. I had come to see the work; he spoke of it simply and impersonally. As he talked he uncovered a small canvas on the easel: a composition of three horizontal black lines and two verticals, a bright red plane on the top and a small blue rectangle on the lower right. Clear and decisive against the white, it seemed a symbol to which I held no key.
Then he turned a large square canvas around, and > I saw a complex structure of black lines, enclosing an inner white square; several charcoal lines were thinly traced beside it on the white. This was the first picture he had exhibited here, at the Riverside Museum. On seeing it hung, he explained, he had felt the lines were not strong enough. Later this picture was to be changed by the addition of color planes at the bottom, and became New York City, No. I.
"I use only white and black and the three primaries. The rainbow, it is true, has more colors, but they are natural; the primaries, because they are unmixed, have the greatest intensity and carrying power." He went on then to explain his theory that the right angle is the strongest means of expression. As he spoke his face became younger, his taciturnity vanished, and his dark eyes—his most striking feature—shone with an internal gaiety. He seemed delighted when I admired a square canvas with a bold, luminous yellow rectangle at the top, answered by a tiny blue rectangle twinkling on the bottom. I thought of butterfly wings and sunlight and saw that it had the structure and color of a Vermeer.
He explained that he never worked analytically, but rather by means of intuition and the eye, testing each composition over a long period in order to arrive at an equilibrium. Of course, he knew that no form created by man could realize an absolute and perfect harmony. But abstract art, he said, because it uses pure means, could approximate it more closely than naturalistic art. Illustrating, he continued to turn more canvases from the wall, and suddenly, when all the austere designs were exposed to view, the whole room began to vibrate with an invisible energy.
Years before, he said, he had come to the conclusion that art must be detached from the natural world. It was not, as had been written of him, that he did not love nature, he insisted, but he felt nature's multiplicity and brilliance could never be successfully transposed on canvas. Feeling this, he had sought to find another way. It was not the artist's business to imitate nature, but to seek to operate like nature, finding the universal laws hidden in the appearance of things.
To make this clear, he led me into his kitchen, a narrow corridor between the front and back rooms, and pointed to some of his early works tacked on the walls —sketches, water colors, charcoal studies—landscapes, nudes, portraits and flowers. There were many flowers —marigolds, dahlias, chrysanthemums—all single, all executed realistically with the precision of Diirer drawings.
He ushered me into the back room, on the court. The sun pouring in revealed a room entirely empty except for a narrow cot covered with a monk's-cloth spread and a small red chenille rug at its foot. "Too bad that rug has round corners," said Mondrian. On the four walls hung large, yellowing sheets of drawings, for the most part covered with small crosses, short verticals and horizontals within oval outlines. These calligraphic notations seemed as mysterious as the secret formulae of an alchemist. It was only later that we learned to know them as the "Paris Facades" and the "Plus-Minus Compositions" done in Holland in 1914-16—and representing the greatest change that had occurred in Western art in six hundred years, the shift from a sensorial art of appearance to an abstract, ideational art of the twentieth century.
When I left, Mondrian pressed into my hand a few sheets of handwritten notes. He said they were a little statement about his life and work he had written to make things clear, in case I was writing about him. On reading the notes later, I found a succinct, if not altogether idiomatic, account of his artistic development. Spontaneously I put it into more legible English and sent him a copy. He answered as follows: "Very kind of you to copy off my writing. I did not consider it an article. I have written it only to explain to you my art development, but it is perhaps useful to the public to a better understanding of Abstract Art." These notes formed the basis of Mondrian's article "Toward a True Vision of Reality," one of his classic essays. It was published as a brochure for his first exhibition. In it, for the first and only time, he wrote about Neo-Plasticism in terms of his personal experience.
Like most American artists of the time, I did not understand pure abstract art, finding it "cold" and "without content"—just as many people feel today. My years as a painter since 1925 and my studies in art history had not helped at all. Art still meant painting objects from nature, no matter how distorted, symbolized or transformed. The tragic, human art of Picasso was still according to nature, but Mondrian had gone beyond this into what seemed a bleak mathematical world.
In the rapid exchange of letters which now took place, I felt the excitement of discovering a new aesthetic world. Mondrian had not had a schoolteacher father for nothing; he delighted in imparting knowledge. "But I am glad to know that these Art problems interest you so much and that for you also art is not a thing separated from life. Many don't or won't see the unity of Art and Life," he wrote me. He kept sending "little supplements" to the first notes he had given me, and seemed satisfied with the revisions. Very soon he had the idea of publishing some of his essays in English. "If you would do the work to make it in good English there where this wrong, and introduce it with preface than I shall be very pleased," he suggested. His letters gave the clues to his work, but it was the work itself that changed my vision. On my next visit to the studio, divested of past prejudice, I saw the paintings. My journal of June 5, 1941, records that experience:
"Mondrian is the iconoclast who destroys that a new world may be born. Actually he is very gentle, quiet and reserved. He knows the way and so he is indulgent to those who do not. He is so sure that he can be very liberal. But inside, the power burns and vibrates.
"Stepping into his front room out of the dank rain and colorless day was like stepping into a dynamo. He had hung more squares of color on the white walls: great red rectangles sent out rays of light; yellow rectangles spread sunlight and deep blue ones cool shadow. Ranged around the room were the new pictures, great squares, their powerful forms vibrating in the small space, so that it was like being conducted through the visual sense into a new plane of existence, supercharged with energies.
"On one wall, propped up, was a large new picture, all in tapings like a mummy waiting to come to life. It is different from all the others, for it is made entirely of colored lines. . . It is more brilliant, as if America had already changed his color.
"He seemed a little shy today and had a certain difficulty speaking; sometimes his English is not so good, and he had a sore throat. We sat on the two stools-there are no chairs—at the little table and went over the manuscript, correcting it again. He showed me a new manuscript on 'Oppression and Freedom in Art,' but I did not read it.
"When I first looked at the Mondrians, I found them bare but beautifully proportioned designs. I could see their use for industry, for typography, for decoration. I could not understand why he still considered himself a painter. But now that I have looked at them for a second time, I realize that they are painting, that they reveal a sensibility of such perfection that they will become the touchstone for training people to a new sensibility that as yet does not exist even for the most aesthetically trained minds. Moreover, they are not dead design but living art, moving, dynamic and overpowering in their energizing effect. Which is exactly what all great art has been in the past. And above all they are extremely sensuous—a sensuousness devoid of any literary or biological connotations. And that to me is their mystery, that sensuous living and feeling can be expressed through purely plastic means. These canvases are a deed, a revolutionary act in the true sense of the word, for they changed me, and they react upon their environment, so that they must in the end change life. And I think that the new ones, where the planes are broken by more lines, are more dynamic than those of Europe, that as an artist Mondrian is still developing. One feels no sign of age; he is living in the present with the full force of his being. He is an example of the power of the spirit over the flesh, for he looks very thin and frail but not weak, and certainly not old."
Shortly after this visit, I gave a little party for Mondrian. Carl Holty called for him and brought him in his car. Present were Stuart and Roselle Davis, Walter Quirt and several others. Mondrian seemed to enjoy himself; his step was light, his smile contagious, and he went around the apartment examining everything with interest. Stopping before a landscape hung between two windows which faced the sky line of Lower Manhattan twinkling with lights in the clear night sky, he said, "This is very good indeed." And after a pause, "It is what I have come to destroy."
Delivered with quiet assurance, it was a completely impersonal statement. I saw the incongruity of the landscape of nature on the wall and the city outside, our landscape of the twentieth century. Years before, he had destroyed his own landscape in the interest of a new evolution. In fact, "evolution" was a favorite word of his, for he believed all humanity, each individual and culture, was in the process of continuous evolution, in which good and evil were the necessary opposites continually working toward a goal—a goal that always kept receding but pulling humanity up toward a higher level.
That evening Mondrian made friends with Stuart Davis. They had a mutual enthusiasm for modern music, and they could discuss painting on an intelligent level. Later they were to meet at parties and art exhibitions and spend an occasional evening listening to boogie-woogie, one of Mondrian's chief delights. In Paris very early he had become a devotee of American jazz and had always enjoyed dancing. He had sought analogies between music and painting, and had written two essays on the subject of the bruiteurs and Futurist music.
