Nicholas Fox Weber photo: © Charlotte Fox Weber, 2019
Piet Mondrian, Composition in Blue and White, 1935, Oil on canvas 41 x 38",
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund,
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut Photo Credit: HIP / Art Resource, NY
Nicholas Fox Weber on his forthcoming biography on the artist
with Deanna Sirlin
Piet Mondrian, Composition, 1936, Oil on canvas,28 3/4 x 26 1/16" The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Nicholas Fox Weber is writing a biography on the 20th century artist Piet Mondrian. NFW has previously written biographies on Le Corbusier and Balthus, as well as a recent a book, Anni & Josef Albers / Equal and Unequal. As a cultural historian, he writes about artists from a perspective that is both discerning and personal.
NFW first encountered Mondrian at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut when he was 10 years old. NFW was there for the opening of an exhibition in which his mother had a painting. Allowed to wander through the galleries alone and climb the spiral staircase to the third floor, he came back to report to his father that he had found “something I loved as much as skiing and hiking to mountain tops” his two passions in life. His father came upstairs to see which painting his son was so excited about and said, “‘Very good, Nicky, that is a painting by an artist called Mondrian.’ It was, I learned decades later, the first Mondrian ever purchased by an American museum.” That work was Mondrian’s Composition in Blue and White, 1935.
After learning about NFW’s first Mondrian encounter, I began to think about my knowledge of Mondrian and where I first saw his work. I am quite sure I saw Composition No. II, with Red and Blue,1929 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a child sometime around 1965 and later when I returned to New York City for my graduate school years, when MoMA had a show titled The Art of Twenties (on view during 1979 and 1980). I learned that this work was purchased for $350 from Mondrian’s Paris studio by the architect Philip Johnson in 1936. In 1941, Johnson gave the work to MoMA.
Models wearing Saint Laurent-inspired ensembles at the Detroit Auto Show, 1966 Photograph © Car & Driver
I’ve also been thinking about the Yves St. Laurent Mondrian dress that was part of St. Laurent’s Fall and Winter collection of 1965-66.
I had a “knock-off” version that I wore to elementary school with my white go-go boots. I was completely fixated on this knock-off dress.
I have no idea how my mother knew I would love this dress, but indeed I did, and I connect wearing it with the painting I had seen at MoMA the same year. The Yves St. Laurent dress is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, though it is not currently on view. NFW told me that Mondrian would have hated the dress, but I wonder. I am sure he would have hated my knock-off. But since Mondrian treated both his studio and his living spaces as three-dimensional versions of his work by placing cardboard placards of red yellow and blue in them, he might have appreciated the integration of art and life St. Laurent’s dress represents. Mondrian wanted to live in his work and make his life and world into a Gesamtkunstwerk.
I am grateful to NFW for this dialogue on his forthcoming book on this great artist.
Piet Mondrian in his studio with Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow Lines (1933) and Composition with Double Lines and Yellow (1934). Paris, October 1933. Collection RKD, Netherlands Institute for Art History. Photo credit Charles Karsten.
Deanna Sirlin: Piet Mondrian was one of the most important artists of the 20th century. There are many books and exhibitions about the art, yet there are very few biographies. Why do you think this is the case? What drew you to write a biography of Mondrian? How long have you been working on this book?
Nicholas Fox Weber: I think that there is a hunger for biographies of people known to have lived dramatic or colorful lives; either they have the reputations already, or their work implies it. And then there are the issues of coincidence—a writer being attracted to a subject. In the case of this book, the genesis was very simple. Nick Serota has long been an attentive and generous reader of my books. And we have a nice friendship. About a dozen years ago, I was with him and said that I figured that I had one big biography left in me—they take about a decade from start to finish—and I wondered who among the twentieth century masters had never been the subject of one. Nick named Léger and Mondrian. I told him that when I was ten years old I saw the great abstract Mondrian at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up, and that I got my father to look at it with me and explain that I loved the painting in front of me the way that I loved skiing and hiking to mountain tops. He told me that the artist’s name was Mondrian. Now, half a century later, I was eager to know what it was in Mondrian’s work that could make it have that impact on a kid. The wish for an answer was good reason for a biography.
Mondrian's studio, 26, Rue du Départ, 1929
Rosie Ney, Georges Vantongerloo, Lancelot Ney, Tine Vantongerloo, Michel Seuphor & Piet Mondrian courtesy sartle.com
DS: Why is understanding the person important to understanding the work?
NFW: I am not sure that understanding the person is important to understanding the work. “Understanding” either—the man or the work—can add to the experience of seeing it, but it is the seeing and feeling that come first.
DS: What is your process in writing this particular biography?
NFW: I started by going to the archive at the Beinecke Library at Yale, because it was convenient to me. And I acquired every book written about the artist. And I quickly got to anyone I knew or knew of who might have known Mondrian firsthand. And I found an utterly brilliant Dutch-speaking research assistant, without whose guidance I would not be anywhere with this book.
