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Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue

Piet Mondrian, Composition No. II, with Red and Blue, oil on canvas, 1929 (original date partly obliterated; mistakenly repainted 1925 by Mondrian). Oil on canvas, 15 7/8 x 12 5/8" (40.3 x 32.1 cm) (The Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Beth Harris: Here we are at the Museum of Modern Art and we're looking at Mondrian's Composition No. II with Red and Blue and the date is 1929. Dr. Steven Zucker: Even now the canvas actually says 1925 with a little initial by the artist incorrectly. Beth: Well, you know, artists do that sometimes. They make mistakes. Steven: They do and that especially happens when artists go back later and try to date paintings that they had done earlier. We're looking at a really tough painting. I mean, here's a painting that, and the title certainly is a perfect reference. This is rectilinear form. It's this rectangle that has white and blue and red and black and that's it. This is a kind of incredible, pure abstraction. Beth: And it's a wild thing to see after walking in from the previous room, which has Monet's Waterlilies and paintings by Vuillard and Bonnard ... Steven: Which is all naturalistic. this right, figurative, western tradition and then you walk in here and it's in modernism. Steven: It's so austere. It is modernism and it's seemingly ... Beth: And the white walls of the gallery look different. Everything looks different. Steven: Even the frames are incredibly spare. Incredible. Beth: I don't know that they're even framed, in a way. Steven: Yeah, they're almost platform. How does a viewer get access to the meaning of a painting like this? I mean, can you just look at it and sort of feel a certain way about it? Is that enough or is this something that we really, sort of, want to pull apart in an artist-orical matter? Beth: I think probably both. I mean, I think the presence of the earlier Mondrian's in the gallery, the ones that look more like analytic cubism shed some light on Mondrian's use of a grid here. Steven: Yeah, because in fact, Mondrian did start out replicating nature in a much more direct way. Sometimes with wild symbolist color, but it actually does help when you look at these, sort of, grids that Mondrian ends up with to understand that he began by really looking at analytic cubism and looking at the relation of the way an object falls over a ground and a way in which the ground between forms actually becomes evermore present, evermore powerful. There are those fabulous images. Beth: Trees? Steven: Yeah, exactly. Beth: The trees, yeah. Steven: The flowering apple trees, for instance, where the sky between the bows takes on a kind of physicality and a kind of presence that is actually overwhelming of the branches themselves. Beth: I think that began with Picasso with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, when the space between the figures is, and maybe even with Sezand is just this palpable as the volumes themselves. Steven: So the conversation is really not with the apple tree ultimately, but with what's happening in the canvas. This sort of, very formal discussion. So, this is a system that he called neoclassicism, right? And we have this incredibly reduced kind of pallet, obviously, pure. Beth: Primary colors. Steven: Right and black and white. Although if you look at the bottom right corner, the white, the rectangle is ... Beth: It looks a little grey. Steven: It's a little off-grey and I don't know if that's original, if that's intentional, but Mondrian was very careful. You know what's interesting is actually when you're up close looking at this canvas it's very much like the Malevich. It's actually got the human touch to it. He's not obliterating his brush strokes. Beth: No, you can see the brush strokes. It's not painterly. Steven: No, but within the very, sort of, simplified format of the canvas it does actually seem like it's got a bit of factor to where it is kind of painterly, even in this context where as in a dellaquila, of course, this would not be. You know it's ... Beth: It's not an Andy Warhol print. Steven: No, it's a made thing. Beth: So, why choose the primary colors? Why is he using black? Steven: I think it's about purity. I think he's trying to get to an elemental kind of purity and a kind of elemental balance as well. I mean, when I see this, I see that blue in some ways, held in place, and the red held in place by those black bars almost as if it's the grid of a stained glass window, but at the same time, I see other things, much more complex things begin to happen where the blue pushes forward, the red can, in a sense, see back into a rather deep space. I think that there's an incredible kind of play of harmony that exists, not only as a left right balance, but as a vertical balance and perhaps even a balance that has to do with what moves towards us and what, in a sense, creates the illusion of space. Beth: Moving back. Black usually recedes, doesn't it? Steven: It does, but in this case it can recede, but it can also be a kind of forward armature in which those planes of color are placed. Except that those planes refuse, also, to be planes. Beth: In what way? Steven: Well, I can see that red as having real volume, having the kind of volume that goes back in space, which is interesting because in Matisse's case, red often pushes forward. Here, it can exist forward, but it could also have, it has a kind of wonderful ambiguity and a kind of plasticity visually, so that I think it can really move back. Beth: So, let me ask you. Why is Mondrian so interested in purity at this moment in 1925 or '29, so interested in balance, so interested in reducing things to their basic elements. Steven: Well, think about what's going on in the world in the '20's. Europe had just ... Here we have a Dutch artist. He's just come out of the first world war. Europe had been devastated. Steven: And I think that there was this incredibly Utopian notion that art could have a kind of agency that could help to actually create harmony in the world. Beth: To, sort of, rebuild the future in a better way. Steven: It's really Utopian. That is, if we can construct balance and harmony in our surroundings, in our architecture and our painting, in our visual and physical world ... Beth: Environment. Steven: Then perhaps we can have that harmony in politics and in life throughout. Beth: I guess that vision makes sense, but it's so hard to recapture. I feel like we're so jaded now. Steven: We are. There was a kind of heroism. A sense of possibility. Beth: And that artists could be part of that transformation, now seems a little bit misplaced in a way. Steven: It's an extraordinary hopefulness and it's extraordinarily ironic considering that this man lived through, not only the first but ultimately the second world war in part as well. Beth: Yeah. (piano playing)