At that time Cafe Society had two night spots in New York, one in Greenwich Village, the other uptown. The best boogie-woogie could be heard in both places. Mondrian had been introduced to downtown Cafe Society soon after his arrival. That summer my husband, Joseph Freeman, arranged with friends to take him to uptown Cafe Society. Dimitri Mitropoulos was a member of our party, and Mondrian was photographed with him. But his delight in dancing to boogie-woogie was unfeigned. He asked most earnestly whether I thought he was too old to ask the ladies to dance and seemed much relieved when I said no. He had a wonderful sense of rhythm but liked very complicated steps, and he held me at a disconcerting distance—which did not make dancing with him easy. In the middle of a dance, when the orchestra switched suddenly from boogie-woogie to jazz, he stopped abruptly: "Let's sit down. I hear melody." He adhered to his principles in everything.
Mondrian's boogie-woogie dancing has been exaggerated. If you added up the times he indulged in dancing, parties or movies, it would amount to very little in the three and a half years he lived here. He was a man who had always lived alone, but he liked people and liked to feel the stir of life around him. He complained that his apartment house was too quiet-he liked to hear voices and the sound of the radio playing. Later, when he acquired a small phonograph— which he decorated with red rectangles—he liked to play Bach, but more often boogie-woogie. He always played full volume, as if this added to his pleasure.
Whatever else he did, he painted for hours each day—and wherever he went, the immediate problem of the composition on which he was working went with him. The first summer here he was much alone. The Holtzmans, with whom he dined regularly on Wednesday evenings, had gone to the country. He had declined to join them, as the city was the only place where he could work. Others were on vacation too, and so he decided to devote part of his time to editing and translating his essays. He wanted to have them published in English, so that the public here would come to understand his work. He gave me his pamphlet on Neo-Plasticism, published in Paris in 1920, and told me that although he was very poor at the time, he had raised nine hundred francs to have it printed privately. If necessary, he would do the same thing here. Could I find the time to help him? He passed on to me the Bauhaus book of his essays, his handwritten manuscripts and many notes and catalogues.
Most of this material was in Dutch, French or German. I considered it a worthwhile project, but told him my French was not expert and that I knew no Dutch. "But you have me, and that's all you need," he insisted. So it came about that two or three times a week I went to work with him on his essays. I shuttled back and forth between our downtown apartment, his studio and the library, where I read everything I could find on abstract art, particularly on De Stijl and Neo-Plasticism. Whenever I unearthed some article on him in an obscure European publication or a reference to his work, I would copy part of it off, and we would discuss it.
As we worked I became familiar with his daily habits and his method of painting. Sometimes he would excuse himself after correcting the manuscripts in his precise script, and turn to some "technical work" on the pictures. Or he would display a picture and ask for reactions. His questions were always specific—whether a line should be shifted an inch one way or the other, whether a color plane should be up or down, enlarged in size or decreased. What he was seeking was not aesthetic appreciation, but the spontaneous visual reaction by which he tested his own conclusions.
I soon found that working on Mondrian's essays was not easy. He would spend hours on two paragraphs and was always busy looking up words in the dictionary and inquiring as to the exact shade of meaning. If told that some expression of his was not idiomatic English, he would insist that it made no difference; it was the way he wanted it. No sooner was a part typed off as finished when there would come a note "with just a paragraph or two to add," and it would all have to be done over again. He wrote as he painted, clarifying his ideas through many small corrections and emendations. "I think the whole is pretty clear now," he would say suddenly, and never again would he look at that particular essay. But before this, he had gone through six or seven revisions.
As the heat of summer came on, I sometimes shifted visits toward the cool of evening. Getting off the bus on First Avenue, I would see Mondrian's rectangles glowing through the open windows. He would be hard at work, bending over his drawing board-which he used flat like a table—operating like a surgeon on one of his white canvases. He used a slender steel bar to steady himself in making the lines, and the brush, in his long, supple hands, moved with delicate precision and rhythmic energy.
