Theo van Doesburg
In 1917 Theo van Doesburg, Piet Mondrian, and other artists and architects founded the De Stijl magazine and group. The following year they continued elaborating their theoretical program, which promulgated a new plastic order of reductivist, non-objective art. In his painting van Doesburg followed Mondrian’s example by systematically divesting his imagery of figurative references and reducing pictorial elements to colors and geometric forms in oppositional relationships. In so doing, he hoped to express a universal reality underlying the capriciously changeable appearances of nature.
This work of 1919 demonstrates van Doesburg’s lingering attachment to what he disdainfully referred to as the “brown” world of Cubism. Reluctant to diffuse the composition, he structures monochromatic, modulated planes around a central axis and allows the lower corners to recede, thereby suggesting a Cubist oval. According to the dogma of the “white” world of Neo-Plasticism, the focus should be moved from the center of the canvas to its periphery; the rectangle should not be construed as a discrete plane but as a shape passively resulting from the intersection of lines and given substance by color. However, Composition in Gray (Rag-time) incorporates aspects of the Neo-Plastic aesthetic that distinguish its style from Analytic Cubism. For example, the edges of its planes have been regularized and contoured and do not penetrate or overlap one another. Despite the illusion of bowing in individual planes, they have been organized with architectural clarity as a rhythmic composition that is essentially flat and frontal.