In the early years of his career as a painter, Charles Biederman studied Cézanne, Post-Impressionism, and Cubism before finally turning to total abstraction. His time in New York (1934-40) and his first trip to Paris in 1936 definitively shaped his art as he came into contact with the work of many European modernists, including Arp, Brancusi, Léger, Miró, and Mondrian, Pevsner, and Vantongerloo. He was particularly interested in Constructivism (with its use of industrial materials) and De Stijl (with its rigid geometry and primary color schemes), two art movements that produced geometric, nonobjective images. By 1937, Biederman's work was becoming more sculptural, and subsequent pieces, such as New York, Number 18 of 1938, were rendered as shallow, painted reliefs. These wall-hung panels-often incorporating wood and plastic materials-could be seen from various angles, and natural light and cast shadows enhanced the visual effect. Here, the central portion of the rectangular box has a recessed center, cut out to form a number of right angles; translucent plastic sheets set into the hollow add a shock of yellow to the otherwise white scheme.
Wall panels such as this are transitional works in the artist's oeuvre, between his early experimental paintings and his mature reliefs, done since the late 1940s, in which a grid of small, individual, brightly colored pieces appear to float freely against a backboard. Although such radically abstract works were not well-received in New York at the time, precipitating the artist's move to Minnesota (where he has lived since 1942), there was renewed interest in them in the 1960s, at a time when Op Art was in fashion.