He was surrounded by unfinished canvases—those which had come by ship from London, and the two large new compositions on the theme of New York City, constructed solely of colored lines in red, yellow and blue. The lines were broad and ran close to the edge of the canvas both horizontally and vertically, threading their way over and under one another, a warp and woof creating a circulatory, vibratory action like the geometric rhythm of city traffic seen from above. His European pictures had been more serene, contained, arrived at by plane division. The two new works were more fluid in line, the color gayer and lighter, and together they made a unity of opposites. The first, with its strong vertical and horizontal in red, had an almost martial air; the second, in which yellow lines dominated, flowed serenely in a blaze of light. The latter, Mondrian declared, was the best picture he had ever made. At this time, both paintings were still only worked out in colored tapes. The first was never completed; the second became New York City (1942).
Very soon after his arrival here Mondrian had been introduced to the use of colored tapes. In Europe he had had to repaint his lines or use strips of plain paper. The tapes were a labor saving device he liked; he could try out a line, then quickly remove it, or shift its position repeatedly without losing time or soiling the canvas. One of the large American companies manufactured tapes of different widths in pure primary colors as well as in black and gray. They seemed made to order for his work, but because of the wartime paper shortage their manufacture was discontinued. I used to look for these rolls of colored tape in art and stationery shops, some of which still had them in stock. Finding a large roll of bright red tape, enough to last months, was an occasion for rejoicing.
In his social life Mondrian was always friendly but formal. It would never occur to his friends to drop in unannounced. I always waited for a note or post card that conveyed the message: "If you are not too busy, shall be pleased to see you on Tuesday (tomorrow) after five." On occasion, when I came, he would be in his immaculate little kitchen preparing his dinner. For years he had followed the Hauser diet. His fare was of the simplest, arranged with taste and a certain elegance, even if no more than bacon and boiled potatoes with a green salad and cheese. Sometimes I was invited to dine with him. Then he made elaborate preparations, going shopping to buy pastry or ice cream, because that was "what Americans liked." His was a hospitable nature, and he would always offer visitors tea or a "cocktail," which turned out to be a glass of V8. He rarely drank anything, but on festive occasions he was fond of a glass of wine.
In these months he was still enamored of American utilities. He had never in his life had an electric icebox; it filled him with awe, but he kept no ice cubes in it. Ice water was bad for the health, he said, and if anyone asked for a cold drink, he ran the water from the tap. He kept his white enamelled stove shining, and once when something happened to the gas, he was in a nervous crisis. I found him scrubbing the marks of the gas man's feet off the floor, which he kept spotless. Born in the age of gaslight and the horsecar, he had become an apostle of modernity in Paris. But confronted with the actual gadgets of modern life, he was not at ease.
Only after a great effort at painting or in an emergency did he relax his Dutch cleanliness and order. There were no paint smudges on anything; everything in his place was arranged in determined order. Not that he was rigid in keeping things in the same place. On the contrary, he was something of an impresario, and might have made his way in the theater. He showed the greatest subtlety in displaying his work. There were always new arrangements, and each time he created a different atmosphere by means of selection and placing, manipulating the paintings, the few sticks of furniture and his easel exactly as he did the basic elements of a composition. The result was harmony, peace, and sometimes effulgent light.
But he could also create the opposite—the dark side of life. For did he not believe that the law of opposites was the principal law of life? In his youth he had painted stormy, tragic landscapes. And it was his struggle against the tragic—the disequilibrium in man-that brought him to an abstract expression. "In order to love High Noon, it is necessary to have loved the Night, to have deeply known the Dawn," he wrote in Paris, adding, "in order to detest the tragic, it is necessary to have lived a long time."
My notes record a visit on a hot August day. He suddenly turned a canvas around, and I was struck by its violence. Completed except for details, it set two blue and yellow rectangles in a cage of black lines and secured its balance with an elongated red rectangle at the top. Like none of his other pictures, in its inexplicable dissonance it jangled the nerves. Observing my reaction he said, "I made this composition in London during the bombings. I've tried many times to take it out." He shook his head. "I do not like it as well as the new picture. But now it will have to do."
His was a compassionate nature, and the war, the misery it brought to human beings, was much in his mind. He had not yet recovered completely from the strain of the London bombings. The sound of the sirens on the fire engines tearing along First Avenue still made him shiver. His first July Fourth in New York, with the popping of firecrackers, was a torment for him. Later he very assiduously made blackout curtains, going shopping for materials, devoting himself to measuring, cutting and nailing the curtains, putting them up neatly without a crack, in order to keep his bright lights from leaking out. No matter what happened, if the bombings were to be repeated here, the work had to go on. There was no time to stop.
