Art: Pursuit of the Square

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In the photographs that survive from his last years, Piet Mondrian's own head began to verge on geometrical abstraction. The domed skull had its remaining hair brushed flat, each strand meticulously parallel to its neighbor; the two neat creases on the pale forehead; the paired circles of his spectacle frames, and the thin mouth joined with utmost precision to his beak of a nose by two engraved lines. It was the face of no compromise—austere and possessed by a forbidding moral rectitude. No artist ever looked more like his own work.

Mondrian was one of the great lawgivers of modern art. He was born just short of 100 years ago, at Utrecht in 1872; he died in New York in 1944. To mark his centenary, the Guggenheim Museum has assembled a retrospective which later goes to Bern's Kunstmuseum in Switzerland. The show is a reminder of what "high seriousness"—a quality notably absent from most recent art—can mean in the hands of a master.

Mondrian's influence on art and design in the past 50 years has been so huge that it tends, if anything, to obscure his own work. He is the father of asymmetrical design, and his progeny are legion. Bastard Mondrians, with their printed grids of black lines and their rectangles of primary blue, red and yellow, turned up on every flat surface that industry made—from tea towels to Courrèges dresses, from cigarette packs to apartment façades.

Blocks and Dabs. Art needs stamina to survive that kind of diffusion. Mondrian survived triumphantly, though at some cost. The characteristics of industrial reproduction—flatness, harshness, gloss and repetition—became wrongly linked to his work. The idea that Mondrian was a kind of machine painter, all sensuousness barred, is one of the many illusions that the Guggenheim's exhibition will dispel.

The son of a strict Calvinist schoolteacher, Mondrian began his art studies in Holland. In the Guggenheim show, we first meet him around 1890, painting talented but not remarkable brown Netherlands landscapes and still lifes. Though Mondrian came to detest nature, the flat horizons punctuated by vertical poplars and crisscross windmills gave him a set of predilections about form which survived through his career—immeasurably refined and philosophized.

The blocks and dabs of red and blue pigment that pulsate across the surface of an early figurative Mondrian like Church at Zoutelande (1909-10), record the same reflective delight in the rhythm and energy of particles that he must have felt when painting his last, unfinished canvas, Victory Boogie-Woogie (1943-44). The ethical and mystical concerns that underlie Mondrian's abstracts had become apparent earlier still in such paintings as Passion Flower (1901). This Art Nouveau-flavored image had a curiously mundane origin: Mondrian suspected that his model had VD, and painted her face contorted into a St. Teresa-like trance of meditation and repentance.

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