Mondrian and The American Abstract Artists
By Ward Jackson
Reproduced with Permission from the Ward Jackson Estate
Mondrian and The American Abstract Artists is an attempt to identify in a linear fashion Mondrian’s involvement with members of the AAA from the thirties to his death in 1944. George L. K. Morris had met Mondrian in 1929–30 while studying with Leger in Paris, Fritz Glaner had been his friend from the same period, as had Jean Xceron. Mondrian attended Xceron’s exhibition at the Gallerie de France in Paris in 1931. In May 1933, A. E. Gallatin visited Mondrian’s studio and bought Mondrian’s Composition with Blue and Yellow, 1932, for his Gallery of Living Art a New York University. The following year he bought another work from Mondrian. Burgoyne Diller saw these works in Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art and told his friend Harry Holtzman about them since they both had been making experimental abstract paintings. Holtzman was so impressed by the work of Mondrian that he went to Paris to meet him, thus started a friendship between two which was to continue until Mondrian’s death. Holtzman became like a son to Mondrian. In December of 1935 George L. K. Morris visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris and bought Composition with Blue, 1935 which he owned until 1947. His wife Suzy Frelinghuysen never liked the painting and sold it to Rose Fried. In June 1936 Morris was in Paris for the exhibition Five American Concretionists. Mondrian attended the opening and viewed Morris’ work on exhibition. Morris visited Mondrian’ studio again and bought Composition White, Black and Red, 1936, on behalf of the Advisory Committee of the Museum of Modern Art on which he served. Also in 1936 Gallatin bought a related work Composition in White and Red for his Gallery of Living Art.
In 1938 Mondrian sent letters to Kiesler, Jean Xceron, and Holtzman asking for an invitation to come to America so that he could flee the coming war. Gallatin arranged an exhibition of seven works by Mondrian at his Gallery of Living Art in 1939. Mondrian received a visa and arrived in New York on October 3, 1940. Holtzman meets him at the boat and helps him find his first studio on the third floor of 353 East 56th Street on the corner of First Avenue. By October 17th he has made a sketch for New York, 1940–41. Mondrian completes the essay Morris has commissioned for the The Partisan Review but withdraws it when Morris suggests cuts in the text. Mondrian and Leger are asked to join the AAA November 30, 1940 and on January 3, 1941 Mondrian accepts the invitation, an in late January, George L. K. Morris and Suzy Frelinghuysen give a party for the AAA to welcome Mondrian and Leger. Mondrian shows his painting New York with the AAA in its annual exhibition held from 6 to 23 February 9 to 23 February 1941 at the Riverside Museum. New York, Mondrian’s first painting since arriving, was composed entirely of black lines. In its second state as Boogie Woogie, New York, 1941 – 42 he adds the red lines and blue and yellow planes.
Mondrian’s work already had impact on members. Balcomb Greene’s Composition, 1940, which had suggestions of a horizontal and vertical field with cubist linear symbols; Lassaw’s Intersecting Rectangles of 1940 was elated to Mondrian’s work; But only Holtzman, Diller and Glarner had worked exclusively with neo-plastic principles while Mondrian was still alive. Burgoyne Diller used color bands that function as lines, and his late constructions predicted the minimal era that followed later. Xcereon, whose black linear grid came out of the work of Mondrian, added a diffused light emenating from the grid. Bolowtowsky did not begin his neo-plastic work until after Mondrian died. Glarner had been experimenting with neo-plastic principles but did not find his late style until after Mondrian’s death. He made paintings wjhose interior movement was dictated by an arrangement of fifteen degree slanted planes. Holty was a close friend of Mondrian but still constructed his paintings with curvilinear elements. Alice Trumbull Mason, I. Rice Pereira, and Lee Krasner were at one time all directly influenced by Mondrian while later exhibiting with the AAA. Esphyr Slobodkina knew Mondrian but was not influenced directly. Suzy Frelinghuysen recalled visiting Mondrian’s New York studio and being impressed by a long flat bar with no markings on it, which Mondrian used not for measurement, but to make a straight edge. From 1950 on George L. K. Morris built many of his paintings on an abstract linear perspective of fluctuating checkerboard squares. Morris had earlier visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris many times. Morris remarked that Mondrian was influenced by the patterns of painted flat walls on adjoining demolished buildings in Paris. These indirectly provoked horizontal and vertical divisions similar to Mondrian’s paintings.
Charmion von Wiengard was also in close contact with Mondrian and helped him develop his English skills for his writings and received personal criticism from Mondrian for her painting. She developed a more complicated style than Mondrian with a complete range of color including green, violet and orange which Mondrian omitted. Holtzman continued to visit Mondrian regularly as did other artists such as Helion, Xceron, Gallatin, Morris, Frelinghuysen, Glarner, Moholy-Nagy, Holty, Bolotowsky and other AAA members. On 23 January 1941 Balcomb Greene reads Mondrian’s Oppression and Freedom in Art at The Nierendorf Gallery sponsored by the AAA. Mondrian participates in the American Abstract Artists Sixth Annual Exhibition at The Fine Arts Gallery 9 – 23 March 1942. In June 1942 Mondrian begins work on Broadway Boogie Woogie which is recorded by Charmion von Wiegand in a June 13 sketch. Von Wiegand writes in a journal in October 1942 that the solid lines in both works have given way to small blocks of colors. From 15 March – 25 April 1943 Mondrian participates in the American Abstract Artists exhibition at The Riverside Museum. Mondrian finished the essay A New Realism written for the AAA but it does not appear until the 1946 AAA yearbook. In October 1943 Mondrian moves into his new studio at 15 East 59th Street near Central Park. On January 10, 1944 von Wiegand observes Mondrian working on Victory Boogie Woogie. Holtzman visits Mondrian on January 21, 1944 and the painting is in final taped state. Glarner visits Mondrian January 23 and finds he has a bad cold, but is still working on the painting. Glarner revisits him on the 26th of January to find Mondrian deathly ill, and he is taken to Murray Hill Hospital 30 East 40th Street. His health declines and he dies early in the morning of the first of February. Sweeny, Holtzman, Glarner, Richter, and von Wiegand are at the hospital with him. A memorial service is held at the Universal Chapel on Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street and Mondrian was interred at the Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn. Attending his funeral were many of the original AAA members: Diller, Bolotowsky, Holtzman, Shaw, Mason, Lassaw, Frelinghuysen, Morris, von Wiegand, Richter, Glarner, Xceron, Gallatin and also Helion and Leger. As George L. K. Morris observed, “The barren cemetery in Brooklyn, where his friends had followed him as far as they could, brought out perhaps the last turnout of the original membership.”
1. With acknowledgement to the chronology compiled by Joop Joosten and Angelica Zander Rudenstine in Piet Mondrian. 1872 – 1944, Bulfinch Press, 1994, from which the dates in this piece were verified.