By fall Mondrian was working more intensely on his paintings. His coming to New York had attracted little attention compared to that given such artists as Marc Chagall, Leger, Lipchitz, the Surrealists Andre Breton, Max Ernst and others. That fall Fortune published an illustrated portfolio of the exiled European artists then in America, and Mondrian was given first place. Sidney Janis had previously published a series of interviews with famous artists including Mondrian in Decision, edited by Klaus Mann. Many people who had known Mondrian in Paris now called on him, among them old friends like Moholy-Nagy, head of the Bauhaus in Chicago, Siegfried Giedion, the composer Edgar Varese, Jean Xceron, who had been with him in the Abstraction-Creation group, Hans Richter, creator of the first abstract films, the painter Jean Helion, once considered Mondrian's chief disciple, and James Johnson Sweeney.
Gradually Mondrian was becoming an active participant in New York art life. At parties and previews he never made an effort to attract people, always remaining unassuming, modest, and silent to the point of being inarticulate. "Cocktail parties are the best," he said; "you don't have to talk much and don't stay long." But his personality was so strong that it made itself felt without effort or intention on his part. Unworldly and innocent to the day he died, he participated in life and found it good. He appreciated people and enjoyed visitors, provided they timed their visits. He was not given to chitchat, but he loved to discuss the problems of art. Above all, he never became involved in the intrigues of art nor indulged in gossip. If anyone did, he lowered his eyes, puckered his mouth and murmured, "He makes conversation." When he was with artists in his field who respected and understood his work, he liked to show his paintings and exchange technical and aesthetic ideas. He would ask them for advice on the problem he was working on, indulgently making changes in a composition at their suggestion, moving a line or a plane or changing a color. After they were gone he would put it all back and go his own way—but going forward refreshed and stimulated by the contact.
Mondrian had the capacity of giving total attention to whatever he was doing at the time. For him there was never any daydreaming or reminiscing about the past. He lived in the ever-present moment, through the years, moving slowly but inevitably toward his goal. No one of all the revolutionary artists of our century carries the line of development so directly, step by step, in logical progression. He could focus his total being with equal conscientiousness on the humblest household task or a philosophical idea, on his writings or his paintings. Now he was focusing on the paintings. Resolutely he put his essays aside, to be taken up after his exhibition.
We had worked together over ten of the essays. A few were ready for publication, others in various stages of completion. I gave him back all his notes and catalogues and freshly typed copies of the manuscripts. Never again would he be able to devote himself so wholeheartedly to writing. Only when there was a specific demand for immediate publication did he return to it. This he did when Peggy Guggenheim, back from Europe and establishing a new gallery, asked him to contribute to her catalogue. For the exhibition of "Masters of Abstract Art" held at Helena Rubinstein's in T942, he revised his essay on "Pure Plastic Art." The last essay he wrote was done in 1943 for an American Abstract Artists' book published after his death.
Mondrian considered his writings of paramount importance. He wrote all his life. The essays in which he developed his philosophy were the foundation stone of the De Stijl movement; they gave it coherence and dynamic direction and produced a lasting influence on aesthetic thinking. For him, the theory of Neo-Plasticism was not a personal art expression, but a universal vision of the unity of life and art. "The way lies open to all," he wrote.
In his whole life, Mondrian had never had a one-man show. His recognition had been achieved in Europe through exhibiting in group shows-with Cercle et Carre, Abstraction-Creation and other artists' organizations. Living for almost a quarter of a century in Paris, the world's art center, he had met no dealer who offered to represent him. In the "big-time" art world, he was an odd apparition, a financial risk no established gallery would consider. He was approaching his seventieth year, and his forthcoming exhibition was to be one of the biggest events in his life.
His simple life was now organized around an all-out effort, to which his practical needs, daily tasks and association with others were all subordinated. He worked mostly at night, claiming that because of his health—he suffered from bronchitis—the mornings were not good. "There are night people and day people," he would say. One knew where he belonged. Frequently he would rest in bed late in the morning, but by early afternoon he was "in the work." Around five he would stop to take a little walk and do his shopping in the neighborhood. After his simple meal, and the meticulous washing up, he would set to work in earnest, always going at it slowly, methodically, but with ever-greater intensity as the night wore on.
