Second Theme

Artist: Burgoyne Diller (American, New York, New York 1906–1965 New York, New York)

Date: 1949

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 26 x 26 in. (66 x 66 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of William Benenson, 1991

Accession Number: 1991.402.7

Rights and Reproduction: Art © Estate of Burgoyne Diller/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY


Born in the Bronx and raised in Buffalo, New York, and Battle Creek, Michigan, Diller returned to New York City as a young man in 1928. For five years he studied at the Art Students League, where he was especially influenced by the famous teacher Hans Hofmann. In the early 1930s, he learned about the two movements of modern art that would shape his own style: the Russian Constructivism of Kazimir Malevich and other artists, and the work of the De Stijl artists Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. From these early modern masters of geometric abstraction he obtained the basic formal elements of his own art: a palette limited to the primary colors, black, and white; gridlike compositions of rectilinear elements; and an interest in relationships of hue, position, and size among those elements.

Diller's body of work, as the artist himself explained it, was divided into three visual themes, all of which investigated various placements of geometric forms against the basic plane of a square canvas. The second theme, of which this painting is an example, utilized a grid system, with visual "movement" generated by continuous lines and rectilinear forms extending across the canvas. In this composition, black, gray, and white rectangles and stripes cross the canvas, structuring it through their meetings and divisions.

Diller held several appointments in the Works Progress Administration / Federal Art Project between 1935 and 1942, including director of the New York City mural division and liaison to the New York World's Fair Committee. In these positions, he was able to assign projects and commissions to other modern artists, including many of his fellow abstract painters. In 1936, he was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group, and throughout the rest of his life was known as an instructor and theoretician who influenced an entire generation of abstract artists in America.