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WHETHER they know it or not, the architect, the layout artist, the sign painter, and even the counter girl who wraps a candy box asymmetrically with a gay ribbon all owe a debt to a lone Dutchman named Piet Mondrian. Cubist Mondrian's crisp, rectilinear paintings, once scoffed at as being mere linoleum patterns, have been one of the most pervasive influences in 20th century design. With their novelty absorbed, his paintings are now being viewed in their own right, establishing Mondrian as one of art's great space organizers.

After World War I a whole generation of architects and painters, in search of a new style, flocked to the standard of Mondrian's Neo-Plasticism. British Painter Ben Nicholson made a pilgrimage to Mondrian's quiet, immaculate Paris studio overlooking the Gare Montparnasse railroad tracks, likened it to "one of those hermit's caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws." U.S. Sculptor Alexander Calder saw the bright rectangles on Mondrian's walls, went home, set the cubes in motion by creating his first mobile. Now, 13 years after Mondrian's death (in Manhattan, at 72), his recognition is reaching new heights. Paris, which had never seen a one-man Mondrian show, this spring had two. The first authoritative biography, by Michel Seuphor (Piet Mondrian; Abrams; $17.50), has just been published. Two U.S. museums are laying plans for large-scale Mondrian shows this autumn.

Room for the Divine. The revived interest in Mondrian has revealed that before he became a dry, ascetic perfectionist, he had an intense, emotional youth remarkably similar to the early years of another great Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh. Like Van Gogh, Mondrian had a strict Calvinist father, early sought to establish spiritual contact with Holland's rough peasants, underwent a period of religious fervor that nearly swept him into the ministry. Mondrian, too, was a painter of the Dutch farm countryside, who gradually increased the intensity of his colors until they glowed with slashes of crimson, cobalt blues and rich mauves.

At 37 (Van Gogh's age when he committed suicide) Mondrian had almost paralleled Van Gogh's artistic progress. The catalyst that changed Mondrian was his discovery of cubism. (He simplified not only his style but also his name—from Mondriaan.) While he had previously drawn trees that were obviously trees, he now produced the segmented Apple Tree in Bloom (see color page), a lyric, rhythmic design of orchestrated nuances and subtle harmonies. Even more dramatic evidence of his progression lies in his rare self-portraits: in 1900 he saw himself as a religion-seeker, with deep, glowing eyes (a pose that later so distressed him that he threatened to destroy the work with an automatic pistol); by 1942 his portrait had become a sculpture in flat white plaster cubes and planes.

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