For years he had worked by gaslight in Paris. Now all his lights were blazing, and back and forth he paced in his slippers (still the pair Gabo had given him in England), trying out a tape, stepping back to see the effect, moving it an eighth of an inch, shifting a rectangle up or down, his head cocked at an angle, evaluating the visual effect—an endless process of establishing new relationships until the bright little room seemed to hum harmoniously with his intent mental activity, to which his steps and movements were an accompanying ritualistic dance. Here was the visible demonstration of the dissolution of opposites—person and object, artist and painting—in a continuous, liberated rhythm from which there appeared something that had not existed before: step by step, the emerging work of art, the independent equilibrated entity living on its own terms.
On such evenings, shuttling back and forth, Mondrian must have covered several miles, but he was as unaware of this as he was of anyone's presence or of the world outside. If I was present when he became lost in absorption, I would get up to leave. He would say, "No, stay, be as you are at home," and continue with the work. Or again, "Yes, it is time to go now. You will get into the painting."
Often, harassed by problems that arose in composition, he was unable to break through to a solution. "For two months, every day I have changed that line, and it does not come right," he would say. Or again, "You know there is always more than one solution to a problem." But once the choice was made, it was followed out logically to a definite conclusion. "Oh, the work is so difficult," was the usual plaint. The work moved forward, however, and one by one the European paintings were completed; new color planes and lines were added, and the white backgrounds were repainted in his exact and plastic brushwork. And as he worked, the aspiring austerity of his European canvases was vanishing in a quickened rhythm, vibratory and radiant, the response to the new world of America.
Mondrian's exhibition opened on January 19, 1942, at Valentine Dudensing's gallery on East 57th Street. Someone had told him that it was not proper to attend the preview, and so, much as he wished to be present, he denied himself that pleasure. Many artists came to do him honor and were disappointed not to find him there. But the exhibition was an instantaneous success. Beautifully arranged by Valentine Oudensing, his late white canvases hung in the front room; also included in the show were some of the Paris "Facades," the Cubist works and the "Plus-Minus" drawings, as well as paintings and water colors of his early flowers. For the first time the public was able to see his work in all its fullness, and critics could appraise his development and assess the importance of his contribution to modern art. Among those who bought his work were Katherine Dreier, Peggy Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. With the even then relatively modest prices, Mondrian was suddenly independent, and could henceforth live from his work. All of this had to be reported to him that evening, for he spent that eventful afternoon working on a lecture he was to deliver shortly under the auspices of the American Abstract Artists.
Mondrian now began to exert a far wider influence on the public than he ever had in Europe. Perhaps never before in his life had he experienced such a harmony as now existed between his personality and work and the intimate circle of his friends and the growing esteem of the wider public. His life changed accordingly as more people came into it. Among those who now gathered around" him were Sandy Calder, Sweeney, Max Ernst, who had just married Peggy Guggenheim, Fritz Glarner and the Helions. He went to dinner with them and attended artists' festivities, including Hans Richter's monthly cocktail parties, where gathered the avant-garde and the exiled artists, among them Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp and Leger. Brentano's displayed a painting of his in their Fifth Avenue windows. A Canadian firm published a small brochure in the De Stijl manner with an illustration of one of his paintings.
At this time the avant-garde was numerically smaller, and most of the galleries were located on East 57th Street. There was a great esprit de corps among the artists, and Mondrian made it a point, when he was not working, to attend the previews of artists whom he knew. Thus he became a familiar figure in his conservative gray clothes and gray felt hat tilted at a rakish angle. At his one and only lecture, which was read by Balcomb Greene, the artists jammed the Nierendorf Gallery and stood outside on the stairs. One traditional European artist left in a huff, fulminating against such "dictatorial ideas"; the majority listened with respect.
Mondrian himself could be liberal in his appreciation of other art expressions—perhaps because he usually stood so far outside them. On viewing the Museum of Modern Art collection, he found an Edward Hopper landscape "very good, but a little too romantic." But standing in front of the Picassos he remarked, with a degree of impatience, "I'm surprised you do not see how pictorial he is." He added, "You must understand that from the beginning I was always a realist, and my work now is a new realism." In writing "Toward the True Vision of Reality" he dictated, "At the moment, there is no need for art to create a reality of the imagination based on appearances, events or traditions." So he had little enthusiasm for works of art in which fantasy. Surrealist elements and lyricism played a large part. Yet he could look at varied expressions with a certain dispassionate appreciation. One day, coming from an exhibition of Salvador Dali's paintings, I criticized the work.
"Nevertheless, Dali is very plastic," Mondrian said.
"Don't you realize that he called your work the 'Maniacal squares of Monsieur Mondrian'?"
"No matter, he is plastic," was the answer.
But the nearer one approached Mondrian's own field, the more uncompromising he became. From those artists who professed to accept Neo-Plasticism he expected complete allegiance. He would gently wrestle over a point, anxious to be understood, returning again and again to the matter. "I am afraid I was not clear enough . . . for you write not to be able to integrate what you knew in the past with what you know now about art. Tell me when you come what are the difficult points, perhaps I can clarify it." When asked why he had never visited Picasso, he answered, "He is always a great pictorial artist, but he did not continue the way of Cubism." And he dismissed a discussion on Kandinsky with "I do not hold with him."
For the last eighteen months of his life, until his death on February 1, 1944, Mondrian was occupied almost exclusively with painting two canvases: Broadway Boogie-Woogie and Victory Boogie-Woogie. In them he resolutely cut the ties that bound him to Europe, to that life which was then being abolished by the war, and set out in unknown territory toward a new world in the making, which he was never to see.
One afternoon when I called on Mondrian, he came to the door in a mood of suppressed excitement, and pattering back to the bedroom returned immediately, holding out -a small sheet of paper. "Last night I dreamed a new composition," he said. I saw a drawing traced freely in pencil, not so much a sketch as a fragile notation of his idea. That idea grew during the long winter months of 1942. In their initial stages, both Boogie-Woogie pictures were conceived in lines of primary color and seemed a continuation of New York (1942) and the two related compositions that remain unfinished in tape. Mondrian alternated in working on the two pictures, and at one period Victory Boogie-Woogie was declared complete. At that time, it was a composition of unbroken primary colors. The next time I saw the picture, it had been destroyed and was in process toward "a new solution." The white plane bore the marks of struggle; the long colored lines were broken up into small rectangles, cut by various large planes, and tiny pieces of tape were superimposed everywhere on the surface. This was to happen again and again, so that under Victory Boogie-Woogie lie buried six or seven different solutions, each of which might have been a complete picture.
Weeks later I found him painting on Broadway Boogie, and he was just putting a yellow rectangle in the center of a red plane. "But that doesn't go with your theory," I exclaimed.
"Does it work?" he asked, and standing back to look he said, "Yes, it works." After an interval of painting he continued, "You should know that all my paintings were done first and the theory was derived from them. So, perhaps now we will have to change the theory." Gradually it became plain that he was moving from the severely architectonic toward a new solution, polyphonic and complex. His major chord of primary color was expanding, and a new determined structure was arising, lighter, more liberated, enriched by an ornamental fullness like jeweled mosaic, achieved through pure plastic means.
Broadway Boogie-Woogie, completed first, was shown in 1943 in a joint exhibition of Mondrian and Maria, the Brazilian sculptress, at the Dudensing Gallery. Afterward, Moise Kiesling, who had just finished a portrait of Maria, gave a cocktail party, attended by many artists, both European and American. It was a gay occasion and Mondrian was in his most vivacious mood. Shortly afterward the Museum of Modern Art acquired Broadway Boogie for their collection.
In the fall of 1943 Mondrian moved to a new studio at 15 East 59th Street. Located around the corner from Fifth Avenue, in a row of old studio buildings since torn down, it had space and light, for there were still low buildings in that block. The many small shops gave the atmosphere of a Parisian street, and Mondrian felt at home here. He was in the heart of Manhattan, and he loved the bustle and excitement of the city. The studio had belonged to the painter Boris Margo, who was moving and kindly offered it to him. Mondrian was busy for weeks, transforming its appearance with colored rectangles on the walls and new furniture he made out of egg crates, elegantly rectilinear and painted chastely white. Then he was ready and eager to complete Victory Boogie-Woogie, for he had a new picture in mind, larger, and much better, he declared.
