All roads led Mondrian to little red rectangles

`THE feeling in his studio must have been not unlike the feeling in one of those hermits' caves where lions used to go to have thorns taken out of their paws.'' That was English artist Ben Nicholson's impression of Piet Mondrian in his workplace. Photos of this Dutch artist (1872-1944) certainly support this image of a man both aesthetic and ascetic, severely single-minded and hermitic - a man whose achievement was to reduce painting to what he called ``a state of universality (using) only a single neutral form: the rectangular area in varying dimensions.''

That lean, rarely smiling face, that intense concentration, that apparently unromantic restraint, surely belonged to a new, 20th-century kind of artist. But at the same time, the removal of all forms from his painting except relationships of horizontal and vertical - and of all color except the three primaries plus black, white, and gray - was a kind of purifying act. It was an act that, in Nicholson's view, removed even the smallest irritant. It expunged distractions. It concentrated on essentials.

Mondrian was as dedicated to his art as a pious man is to his religion. In fact, it's probably impossible to separate his art from his sense of religion - which developed from Calvinism into belief in the esoteric propositions of theosophy.

The Gemeentemuseum in The Hague has long been the place to visit if you wanted to trace the development of Mondrian's art - a development that progressed logically and unevasively from dusky Dutch naturalism to symbolism, then to Pointillism and Cubism, before it finally settled on the abstraction that most people would immediately identify as his.

This museum owns the world's most fully representative collection of Mondrian's work. Now it has pooled its remarkable resources with the fine private collection of Mondrians belonging to New York art dealer Sidney Janis. The resulting display, ``Mondrian: from figuration to abstraction,'' must amount to the most comprehensive gathering ever of Mondrian's work.

But despite the show's comprehensiveness, a few flaws keep it from being quite the occasion it could have been. The exhibition lacks a special catalog to start with. Moreover, Mondrian's final, ground-breaking paintings are not included, though I suppose this absence was inevitable. Mondrian painted these works (in which black was expunged altogether) during his last years in New York. They include ``Broadway Boogie-Woogie.''

All the same, the show includes some of Mondrian's preliminary work from late in his career; this offers intriguing insight into his work-processes at that time. The museum has displayed some preparatory drawings and a canvas that Mondrian had criss-crossed with adhesive tape. Mondrian began some of his works using tape instead of paint to make stripes. This allowed him to make his endless adjustments in working toward a final painting.

All told, this show is an impressive opportunity to gain an appreciation of how abstraction was reached not by leaping and dodging, but by a kind of progressive inevitability. Those black intersecting bands are hardly ad hoc affairs. Their relationship to each other - their order - matters intensely.

This significance of relationships is the raison d'etre of Mondrian's art. It matters as crucially as structures of stem to bloom, of tree trunk to branches, of church tower to ground, or of star to star in the firmament. Indeed, one can see how his purely abstract (he called them ``neoplastic'') paintings evolved undeviatingly from his earlier representations of those exact subjects.

It is often said that Mondrians do not reproduce well. It's true, and a comparison between reproductions in catalogs and the actual works in this show is almost alarming. The reds, blues, and yellows filling the rectangles between the black bands never have the same weight, vibrancy, or tone in reproductions as they do in the originals. The blacks are never strong or alive enough. The whites and grays are too bland, and fail to give out sufficient light. Printer's ink seems to flatten and reduce these paintings, removing the indefinable warmth and individuality that informs them.

To Mondrian, abstraction may have ideally been impersonal. But compared to later forms of abstraction - some of the minimalism of the 1960s and '70s, for instance - his paintings possess a quality of painstakingly sought equilibrium that could only result from a richly refined, continually redefined, sensibility. They are not works that ``anyone could have painted.''

``Composition'' remains the be-all and end-all of his abstract art. His notion of balance is never a mindless symmetry. It is, instead, a ``simplicity'' achieved only by long and lonely struggle with directional forces that push and pull, and by the persistent contemplation of adjustments minutely sensitive and demanding. Through May 29.

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