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
In an approach unusual for an art historian, Troy 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
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,
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:
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
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
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
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
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."
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