Is it too perverse to call Piet Mondrian the greatest US artist of the 20th century? True, he was born in 1872 in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, and spent youthful years in Dutch provinces like Domburg and Uden, where he developed a taste for Symbolism and Theosophy. His formative years were spent in Paris, which he first visited in 1911. He knew about Cubism second-hand by then, but direct exposure to Braque and Picasso deeply shook his style. Thereafter, in studios in Paris and the Hollandish town of Laren, Mondrian digested his Cubist lesson and reorganised his work. He broke down his landscapes, jettisoned his figures, refined his lines and muted his colours. In 1920, he made his real breakthrough in a Montparnasse studio, where he inaugurated the Classical Period for which he is best known.

Mondrian had a manifestly European pedigree, yet only in New York did he have his richest realisation: that to continue, his Classicism needed radical reinvention. In October 1940, aged 68, he stepped into Manhattan off the S.S. Samaria, where for four weeks he had been surrounded by 500 children sent abroad by their parents to escape escalating war in Europe. Whatever anxiety the experience introduced, his optimism did not abate. He was thrilled by New York—its pace and novelty, its admiration for abstraction, its typically American optimism—and felt it was the most perfect manifestation of the “New Life”, as he called modernity. “Enormous, enormous!” was his reaction upon first hearing boogie-woogie jazz, that St Louis invention, in the home of the painter Harry Holtzman. Lee Krasner later remembered Mondrian as a brilliant dancer. Read more