Mondrian explains his reason not to participate in an American Abstract Artists (AAA) exhibition. To AAA, founding member Gertrude Greene (1904 - 1956), Mondrian writes, "I am glad to hear you and [Balcomb] both are well. I shall send the $4 dues to Mr. Cavallon. I am very sorry about not showing at the A.A.A. but I don't like to come with old works at a such [sic] important exhibit. Harry Holtzman is still in Kansas waiting for the service, I think. I did not hear from them. Hoping to meet you again at the opening A.A.A." . courtesy https://www.abebooks.com
DS: How has your experience of writing this biography about Mondrian been different from writing about Le Corbusier or Balthus?
NFW: Totally. You begin to get into the thoughts of your subject. If you don’t find yourself becoming your subject, you still constantly ask what he would have done or felt in certain situations. So the experience of writing has been as different as each of those three is from one another.
DS: Mondrian lived through turbulent times – two world wars, the Spanish flu and the Great Depression. How do you think these global catastrophes affected him?
NFW: His whole life was devoted to making art that did not reveal “the tragic.” He constantly sought an alternative that made the global catastrophes bearable. I discovered that one of his favorite books was a memoir written by a Dutch solider during WWI – actually letters to the man’s mother and sister—and everything in it is about fortitude and about finding the beauty of art no matter what. All that happened in the world around him just increased Mondrian’s desire to provide sheer joy through his art.
Piet Mondrian, Composition with Double Line (unfinished),1934, 57 x 55 cm
Charcoal and oil on canvas, Private Collection
DS: Are there insights you gained by reading all of Mondrian’s letters. What was the most interesting thing about Mondrian that you have discovered through your research?
NFW: I discovered, alas, that he was obsessed with his colds and flus, and that, while he was polite, he was clearly not very interested in anyone else. He was warm as could be toward humanity overall, to life itself, but he did not connect with other individuals, except to fend them off.
DS: Did Josef and Anni Albers speak about Mondrian to you? What were their reminiscences of Mondrian?
NFW: What Josef told me had me spellbound when I heard it for the first time, in about 1972. It had to do with introducing Mondrian to the idea of using electrical tapes of different widths to save time in creating his art. It may have been apocryphal, but I believed every word of it at the time. What Anni told me was how much she loved the work. And that, for me, was gold.
Piet Mondrian, Red Cloud, 1907,oil on cardboard,64 x 75 cm Collection :Kunstmuseum Den Haag
DS: Some Abstract Expressionists speak (in oral histories) about meeting Mondrian and how important he was to them as the inventor of abstraction.
NFW: I think that the Abstract Expressionists were much more affected by Kandinsky. I am surprised if they said that Mondrian had a strong effect. Except that Mondrian got Peggy Guggenheim to reconsider Jackson Pollock’s work, which she initially did not get in the least, and the impact of his persuasiveness was life-changing for Pollock.
DS: What were his relationships with other artists like?
NFW: Polite. He must have known, however, that he was a better painter than any of his friends.
Fritz Glarner, Piet Mondrian in his studio in New York, 1943 Gelatin Silver Print.
23,8 x 17,2 cm.
DS: Did Mondrian regret his argument with his artist friend Theo Van Doesburg? Was this feud over the diagonal lines in Van Doesburg’s work or something else?
NFW: If Mondrian regretted anything in his life, he did not show it. In any case, they broke things off and got together again about four times. They were totally different sorts of people. The feud was inevitable; the diagonal lines provided a rationale that represented but was not itself the source of the problem.
Harry Holtzman standing with Piet Mondrian, Holtzman’s studio, New York City, 1941 Image copyright, Estate of Harry Holtzman 2012
DS: Mondrian loved jazz and dancing. When he went to Roseland every week, did he go alone? Which of his friends shared this interest?
NFW: He went dancing with friends, starting in The Netherlands during WWI. He went to Roseland with Sidney Janis.
DS: Was he friends with the musicians?
NFW: He listened to his phonographic records a lot, but I know of no friendships with other musicians. He was mainly concerned with who his dancing partner would be. He liked dancing with Lee Krasner.
DS: Did Mondrian go to museums and galleries to look at art in Paris, London, and New York?
NFW: It is almost shocking how little time he spent in museums. Galleries, yes, but often just to the openings to socialize. He was interested in seeing the work of some of his contemporaries, but mainly he just stayed home and painted, and repainted, and repainted, and, yes, repainted. (He also wrote a lot.)
"The surface of things gives enjoyment, their interiority gives life."- Piet Mondrian from his sketchbook c.1911
Nicholas Fox Weber is the Executive Director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and founder and president of Le Korsa, a nonprofit organization devoted to medical care, education, and the arts in isolated villages in rural Senegal. He has written fifteen books, including biographies of Balthus and Le Corbusier, and, most recently, Freud's Trip to Orvieto and iBauhaus and Anni and Josef Albers / Equal & Unequal; his forthcoming book is a biography of Mondrian. Weber's writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogues and the New Yorker, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, ARTnews, Town & Country, and Vogue, among other publications. He is married to the novelist Katharine Weber, has two adult daughters, and lives in Connecticut, Paris, and southwest Ireland.
Photo: Chiara Gussoni/Fondazione Sozzani
Deanna Sirlin is an artist and writer from Brooklyn, New York currently living and working outside of
Photo: Haley Hamel