Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 17, 2015
Nancy J. Troy The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 320 pp.; 22 color ills.; 65 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226008691)

On a trip to Los Angeles during graduate school, I made my way to the Mondrian hotel on the Sunset Strip to see James Turrell’s Hi Test (1996). On every floor, light emanated from a hole in the wall shaped like a television screen (pre-flat screen). The sources of light were out of sight, televisions hidden, each tuned to a different channel, each producing diverse, ever-modulating tones. As I read Nancy Troy’s book, even before I reached her discussion of the hotel in question, I found myself working hard to recall the details of that visit, which I hadn’t thought about for years. The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian, which examines the artist’s posthumous reception, lends itself to these kinds of mind wanderings. It’s not just that most readers of this book will have their own personal Mondrian historiographies. Troy foregrounds her own long history with Mondrian in order to demonstrate how one’s subject position inevitably informs one’s scholarship and, in so doing, invites us to scrutinize our own embeddedness in our research.

Troy’s aim is not so much a deconstruction of objective scholarship as an exposé of the factors that art historians almost always feel compelled to leave unsaid: the constraints that copyright and permissions impose, for example; and the personally motivated struggles over interpretation by scholars, executors, and artists. This exposé is a component of a broader overall agenda, which amounts to a push against the sacralization of high art, with art history as its handmaiden. In four substantial chapters, Troy shows how an understanding of high art is conditioned by a wide range of elite and popular culture, and by concerns both intellectual and otherwise. Mondrian’s legacy provides a case study with ample material for analysis, and Troy draws on a career’s worth of research, taking readers through Mondrian’s reception from his death in New York in 1944 through the 2009 auction of Yves Saint Laurent’s estate (which included a painting often, but as Troy shows, erroneously, said to have inspired the designer’s Mondrian Look). The narrative is more theme-based than chronological; Troy chips away at assumptions from multiple angles.

The first chapter, “Mondrian and Money: Victory Boogie Woogie,” anchors the book through a focus on one seminal painting, which the artist left unfinished when he died. Troy tracks the many ways in which money has exerted influence over Victory Boogie Woogie’s reception and conservation. Because relatively much is known about the painting’s monetary value over the years, it serves as an effective case study for the market’s role in art worlds more generally (often hard to trace because collectors, dealers, and museums tend not to disclose prices) (3). Some of this tale has the familiarity of art-historical truism: from Mondrian’s life of privation, thanks to “the rock-bottom prices that his paintings earned when they did find a buyer,” to the immediate posthumous spike (eight thousand [U.S.] dollars for Victory in 1944, “ten times more than the highest price . . . garnered during his lifetime”), to the record-breaking forty million (U.S.) dollars paid by The Netherlands in 1998, the country’s most expensive art expenditure to date (21, 39, 9). As these factoids suggest, Troy brings the banality of art’s truck with commerce to vivid light with details showing how deeply and constantly implicated art is with money. Perhaps most eye-opening is her excavation of the vested interests affecting Victory’s preservation—and alteration. For example, a commission for a copy of the fragile object—Victory was a work-in-progress covered with colored tape, bits of paper, and thumbtacks—went to Perle Fine, who accepted a lower fee than Fritz Glarner, who was horrified by Fine’s trompe-l’oeil oil facsimile of the multi-media original (51–54). Then, in 1959, she restored the original with reference to her own copy—a feedback loop spiraling ever further from the state of Victory as Mondrian left it (60–61).

Chapter 2, “(Un)becoming Art: Mondrian’s Furniture and the Walls of His New York Studio,” further scrutinizes the problem posed to scholarship when vested interests alter the visual evidence. In this most personal of chapters, Troy returns to an exhibition she curated in 1979. Entitled Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism in America, it included three pieces of furniture that the artist made for his New York studio. In spearheading attention to ephemera, Troy may have inadvertently opened a Pandora’s box: while she listed the items simply as “Work Table,” “Desk,” and “Stool,” a 1993 exhibition converted them to sculpture (“Table sculpture,” “Bench sculpture”) and added a “Step Stool sculpture” and “Easel,” “neither of which had actually been constructed by Mondrian” (71–75). Artists and art historians of the last forty years have been understandably intrigued by the resonance discoverable in Mondrian’s studio with Duchamp’s readymades as well as process art and environmental installations as suggested by his so-called “Wall Works” (colored cardboard rectangles that he arranged directly on his walls, selectively transferred to plywood in 1982 by Harry Holtzman, an artist and the executor of Mondrian’s estate). Troy exfoliates the way contemporary art has informed reception (Allan Kaprow weighs in via his master’s thesis) while adjuring us to be wary. Poignantly, she concludes that if in 1979 she had believed she could build her career on “disinterested research,” with thirty-five years of “involvement with Mondrian” now under her belt, she no longer believes that “objectivity is . . . a viable possibility” (125). Her solution is to lay out the various interests—including her own—that compete over the formation of the narrative.