He was not without intimation that time was running out for him. He must have looked back to his past occasionally. Sitting on a bench by the East River, he remarked how much the sky line of Queens with its low houses and church spires reminded him of Amsterdam. And several times he expressed the wish to look at the sea again. But when the opportunity offered, he refused. He never spoke Dutch here and said he never wished to return to Holland. He had taken out his first papers for American citizenship; he had come to New Amsterdam and here he would stay.
In New York City he saw elements from which a new life could be molded. This was the most modern city in the world—and the most congenial environment in which he had ever lived. It offered, he felt, the material basis for a higher culture such as he had dreamed of, a culture technically superior to the old, and classless, founded on democratic principles for the benefit of all. Here was the place where humanity could advance, pushed by necessity and invention into greater co-operation and greater freedom. Here it was possible to move toward that goal where the spiritual and material would become better equilibrated, where art and the environment would no longer stand opposed, but become one in a larger unity: a truly human society based on a culture of relationships. Mondrian remained a Utopian to the end; all the horrors of destruction taking place never shook his confidence. He saw the war as the inexorable struggle toward an end, and after it, a new period of construction such as the world had never seen before.
He never tired of the visual delights of New York City. Everywhere he went he saw parallels with his ideas and work. In some cases these were the result of his anonymous influence. The geometric patterns of modern linoleum, the black and white tiles of Riker's lunch counters, the carefully proportioned shapes of windows, the spare verticals of skyscrapers-were these not related to the De Stijl compositions of the First World War?
It was New York at night that most enchanted him. Under the cover of darkness, all that was old, disintegrating and primitive vanished, and a new city was born: the city of the future. This city, constructed of straight lines of colored light, rose in delicate but determined structures against the deep black of the sky. The ground pattern of its straight streets was revealed through the staggered procession of red and green and yellow lights, the planes of store windows and advertising signs brilliantly illuminated. It was an abstract geometric construction made by men out of necessity and a desire to grow. All the nostalgia of deep space was vanquished by the conceptual image of the pure plane.
The era of electric light was still a miracle to Mondrian—a proof of man's advancement. On summer evenings he used to delight in strolling along 57th Street from First to Fifth Avenue, walking toward the ever taller buildings. The evening he saw his own picture brightly illuminated in the window of the Dudensing Gallery was an event—the meeting of his work with life. It was out of the nocturnal pageant of New York that he wove the liberated staccato rhythms of the Boogie-Woogie pictures.
These works celebrate the city of man—the city as symbol of transformation—just as the medieval age celebrated the city of God. Mondrian's late work is a paean of praise to the great cities of the twentieth century. For him they were the place of action where the struggle for a better world must take place. In his last years he forswore his abstract titles for concrete names: Trafalgar Square, Place de la Concorde, Broadway Boogie-Woogie. Three cities shaped him, and he in turn shaped them into a plastic image—a concrete image of how they could be made whole, and how man could find himself through them.
The perfectibility of man—this is the recurrent dream that has haunted the history of Western culture from the Greek philosophers and artists to the men of our time. Mondrian's vision of reality is nothing other than that dream continued in different terms on another level. He not only moved forward but penetrated to the roots of Western culture. In this sense he may be termed the most traditional of all the moderns. Step by step he destroyed the ephemeral accretions and false superimpositions on the culture of art, gradually uncovering the living structure beneath and revealing it plastically for all to see. In the same way he looked beneath the appearance of things to find universal laws, declaring them to be the same in the aesthetic and the moral sphere.
Being and becoming, time and eternity, are the great polar forces which constitute life, Mondrian declared. He never sought to deny their dual action, accepting both the multiplicity of nature and the contradictions of everyday life, but seeing a unity within them. Man's life, life in time, could only be tragic, but the life of the individual could become ever more equilibrated through conscious effort; the work of art, in creating equilibrium, offers the means. Nothing that belongs to life was suppressed in Mondrian's work-neither good nor evil. The struggles, suffering, cruelties and injustices were distilled into a plastic expression of determined space relations and liberated rhythms. All oppositions were dissolved in the white square into a great stillness of being, fused into essence in detachment and compassion.