Throughout adulthood, Mondrian led an itinerant life, moving between Amsterdam, the Dutch countryside, Paris, London, and New York. While several relocations were essential, spurred by the threats of World War I and World War II, they also fed the artist creatively. On several occasions, moving sparked radical shifts in his work. One such break came in the summer of 1914, when Mondrian returned to Holland after a two-year stint in Paris, where he’d been absorbing the tenets of Cubism. By leaving the Cubist hotbed, Mondrian was able to further develop his unique approach to abstraction and move stylistically away from
, from whom he’d learned much from.
Between 1914 and 1916, working from the small town of Domburg, Mondrian developed a series of abstract drawings and paintings inspired by the façade of a local church. By translating this concrete form into vertical and horizontal lines in canvases like Composition 10 in Black and White (1915) and Composition 1916, he began his quest to dissolve the figure-ground relationship. This was “his nearly exclusive focus from 1917 to 1919, and an essential component of his pictorial program until the end of his life,” as Joop Joosten and Angelica Zander Rudenstine explained in the 1994 MoMA catalogue. By 1918, grids filled with rectangular planes of color began to emerge on Mondrian’s canvases.
Likewise, his final departure from the Netherlands and return to Paris in June 1919 precipitated another profound development: a complete abandonment of the regular grid and shifting color gradations in favor of irregular grids and a restrained palette. For the latter works, he only employed primary colors (red, yellow, blue) and what he described as non-colors (black, white, gray). In a December 1919 letter to Van Doesburg, Mondrian described a new composition that characterized this shift: “I have now made a painting that pleases me more that [sic] all my previous work.…It has been a long quest.” By 1920, he’d finished Composition with Yellow, Red, Black, Blue, and Gray, “the first genuinely neo-plastic picture,” according to Joosten and Rudenstine.
Mondrian’s last significant move came in 1940, when he boarded a ship to New York. Again, relocation inspired a radical new direction in his practice: Here, rather than employing only black lines to demarcate his grids, he introduced multicolored delineations. In paintings like Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red (1937–42) and Composition No. 9 (1939–42), “the impression of playfulness reappears, with intersecting lines in different colours producing visually brilliant, flickering effects,” Deicher wrote.
Several canvases, like Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43), painted in the years before the artist’s death in 1944, completely eschewed black. Built from small intersecting cubes of various hues, the works pulse with the energy of Manhattan’s crowded streets and the boogie-woogie music Mondrian obsessively sought out in the city. In these paintings, “the systematic contrast between colour and non-colour disappears completely,” Deicher continued. “Here in this city he no longer staked out an imaginary terrain for a new life, in strict demarcation from reality.”