An abstracted – and heightened – way to see

The work of some artists is a story of continual development, a persistent opening up to new possibilities. Others seem to arrive at a kind of archetypal image. And this has the effect of making everything they had made before look like mere staging posts on the journey. Their "mature" work virtually seems to invalidate their "immature" work.

The Dutch painter Piet Mondrian is identified with a particular kind of painting. It is abstract. It is reduced to certain bare essentials. Vertical black strips, flat on the painting's surface, intersect or meet at right angles. The rectangular spaces between them are white, gray, or sometimes blue, red, or yellow.

Mondrian fully realized that his "neo-plastic" abstraction was new and underivative, and offered him almost endless degrees of exploration and adjustment of balance, space, and light within its apparently strict confines. Yet he was also an artist whose previous development was so strong and so intuitively logical that it has never actually been overlooked.

The latest exhibition to study – in particular detail – what it calls Mondrian's "path to abstraction" was seen in Paris this summer and is now at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, until Dec. 8. It concentrates entirely on his work up until World War I. It does not look at any of his "typical" work, but makes a vigorous case for a more complete picture of this artist.

Although in 1914 he had to leave Paris and return to his native Holland, it is clear that in Paris, Mondrian's art had already developed into states of abstraction, mathematical and architectonic in character, that went further than ever before.

His experience in Paris had brought him from being a powerful and expressive landscape painter to an urban painter of equal determination. He had also come decisively under the influence of cubism, making it his own and then putting it behind him.

The painting we reproduce is one of his last before the war. Mondrian never considered his completely abstract paintings to be essentially different from his realist paintings. He saw both as kinds of realism, and just as connected to the visible world. This painting, which might be called an observed abstraction, is identified by curator Joop Joosten as directly connected with sketches Mondrian made of a wall that showed "the remains of an adjacent demolished apartment house." The extent of the painting's abstraction, though, makes more than a single reading of it possible.

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