Judith Rothschild

Untitled Composition

1945

Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 730 x 595 x 20 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by the Judith Rothschild Foundation 2004
Reference
T11810

Summary

This vertically oriented rectangular painting by the American artist Julia Rothschild presents a jigsaw-like field of interlocking shapes with black outlines in varying thicknesses. Most of the forms are white, but a select few are filled with a single, bold colour in tones of blue, yellow, red or brown. While the structure of the work can be characterised as geometric, many of its lines are curved and the shapes that they form are unrecognisable. The introduction of colour at certain points in the painting provides it with an overall harmony and balance: for instance, the yellow block near to the right edge acts as a complementary element to its yellow counterparts in the top and bottom left of the composition. Equally, while the single bright red rectangle in the upper left quarter of the work offers an initial focal point, the lack of discernible order in the composition allows the eye to travel from this to the nearby areas of dark blue and brown.

Rothschild produced this painting in 1945 at her studio in West Twelfth Street in New York. To create the work, she applied oil paint to the canvas carefully and smoothly with a brush. In an article of 1970 the artist described her approach to painting: ‘I begin a painting in a rather haphazard way, relying on past experiences to build up to an unavoidable preoccupation – not so much with a specific motif or even a specific place in mind as with a more general aura of concern’ (Rothschild 1970, p.275).

The title of the work signals Rothschild’s emphasis on abstraction at this time, which she privileged over recognisable subject matter. When Untitled Composition was painted, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian’s reputation was growing among artists in America. As the art historian Jack Flam has explained, ‘“Mondrianism” served as a model for a certain purity of form and for radical abstraction’ (Flam 1998, p.22). The influence of Mondrian can be seen most clearly in the simplicity and boldness of colour in Untitled Composition, as well as in its use of white shapes set against black outlines (see, for comparison, Mondrian’s Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42, Tate T00648). However, Flam argues further that Mondrian’s influence on Rothschild ran deeper than aesthetics, since Mondrian, along with other European modernists such as Juan Gris, offered Rothschild a model to work both with and against in her ongoing balancing of subject matter and abstraction during the 1940s. Referring to another of her paintings of 1945, Grey Tangent (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Flam observes that its subject matter is primarily based on still life objects: ‘although none of the objects is clearly discernible, ones does intuit their underlying presence’ (Flam 1998, p.20). In other words, the subject matter exists in the form of what Flam terms an ‘overtone’, while the composition as a whole appears abstract.

Rothschild completed a number of paintings in the style of Untitled Composition between 1944 and 1947, but these vary in the looseness of their overall geometries and in their levels of abstraction. This variation could be connected to the ongoing discovery and rediscovery of the work of European modernist artists in America at this time. Many European artists had moved to America in the 1930s and 1940s to escape fascist regimes, including Mondrian, Max Ernst and Salvador Dali. American art institutions also actively promoted the work of these (and contemporary American) artists during this time. In some cases, their written works had not yet been translated into English, a task that was undertaken in part by Rothschild herself, who is known to have translated statements by Hans Arp, Max Ernst, George Braque, Pablo Picasso and Juan Miró in 1945 (Flam 1998, p.19). Indeed, her work of the mid- to late 1940s clearly demonstrates her acquaintance with the colourful abstraction of European painters such as Picasso, Fernand Léger and, through her early mentor Hans Hofmann, Henri Matisse (Judith Rothschild: Image and Abstraction 2002, p.5).

Untitled Composition was first shown in the artist’s second solo exhibition, Judith Rothschild: Exhibition of Paintings, which was held at the Joseph Luyber Galleries in New York in 1946. Her previous exhibition in New York, at the Jane Street Gallery in 1945–6, had attracted the attention of critics and other artists: she was elected a member of the American Abstract Artists, a group vital to the promotion and development of abstract art in the country at the time. Membership allowed her to exhibit her work with the group and also strengthened her connections with other abstract painters of the period such as Charmion von Wiegand, Burgoyne Diller and Léger (Flam 1998, p.22).

Further reading
Judith Rothschild, ‘On the Use of a Colour-Music Analogy and on Change in Paintings’, Leonardo, vol.3, 1970, pp.275–83.
Jack Flam, Judith Rothschild: An Artist’s Search, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1998.
Judith Rothschild: Image and Abstraction, exhibition catalogue, Knoedler and Company, New York 2002.

Louise Hughes
March 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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