PRINT April 1973

Abstraction and Compositional Innovation

IT IS NOW GENERALLY agreed that the first paintings by Mondrian to evidence strictly conceived, geometric configurations of lines and planes are the Composition in Line (Fig. 7) and the two Compositions in Color A and B (Fig. 8 and S: c.c. 290). All three were exhibited in May, 1917, at the annual exhibition of De Hollandsche Kunstenaarskring in Amsterdam and, due to manifold traces of craquelure and overpainting, they plainly reflect a long process of search and experimentation. Indeed, already on May 7, 1916, in a letter to his patron, the Reverend H. van Assendelft, Mondrian excused his delay in sending a promised painting with the observation, “During the coming summer the ‘black-white’ will surely be finished; the postponement was due to another period of transition in my work, so that only now am I able to produce a complete ‘white and black’ in the new manner.”1 That this was the canvas ultimately exhibited as Composition in Line is documented by a photograph of it (Fig. 6) which Mondrian on July 15, 1916, sent to another patron, the art pedagogue H.P. Bremmer.2 After describing the work as “further along than the previous one,” Mondrian added that it was

not yet completely what it must be, even though more advanced. This work is in white and black, like the one which you recently bought from me. . . . you will be able to grasp the direction in which—according to my own modest idea—things must progress; that is, toward the greatest possible generalization of plastic form (toward the plastic representation of natural reality in its profoundest possible appearance.)3

Throughout the remainder of 1916 and early 1917 Mondrian continued to report his progress with the “black and white” and one of the two Compositions in Color A and B until he felt satisfied with his new, “rounded-off” manner and could promise that now, “Several other paintings will follow quickly.”4

What was this new, “rounded-off” manner, this “greatest possible generalization of plastic form” which had demanded more than a full year of hesitant gestation before fruition? The soundest measure of Mondrian’s progress is indicated in his reference to the earlier “black and white” purchased by Bremmer, the painting of 1915 known as Pier and Ocean (Fig. 3) from its subject setting along the beach at Domburg (Fig. 4) where the artist had visited and sketched during the year following his return from Paris in summer 1914. Whereas the various drawings which resulted from this experience (S: c.c. 226-30, 234-38) generally retain from the late Cubist phase of 1913–14 at least an occasional use of curved or diagonal lines and a vertical axis which can be interpreted as vestigial references to such natural phenomena as waves, clouds, and a double row of beach piers, the oil version virtually abandons all specific allusions to naturalistic detail. Instead, the system of sometimes crossing, sometimes freely floating vertical and horizontal lines is spread more or less evenly over the ovoid picture surface, with only a slight hint of the original natural subject remaining. Even the exclusion of positive color, for Mondrian always a plastic element which stands for the world of real objects (De Stijl, I, 3, 1918, p. 30), implies a wish to destroy all references to particularities of natural objects. Above all others, this painting is called to mind by Mondrian’s 1942 autobiographical account, “Observing sea, sky, and stars, I sought to indicate their plastic function through a multiplicity of crossing verticals and horizontals.”5 Thus, if not yet constituting “the greatest possible generalization of plastic form,” the Pier and Ocean nonetheless embraces a syncratic approach to the interpretation of a natural setting which scarcely, if at all, differentiates between the subject components of pier, water, and sky.

Mondrian finished only one other painting after his return from Paris, namely the Composition: 1916 (Fig. 5). When exhibited early in 1916, this work attracted considerable critical notice, particularly for its use of color:

. . . a composition, as [Mondrian] calls it, based upon the same intellectual principle [as his previous work], but including a novel color motif. It radiates more intensely than the other [examples] and it also contains a greater sense of movement.6

According to another critic, it embodied “a beautiful overflow of tonalities, the effect of which is enhanced because the canvas is placed upon the frame rather than within it.”7 This painting, too, derives from a specific subject in nature, the facade of the church at Domburg of which he also had made a series of charcoal sketches during his 1914–15 visits (S: c.c. 252-57), the use of color conceptually enhancing the relationship between pictorial imagery and natural reality. Yet, in other respects the Composition: 1916 appears more advanced along the path from Cubism to abstraction than the Pier and Ocean. The lines and colors are evenly spread throughout the picture plane, and the color is no longer strictly bound to its object, to its motif as form. This is reflected in the vestigial relation between the motif and the structure of vertical and horizontal lines. The compact, ovally circumscribed composition of Pier and Ocean is broken open and extended virtually to the framing edges, the first documented use of strip framing,8 (apparently slightly set back) which explains the critic’s reference to “the canvas [being] placed upon the frame,” demonstrating the conscious manner in which Mondrian closely identified picture surface with the pictorial composition. Only the vague articulation of the marginal areas may be considered a remnant of Cubist centripetality of composition. Nonetheless, if one is justified in identifying this work with the “high cathedral” mentioned by the artist in his 1942 autobiographical essay,9 then its vertical emphasis soon appeared to embody an “unequivalence” in which Mondrian discovered a sense of tragedy. Clearly, further search and development became necessary if a pictorial unity expressive of true equivalence was to be achieved.

Immediately upon recalling his recognition that “tragic unequivalence” is found “in a wide horizon or a high cathedral,” Mondrian recorded a definitive discovery in the realm of plastic representation that it is possible to associate with the struggle and breakthrough of the years 1916-early 1917:

At this point I became conscious that reality is form and space. Nature reveals form in space. Actually all is space, form as well as what we see as empty space. To create unity, art has to follow not nature’s aspect but what nature really is. Appearing in oppositions, nature is unity: form is limited space concrete only through its determination. Art has to determine space as well as form and to create the equivalence of these two factors. These principles were evolved through my work. In my early pictures, space was still a background. I began to determine forms: verticals and horizontals became rectangles. They still appeared as detached forms against a background; their color was still impure.10

In retrospect, Mondrian’s “second painting” of 1916, the unfinished Composition in Line known from the photograph sent to Bremmer, became the ground upon which he fought and finally won his battle for an “abstract-real” art freed from the last restraints of particularized natural appearance. Superficially reminiscent in composition to the Pier and Ocean, both in unfinished and finished state the Composition in Line betrays no traces of a vertical “pier” or horizontal “horizon” axis; it is not possible to state with any certainty that the composition is based upon a specific single or combination of motifs.11 Instead, we are confronted with a seemingly unlimited number of mostly crossing vertical and horizontal lines arranged within a field of constantly shifting peripheral and interior concentrations. The concentration of lines toward side and bottom areas of the field in the finished version can be likened to a drop of water on the point of bursting. Not only is the ovoid composition of the Pier and Ocean broken through, but the implied periphery of the elliptical field of geometrized lines in the Composition in Line appears as if slightly truncated by the picture frame. In sum, Mondrian has abandoned his practice of abstracting from specific instances of observed reality in favor of creating freely conceived patterns of geometric units which may be considered abstract in the sense of nonobjective, whether any generalized pictorial analogy with the “real” world was intended or not. Since a similar freedom in the creation and manipulation of the pictorial elements can be found in the Compositions in Color A and B, to the “lines” of which have been added similarly geometrized planes of color,12 all three paintings can be said to embrace the concept that “reality is form and space” and to support the implication that this context formed the basis of Mondrian’s stylistic experiments during the birth of the de Stijl movement. And although the achievement of this new style may well have owed some debt to the paintings of Bart van der Leck13 and the theoretical writings of Theo van Doesburg,14 it was chiefly from precedents found in his earlier oeuvre and a deeply meditated theory, that Mondrian’s own form of abstraction was first evolved.

Mondrian’s early 1917 promise to Bremmer that “several other [paintings] will follow quickly,”15 was confirmed by his sending eight works to the Hollandsche Kunstenaarskring exhibition held early in 1918. Press notices16 make clear that the “Compositions with Color Planes” series (S: c.c. 285-89), executed largely with blocks or planes of soft, delicate, pastellike hues upon a white ground, dominate in the works exhibited. Although often thought to represent no more than the Compositions in Color A and B without lines, these very nearly equal sized canvases (each measures approximately 19“ x 23 1/2”) from the later months of 1917 actually display a number of innovations and mutual differences. As illustrated by both Composition with Color Planes No. 5 (Fig. 10), and the gouache Composition with Color Planes on White Ground (Fig. 9), in contrast to the concentric character of the internal compositions of earlier paintings (from late Cubism through the works finished early 1917) Mondrian chose not only to arrange his compositional elements, the planes, in asymmetrical balance throughout the picture plane with no sense of formal consolidation, but also to enhance this effect of randomness by allowing some of the planes to be truncated by the framing edge. In this series of paintings, the feeling of arbitrarily selected and positioned plane upon a not truly encompassing background is further fortified by the artist’s use of relatively traditional frames which overlap the edges of the painting surface.17 In general, these works express a sense of confinement of the forms (i.e. the planes) and the spatial background. It is as if Mondrian had telescoped in upon some detail of an earlier protoabstract painting, which he then transformed according to the exigencies of his new geometric manner.

