Piet Mondrian. Composition in Brown and Gray. 1913 5040

Oil on canvas, 33 3/4 x 29 3/4" (85.7 x 75.6 cm). Purchase

Narrator: This is one of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s earliest abstract compositions. Mondrian began by sketching a tree, reworking the image so that the branches were regularized into horizontal and vertical lines. For Mondrian, these lines symbolized the opposing forces governing the world, and they came to structure all of his paintings from this point on. Curator Leah Dickerman:

Curator, Leah Dickerman: If you look at the picture, you see that it becomes much brushier and less defined around the edges. And this was a particular problem for the first generation of abstract artists. How do you define the edge? It was no longer a clean boundary between a thing and the rest. You don't know what's foreground and background. And that was a problem that Mondrian kept working on again and again throughout his career.

Narrator: Mondrian made this painting as a young artist living in Paris, where he saw Pablo Picasso’s cubist work.

Curator, Leah Dickerman: The innovations of Picasso’s artwork in the years from 1910 to 1913, the breaking up and fracturing of forms had sent a shockwave through Mondrian’s mind in the way that it had for so many other artists. And in response to that, Mondrian changed his practice dramatically and set many of the principles that would structure his work for the years to come. But he was also critical of Picasso and said that he didn't go far enough; that he didn't see the logical implications of his own work, and that those implications were abstraction. He continued, from this point on, pushing further and further towards a systematic language for abstraction.

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