Stanford art historian uncovers commodity culture in Mondrian's legacy

Through a study of the interplay between consumerism and the work of acclaimed artist Piet Mondrian, Stanford art historian Nancy J. Troy uncovers how social forces shaped his legacy.

Hermann J. Knippertz/Associated Press Museum of Applied Art, Cologne

A 2010 exhibit at the Museum of Applied Art in Cologne, Germany, explored artist Piet Mondrian's influence on popular culture.

From Yves St. Laurent's famed shift dresses to hotel décor, furniture and even jigsaw puzzles, among other "Mondriana," Dutch artist Piet Mondrian's imagery has become ubiquitous in consumer culture.

Best known for geometric abstract paintings with asymmetrical arrangements of rectangles in primary colors (red, yellow and blue) as well as black, white and gray, Mondrian was a hugely influential artist in both Europe and America throughout much of the 20th century. 

Nancy J. Troy, the Victoria and Roger Sant Professor of Art at Stanford, has studied how Mondrian's work, which is often said to be conceptually difficult, was integrated into American pop culture, effectively becoming a brand.

In an approach unusual for an art historian, the scholar of modern European and American art scoured not only gallery and museum archives as well as auction records, but also court cases, financial documents, popular magazines and other artifacts of the marketplace surrounding Mondrian.

She found that art, even art as abstract as Mondrian's, exists not in an isolated corner of the art world, but rather in a complex social universe motivated by human drama, institutional structures, personal and, significantly, monetary interests.

Her findings are detailed in her latest publication, The Afterlife of Mondrian, in which she maps the tangled web of vested interests that have shaped the artist's legacy since his death in 1944.

In tracing Mondrian's posthumous story, she found that history is not a simple narrative. As she said, "There wasn't just one Mondrian. But many, differing according to who was telling his story." While taking Mondrian as her departure point, her research took her far afield: "I'm not talking only about Mondrian. I'm also talking about the market and other social forces."

Although, Troy said, "most art history is about what the artist thought and how we are going to get back to the moment of his or her creative inspiration," she argues that this approach, while valuable, excludes the very real social forces – human, financial, institutional, corporate and so on – that have an impact on the artist's stature, work, memory, image and intellectual property rights.

In very real terms, as Troy discovered, these have resulted in problematic conservation and dubious attributions of Mondrian's work and even items lost while in storage or tossed out by a janitor.

An example of this is how Mondrian's oeuvre has grown posthumously. Mondrian was not a prolific artist, and some of the more contested inclusions in his body of work are what his executors have called "Wall Works."

During his life, Mondrian embellished the walls of his New York studio with colored cardboard rectangles in a manner similar to the aesthetic of his paintings. After his death, his heir preserved these rectangles and eventually remounted them as individual compositions to which he gave the title, "Wall Works." In so doing, he created discrete art objects, "Mondrians" with monetary value.

In tracing how these images became "Mondrians," Troy revealed some of the manifold interests driving the production of the artist's legacy.

"Everybody who writes about Mondrian has something at stake," Troy asserted. "They may not have money at stake but they have something. It may, for example, be as simple as an idea about the artist. There is no such thing as an objective history."

Troy does not exclude herself from having such interests, candidly describing her own role within the creation of the artist's history. Indeed, she has been studying Mondrian for nearly 40 years, and came to know Mondrian's heir and executor, Harry Holtzman, while researching the artist and organizing an exhibition of his work while she was a graduate student at Yale.

From canvas to runway

While Troy's investigation ranged widely, she found a valuable case study in what is perhaps the most recognizable incarnation of Mondrian's aesthetic: Yves St. Laurent's wildly popular shift dresses from 1965.

In tracking the story of how the 20 years after Mondrian's death led to these dresses, Troy discovered how inseparable the art world is from consumer culture: "It wasn't incidental to art history that Yves St. Laurent made this dress, nor was it incidental to Yves St. Laurent that Mondrian was an important artist. We tend to think of these two professions as operating in different planes altogether."

Troy examined how Mondrian's art became widely popularized as decorative backdrops for fashion shoots in mass circulation women's magazines just as it was finding its footing in the art world, thereby setting the stage for St. Laurent's appropriation of Mondrian's style. By the time Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein made his own Mondrian knockoffs, that style had become a graphic design cliché.

Although it has long been known that St. Laurent appropriated Mondrian, Troy said, "Trying to make something intellectually serious out of that is unusual. But there are a lot of different avenues into the work of any modern artist. When I set out to do this, I didn't realize there were so many byways."

While Mondrian's aesthetic influence is apparent in fashion, design and architecture, the varied interests shaping his memory have usurped it to an extraordinary degree. "Amazingly, it seems that Mondrian is a name that can be attached to anything."

The commercialization of Mondrian's legacy culminated, in Troy's account, in the Mondrian Hotel, built in 1985, a famous and hip architectural spot in North Hollywood. Originally designed as an "Hommage à Mondrian," as the exterior was called, the hotel was launched by a publicity stunt, with the designing artist up on a ladder signing the building with a giant paintbrush.

Eventually, Ian Schrager, the founder of Studio 54, bought the Mondrian Hotel. Though he painted the exterior white, erasing all trace of Mondrian's influence, he kept the artist's name. Troy decided to track him down, saying, "I was convinced that if I asked him why he kept the name I would be able to understand what Mondrian signified in the 1990s. Because surely it signified something, if he kept the name but he got rid of every other sign of Mondrian in this building."

Troy learned that Mondrian's actual artistic output was irrelevant to Schrager, who was only interested in how he could resist the style but use the name to shape his own vision of the hotel. In effect, at the Mondrian Hotel, the artist's name had become a brand.

From "Mondriana" to museum

While Troy's tale is sometimes unsavory, she suggests that recognizing how our artistic institutions are socially and financially embedded is critical to understanding the entangled worlds in which art is made and life lived.

"When you take another discourse, whether it's about the market or certain legal issues, you disturb the sense that the edifice of history is something natural," she said. "If you start taking it apart and realizing, wow, someone put this together, it wasn't born this way, it was constructed – that can be fascinating but also disconcerting and, to some degree, challenging, and it can also make people defensive."

At the same time, she emphasized that the relationship between art and consumer culture goes both ways: "These works have a social life and they circulate in ways that can be really surprising."

Vanessa Chang is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit The Human Experience.

Veronica Marian, Stanford Humanities Center: (650) 724-8155,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,