October 23, 1995



THE DUTCH ARTIST PIET MONDRIAN, along with the Russians Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, was one of the three founding fathers of 20th century abstract painting. The period 1910-20, when their ideas were in their first messianic flood, is a long way from us now, and the very idea of abstract art has lost some of its old modernist prestige; nobody supposes it could have become, as its makers and early evangelists supposed, the ultimate art form, the end of art history. And yet Mondrian remains an artist of extreme importance, not only because of the historic inventiveness of his pictures and the daring leaps of consciousness they embody, but because of their beauty as art.

The Mondrian retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, curated by an international panel led by the art historian Angelica Zander Rudenstine, is quite simply one of the best shows MOMA has ever held--a worthy successor to its surveys of the two other 20th century titans, Picasso and Matisse. In its New York form, the exhibition includes paintings that, owing to their fragility, couldn't be lent to earlier venues in Washington and Holland--Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43, and Victory Boogie Woogie, left unfinished at his death, at 71, in 1944.

By then Mondrian's presence was a talisman to the small New York avant-garde. It was the gift of Hitler. Like many of the Surrealists--whose work he cordially detested--Mondrian had fled to refuge in New York in 1940 as the Nazi threat to "degenerate artists" such as himself became inescapably plain. The mere arrival of this diffident and somewhat reclusive man symbolized the passing of modernist leadership from Paris to Manhattan. Yet unlike the Surrealists, he had few American followers, and none who became painters of the first rank. Part of the paradox of Mondrian was that although he believed passionately in the "universal" character of his art, it could not be successfully imitated. But it was vulgarized on a million grid-design dresses, bedspreads and rolls of linoleum, and parodied in a thousand cartoons. This image of Mondrian as a high-level designer reflected back on his work, and one of the objectives of this show (there has not been a Mondrian retrospective in New York since 1971) is to rescue an artist who was incapable of triviality from such trivialization.

"The beauty of nature does not satisfy me entirely," Mondrian once wrote. "I cannot enjoy a beautiful summer evening, for instance. Perhaps then I feel ... how everything ought to be, while at the same time I am aware of my own impotence to make it so in my life."

This is a singular confession for any artist to make, and it helps explain why this show is such a poignant experience. Its humility masks a bizarre pride. What other artist could recoil from nature because its order exceeds that of his own art? How could he expect to rival nature? Did Mondrian envy God? Or perhaps he meant something less Luciferian: that nature, to the artist, is like carnal desire to the saint. It is a trap, a lower substitute for higher ecstasy, an occasion of sin. He knows it is beautiful, but he must still banish it from his art (as Plato urged the banishment of the poet from the ideal republic) because it provokes irrational thoughts and undisciplined emotions.

For Mondrian was the supreme Platonist of modernism. He believed that his grids, representing nothing but themselves and, as Plato said of his perfect solids, "free from the itch of desire," could demonstrate a universal order, an essence that underwrote the mere accidents of the world as it is. Reach that essence, and consciousness would be transfigured. This mystical idea had a long history, running from Plato through medieval Catholicism and thence to the pseudo religion of Theosophy, to which Mondrian adhered in his youth in Holland.

Mondrian may have wanted to transcend nature, but the Dutch landscape was in him like a dna code. He said there were no straight lines in nature, so that straight lines--the grid--were inherently more abstract than curves; and yet, as anyone can see in Holland, the flat horizons and punctuating verticals of mill and steeple must have affected him right from the start. The momentum of his work begins with landscape--the delicate screens and friezes of trees above watery meadows, in their pearly gray light. The color explodes in 1908 with his Mill in Sunlight, an orgiastic response to Van Gogh, blazing with flakes of crimson and ultramarine against a sky of lemon yellow and pale blue; it is stabilized in another painting of a red mill done in 1911--its dark red trunk rising patriarchally against deep blue sky, spreading its austere vanes like the arms of Moses.

From then on, Mondrian's work unfolds at a deliberate, ruminative tempo and in accord with a growing sense of inner logic, quite unlike the fits and starts by which most artists develop. By degrees, in 1911-12, the interweaving of Mondrian's fruit trees ceases to look like energetic lacework on a plain ground; the space between the branches is energized--it presses forward, no longer a void but a continuum of shape as active as the branches themselves.

He is now a Cubist, and the abstraction of his motifs goes on apace, though never at the expense of their sensuousness. His seascapes, mostly distilled from the coastal resort of Scheveningen, where a pier stuck out into the flat northern sea from the dunes, are of extraordinary beauty. The movement of waves and light is reduced to the twinkling of black bars and crosses, shifts and erasures, within an oval field of view. In the end, this breaking and reassembly of a motif go so far that only the barest clues to its identity remain--whether it is a tree, a seascape or the walls of half-demolished Paris apartments, their pale pink and blue distemper preserved in delicately tinted planes. In the '20s, the severe lucidity of his grids abolished all metaphor and memory. But they would return in the '40s, in New York.

Was any painter worse served by reproduction? Probably not, because Mondrian's grids and squares, once reduced to printer's ink on glossy paper, lose almost everything. You can know Rembrandt better from a postcard than Mondrian. What seems, in reproduction, generalized patches of white turn out, in the original, to be exquisitely fine differentials of warm and cold gray, so close in tone as to be almost indistinguishable, but still optically there. Each black band of the grid, far from being a mere ruled line, has its distinct presence and weight as color and inflected substance. Black is as much a color in Mondrian as in Manet. And the color on either side of it is painted right up to the edge, not as if done with masking tape but with the sensitivity and care that you see at the meetings of the shapes in Mondrian's great Dutch predecessor, Vermeer.

You feel that everything in the painting is precisely as Mondrian meant it to be, a rarer sensation in art than is often thought. This, not geometry, is what gives his great abstractions from the early '20s onward their air of authority and completeness. The misreadings of Mondrian as a geometric designer begin with his disciples in the De Stijl group, who ran away with Mondrian's belief in universal pictorial truth and assumed--with some limited permission, it's true, from the master--that his paintings could become high-class templates for everything from chairs to wallpaper to houses. Red, yellow, blue, white, black--and you'd be living in Utopia.

Nothing in the show, however, supports the idea that Mondrian had an ironclad pictorial system, any more than Cazanne or Matisse did. He did not calculate mathematical proportions. He had no special belief in the golden section or anything like it. His way of painting was wholly intuitive, a matter of inspired guesswork and adjustment. The drawings make this clear. They are not ruled or measured; they have the speed and sometimes the muzzy indeterminacy of a rough figure sketch.

The high point of Mondrian's intuitiveness came with the Boogie Woogie paintings. He was a keen dancer. He loved jazz and boogie-woogie rhythm; he grasped how essentially modernist African-American music was, how different from the past. The syncopated dances of red, white and blue squares along the yellow "streets" of Broadway Boogie Woogie may not illustrate a grid of avenues and streets, but they certainly evoke one. The afterimages that fire on your eye between colors--an effect Mondrian clearly enjoyed--are like unpredictable riffs. From Childe Hassam and George Bellows to Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg, artists have made innumerable images of New York, many of them memorable. But it was Mondrian, in exile, who painted its essential icons.