When he was thirty-two, Alexander Calder visited the legendary Mondrian’s studio at 26 Rue du Depart in Paris. The experience changed his life. “I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.” We read a wonderful account of it in How Alexander Calder Became America’s Most Beloved Sculptor. an excerpt from Jed Perls’ new book Calder: The Conquest of Time. The descriptions of Mondrian’s studio sent us hunting for photographs. We found not only black-and-white ones taken in the twenties, but also color recreations of Mondrian’s studio created by Tate Liverpool. We’ve interspersed them with Perls’ narrative and Calder’s words for a sampling of Mondrian’s utterly unique vision.
Mondrian was two years shy of 60 when Calder met him. His home—approached through a little courtyard off the boulevard Montparnasse—was unlike anything Calder had ever seen. The apartment had a curious setup, with the bedroom in one structure and the studio, irregularly shaped, a few steps up in what was a different but conjoined building. The studio was a five-sided room, with windows on two sides. The odd shape was part of its magic, the violation of the rectangular shape one would ordinarily have expected creating surprising spatial and visual dislocations.
Calder, like many other visitors, echoed Mondrian’s friend Maud van Loon’s recollection of walking up up to the studio as a sort of passing between two worlds: “…the stairwell was horrific, terribly shabby, unsightly …Then you walked through his door and into a brilliantly white studio with a color plane here and there. As you stepped inside, you were in Paradise.”
Calder remembered that irregular space as “a very exciting room.” What struck Calder wasn’t so much the paintings—there weren’t many on display—but the light and the whiteness of the space, all the furniture painted white or black, the Victrola redone by Mondrian in red, and the broad back wall and the other walls with rectangles of various grays and colors arranged here and there. Calder wasn’t looking at paintings so much as he was walking into a painting….
Mondrian’s studio was animated by the power of rectangles of primary colors to convey emotions and intensify experiences; he had been thinking and writing a great deal about architecture and how painting might finally expand and almost dissolve into architecture. Calder called these walls of rectangles Mondrian’s “experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on.”
It was hard to see the ‘art’ because everything partook of the art. Even the victrola had been painted so as to be in harmony. I must have missed a lot, because it was all one big decor, and the things in the foreground were lost against the things behind. But behind all was the wall running from one window to the other and at a certain spot Mondrian had tacked on it rectangles of the primary colors, and black, gray + white. In fact there were several whites, some shiny some matte.
In 1927, Mondrian described his singular vision of interior design that he put into action in his studios (from Piet Mondrian: The Studios: Amsterdam, Laren, Paris, London, New York)
The interior of the home must no longer be an accumulation of rooms formed by four walls with nothing but holes instead of doors and windows, but a construction of coloured and colourless planes, combined with furniture and equipment, which must be nothing in themselves but constituent elements of the whole. And the human being? In a similar fashion, the human being must be nothing in himself, but rather a part of the whole. Then, no longer conscious of his individuality, he will be happy in this earthly paradise that he himself has created.
In this video by the Tate, you can get a sense the studio and how, as Calder noted ‘everything partook of the art’. (Video link here.)
With thanks to David Saltman of the Houdini File for alerting us to How Alexander Calder Became America’s Most Beloved Sculptor in Smithsonian.