Holtzman crops up throughout the book because of his powerful influence over Mondrian’s reception, which is ongoing in that his heirs continue to run the artist’s estate (the Mondrian/Holtzman Trust). Holtzman played a crucial role in bringing Mondrian to New York, providing financial assistance, working to obtain the necessary visa, and so on, and Mondrian consequently designated him sole heir (21–22, 34). In the third and briefest chapter, “Mondrian’s Legacy in New York,” Troy systematically exposes how Holtzman guided the artist’s reception in ways having nothing to do with aesthetics. Whether demanding high prices for photographs (as Michel Seuphor, preparing the first monograph on the artist, bemoaned in 1951) or manipulating the market by withholding sales, Holtzman emerges in this profile as an executor with a firm eye on profit margins (138, 144). Hilariously, he acknowledged this agenda in a letter of advice to a lawyer involved with George Grosz’s estate, in which Holtzman changed his own s’s into dollar signs (158).

Arguably saving the best for last, Troy dedicates her last chapter to “The Mondrian Brand.” Here she tackles the interconnections between elite and popular reception, tracing the continual dance between the worlds of art and commerce. Troy effectively demonstrates how the Mondrian brand—that immediately recognizable mix of primary colors and perpendicular lines—took time to develop. In 1945, as highbrow audiences were enjoying the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, fashions inspired by his paintings were advertised in newspapers across the United States. But these designs did not necessarily adhere closely to Mondrian’s example. Stella Brownie’s “Mondrian-inspired” suit featured patchworked chevrons on purple, a combination that any student in a modern-art survey today would surely know to be anathema to a man who supposedly broke off a friendship over a diagonal (174). Fast-forward to Yves Saint Laurent’s 1965 Mondrian Look, a collection so obviously indebted to Neoplasticism that some reporters assumed that the designer had copied a painting he only later acquired (212, 231–32). Troy wends her way through fashion shoots (Town and Country models posed in Mondrian’s studio shortly after his death), artists’ responses (Glarner’s embrace, Barnett Newman’s resistance), and finally the apotheosis of the brand in Philippe Starck’s 1996 redesign of the Mondrian Hotel. If in 1984 it seemed hip to echo Mondrian’s primary colors in the facade, by the 1990s the name was enough: Starck whitewashed the hotel of any trace of Mondrian’s signature style (225–26). Mondrian—through a combination of both popular and elite attention—had achieved such name recognition that visual cues were no longer necessary.

The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian is a page-turner: consistently rich in archival detail and stimulating in the questions it raises. Yet I found myself, at the end, somehow unsatisfied. Part of this has to do with the fact that you can’t do everything. I may want another chapter on contemporary artists and theorists taking up Mondrian (Troy leaves off with the Pop generation, but what about Turrell’s investigations of light, color, and environment? Or more recent and cheeky returns such as Jonathan VanDyke’s Mondrian necklaces or Remy Jungerman’s Grid Works? Or the importance of Mondrian to Fred Moten’s “The Case of Blackness”? [Criticism 50, no. 2, (Spring 2008): 177–218]); but The Afterlife provides a basis on which other scholars can build. It was more than that, though. On the one hand, I didn’t think Troy was radical enough. For all the debunking, Mondrian remains enshrined as a worthwhile recipient of endless consideration (this book itself simply one more chapter in Troy’s ongoing engagement with the artist, as testified by her paper at the College Art Association’s 2015 annual conference, “Copyright as Censor,” which criticized the Mondrian Trust for taking advantage of a loophole in copyright law that extends permission costs for U.S. publications). On the other hand, it was too radical for me in that Mondrian’s art and intentions were largely absent. I was excited to read the book because I wanted to know what it is about Mondrian’s signature compositions of primary colors, white, gray, and black that resonates so broadly. Troy deliberately skirts the question, insisting we focus on how context informs our understanding of the art. But surely the forces of elite and popular culture work in tandem with the art itself? How does Mondrian’s effect differ from that of Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, etc.? (And why don’t we have books on the afterlife of Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keeffe, Judy Chicago?)

What I found most disturbing about The Afterlife of Piet Mondrian, however, may also be its greatest strength. I was reminded of my own longstanding—and to a great extent inexplicable—devotion to Mondrian’s paintings. Much as I agree that context matters, I remain convinced that I can only fully understand art’s appeal and effects by looking at the art itself. Am I too wedded to the art? Or is Troy, who seems to take for granted that we should want to know how external factors affect our conception of Mondrian—that is, that learning evermore about Mondrian is a worthwhile endeavor? Even if I don’t agree with all of Troy’s assumptions, I welcome the prompt to confront my own complacency.

Bibiana Obler
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University

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