Division into two general types of composition within the group is also illustrated by our two chosen examples. The gouache version, on the one hand, employs a greater number of relatively small planes, which appear as a freely created configuration comprising several types of mutual relationship. The planes seem to float continuously against the spatial background in an optically unstable manner, as if captured during a moment of temporary suspension. Color Planes No. 5, on the other hand, manifests an opposing tendency: to anchor a limited number of relatively large planes within an imaginary framework of vertical lines as defined by the lateral edges of the planes, and by their projected extensions. To some degree, the uncolored intermediary areas of ground plane can be read as a complementary system of rectangulated planes, the individual identity of each defined by very slight tonal nuances and differences in brushwork direction. In this newer type of work the suggestions of floating and of optical distortion disappear and are replaced by an implied structure correlating the planes.

Contrary to general belief in a sharp break in Mondrian’s development at this point, one has merely to imagine a slight adjustment of planes and their further definition through a system of gray dividing lines and one can describe the group of three documented “compositions” of c. 191818 typified by Composition: 1918 (Fig. 11), a work illustrated with its frame in the March, 1919, issue of De Stijl. While not yet based upon a true grid of regularly spaced lines, many of the squares are equal to neighboring squares in at least one dimension and many of the lines serve as the common boundary for a series of adjacent squares. In any case, Mondrian has now abandoned, perhaps only temporarily, the distinction between form and space which had provided the rationale for his earliest de Stijl period works. As he wrote to Bremmer on February 27, 1918, in reference to his planned submissions to the Kunstenaarskring exhibition: “These eight pieces again represent a process of development in which I found a better solution for color planes and background. While working it struck me that for my work color planes upon a flat surface does not produce unity.”19

The historical significance of this last statement by Mondrian is crucial. It indicated a fundamental break with the simple form-space dualism of his early de Stijl phase, which can be considered a remnant of realist traditions reaching back at least to the Renaissance. Hereafter, and particularly in the grid-based works of 1918–19, Mondrian experimented in terms of a “made-space” which continues to have implications for abstract painting throughout the 20th century. He effected this transformation in his own work by the use of a quite elementary principle: the division of either a rectangular or square picture surface into 16 vertical and horizontal equally divided strips. This is not only the handiest of methods of division, but also the one which ensures that rectangular picture formats of whatever height to width relationship, as well as squares of course, will have grid units or modules of equal proportion to the whole picture surface. Finally, it means a total identification between the composition and the picture surface, which in effect resolved a problem that had concerned Mondrian since his first contact with Cubism.

As in the previous yearly phases of his development, a close study of the chronological sequence of paintings uncovers a logical progression that belies the apparent randomness of his general compositional designs. The initial essays in grid-based design are the Composition in Gray and Light Brown (S: c.c. 294) and the Composition in Gray (S: c.c. 295). The names of both are misleading, since the former, with its gray and ocher coloring and inscribed 1918 date, almost certainly was the “large work in gray and yellow” which figured as the eighth painting in the 1918 Kunstenaarskring exhibition20, and the latter was doubtless intended as another “black and white.”21 In these companion pieces, both left slightly unfinished, the underlying grid is not as forcefully asserted as a pictorial component as it was in the other seven examples. In the next five grids to be executed (S: c.c. 296-300),22 all use a perfect square format, while four are turned on a corner point to be viewed as lozenges and are divided equally between two in “black and white” (Fig. 12) and two with color planes (Fig. 13). The former type makes visible that as squares these lozenge paintings had been subdivided into units of eight, but that when turned on a point the vertical and horizontal divisions increase to the normal 16 from corner to opposite corner. Ironically, this system of relatively minuscule modules is expressively obscured in the versions with color planes. In these, the lines of the internal asymmetrical composition appear longer and the planes appear larger than if the painting had been executed as a square, as the artist himself testified.23

The series of grid paintings culminates and ends with the light and dark variants of the so-called Checkerboard Compositions (Fig. 14 and S: c.c. 293).24 Here again there is an ironic contrast: In combination with a grid the mathematical divisions of which are more visible than ever before, the dispersion of color planes appears more irregular, even uncontrolled than elsewhere among the grid paintings. One thinks back to the many small component elements and the bright colors of the Composition: 1916, which “radiated more intensely” and “contained greater movement” than in earlier paintings. Inevitably one also thinks forward to the “boogie woogie” paintings of the 1940s, in which related, if more complex, optical color juxtapositions are found. Whether or not intentionally returning in those late years to the investigations of the early de Stijl period, the analogy is striking. The kinetics of color, the figure-ground relationship and the very definition of the elements line, plane, and form appear to have engendered a greater variety of solutions and an increased tempo of development at the beginning and end of Mondrian’s abstract period than during the intervening years, and this despite the relatively few works which were produced. Hopefully this analysis uncovers some unrecognized interrelationships among Mondrian’s first nonfigurative paintings, and suggests the patience and doggedness with which his personal revolution in plastic expression was carried through.

––Joop P. Joosten



1. Rev. van Assendelft of Gouda collected works by Kandinsky, Marc, Severini, and by de Stijl artists. The present writer hopes shortly to publish in the Museumjournaal the 19 letters which Rev. van Assendelft received from Mondrian between July 30, 1914, and Ian. 6, 1919.

2. Bremmer was the adviser of the collector, Mrs. Kröller-Müller, and in March, 1916, had arranged that a monthly stipend be provided Mondrian in return for expected works of art.

3. Published in J.M. Joosten, “Documentatie over Mondrian III,” Museum-journaal, XIII: 1968, p. 322.

4. Ibid., p. 324 (letter dated March 7, 19173

5. “Toward the True Vision of Reality.” reprinted in The Documents of Modern Art: Piet Mondrian, ed. Robert Motherwell, New York, 1945, p. 13.

6. De Nieuwe Amsterdammer, April 1, 1916.

7. Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, March 22, 1916.

8. The frame appears in a photograph of the painting made at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, in 1946.

9. I.e.“Toward the True Vision,” p.13.

10. Ibid.

11. Cf. with view of Professor Welsh in accompanying article.

12. I.e. in respectively darker and lighter, but still impure, variations of the three primary colors: blue, red, and yellow.

13. Mondrian acknowledged a debt to the penultimate figural style of Van der Leck from c. 1915-16 in the “Dernier Numero” of De Stijl, Jan., 1932.

14. Van Doesburg’s series of article,“De Nieuwe Beweging in de Schilderkunst,” was published in the monthly journal De Beweging, May-Sept., 1916, before publication in book form in 1917. In this work the author called for a stress upon “mathematical forms” and the relationship between “space and content” in the plastic arts.

15. See note 4, above.

16. De Telegraal, March 19, 1918.

17. See Fig. 10, for an apparently specially designed double strip frame; other paintings in the series, now without frames, betray margins along the edges where overlapping frames were added, after which the remaining exposed surface was again painted over.

18. I.e. Fig. 11, 5: c.c. 301 and a recently discovered work known only from a surviving photograph published in Museumiournaal, XVII: 1972, p. 273 (special issue devoted to early abstract art in the Netherlands).

19. Museumiournaal XIII: 1968, p. 236. Mondrian then added, “This manner works for Van der Leck, whose manner is different anyway.”

20. Ibid.

21. This painting was also misdated by Mondrian while in New York to 1915.

22. Press notices (De Nieuwe Amsterdammer, March 8. 1919, and De Amsterdammer, May 10, 19181 make clear that 5: c.c. 299 and 300 were being exhibited at the spring exhibition of the Kunstenaarskring.

23. In letter to 1.1. Sweeney reproduced in the latter’s “Mondrian: The Dutch and De Stijl,” Art News, L: 1951, p. 25.

24. These works were exhibited only in the Kunstenaarskring exhibition of 1920. That in light colors once bore an overlapping frame, while that in dark colors was painted to the edges of the picture surface.