The Subject Matter of Abstraction

WHICH ARTIST, AT WHAT DATE, and in what specific work of art created the first truly abstract or nonobjective painting? The intensity of the debate surrounding this question has not been tempered by evidence that supposedly contending early 20th-century painters were originally little concerned with the issue of precedence. This patent-office approach to the history of modern art confuses the issue of “invention” in art with science; it also obviates the importance of divergent individual approaches. The question, apparently, held no great interest for Piet Mondrian, whose earliest abstract works have been identified with dates as widely separate as 1913 and 19171, since he never discussed it in print. It is nonetheless of considerable importance to an understanding of the content of Mondrian’s work, especially at the moment of birth of the de Stijl movement, and can be discussed most

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