A grid of black upon titanium white, with squares of red, yellow, and that particular blue: The work of Piet Mondrian is one of the most recognizable in 20th-century art. His signature style has been applied to a Hollywood hotel, bottles of hair spray, miniskirts, and wrist watches as shorthand for modernism. Yet for all its lively and enduring quality, Mondrian's art was a slow, progressive evolution, the paintings on average were 10 months in the making.
While he never increased his pace, Mondrian's work changed dramatically when he left London for New York during World War II. In his studio, decorated with arrangements of colored squares, paintings begun in Europe acquired radical new elements: a grid would be opened, colors would be juxtaposed, a line would continue up and over the edge of a canvas. "My paintings now have more boogie-woogie," the Dutch painter declared, crediting his beloved jazz and blues-piano music, which, for all its rollicking movement, is actually quite measured.
Mondrian found new materials in his new city: He used colored adhesive tape to "sketch" his paintings. But he missed the white lead paint he'd used in Paris, paint he applied after he'd painted the grid structure. The new titanium white was not as opaque. Up close, a viewer can also see that it is not smooth, and the intuitively placed lines are not seamless. You can even see brushstrokes - welcome reminders of the artist's hand.
Ron Spronk, co-curator of "Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings" at Harvard University's Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge, Mass., is glad Mondrian had to switch to titanium white from lead white. Titanium is easier to X-ray, so Mr. Spronk can peek at the artistic process. X-ray and infrared imaging have grown sharper, and this application of science to art will surely increase.
The exhibit features 13 images, 11 of them in one room - the same number the artist had at his first New York show. That realization makes these paintings new again.
"Mondrian: The Transatlantic Paintings" is on display through July 22. It will be at the Dallas Museum of Art from Aug. 19 through Nov. 25. You can visit the show online at: www.artmuseums.harvard.edu/mondrian/
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor