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ART | ART REVIEW

Mondrian's back story, powerfully told

A Fort Worth show follows the artist's work in landscapes, before he would move on to pure abstractions.

November 29, 2002|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

FORT WORTH — Usually, the long career of the Dutch Modernist painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) is split into two parts, with a pivotal interlude in between. Most significant are the great, classic geometric abstractions, in which blocks of primary colors are interspersed with white and divided by black lines -- paintings that do not mimic in any way the visible world outside the canvas. Then, there's everything that came before -- landscapes, still-lifes, urban views and figures, as well as abstractions in which the visible world can still be discerned.

The pivot between the two Mondrians is World War I. Mondrian entered art school in Amsterdam in 1892, and 20 years later his slow, methodical progress as a painter led him to Paris, capital city of the avant-garde. But the chaotic eruption of the Great War sent him back to the Netherlands, where isolation in the studio allowed him to rethink his entire artistic enterprise. The war's unprecedented, unspeakable destruction was followed by a determination to build art anew.

At the Kimbell Art Museum, a large and engaging exhibition of Mondrian's paintings and drawings is focused exclusively on early developments leading up to that pivotal interlude of the war. Organized by the Gemeentemuseum in the Hague, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Kimbell -- where it makes its only American appearance, through Dec. 8 -- the show wants to erase the common idea of two Mondrians. It's only partly successful.

More pointedly, it is meant as a gentle, if firm, rebuke to the magnificent 1994 retrospective principally organized by New York's Museum of Modern Art. That show was frankly polemical and, to my mind, utterly convincing. It asserted that late Mondrian is great Mondrian. Its largest group of pictures came from the last dozen years of the painter's life, when he began to transform the classically harmonious format of his abstract grid paintings by injecting them with a dynamic rhythm. Mondrian's first 30 years were given a relatively light once-over.

The current show wants to redress its perception of an imbalance. The early work is the sole subject this time out. Mondrian after the war might look different from Mondrian before the war, the curators assert, but his artistic motive did not change.

The 110 paintings and drawings assembled in "Mondrian, 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction" do offer a clear case for continuity in the artist's aspirations for his work. Even in the earliest landscapes, Mondrian emphasizes the tactile, material qualities of paint as a means to articulate ephemeral space and light. The meandering path of a country road leading to a forest's edge is carved in tan and white pigment. A web of tree branches serves to delineate the surface plane of a picture, making it a screen on which the world is projected and through which it is sensed.

Elsewhere, and with ever greater confidence and subtlety, the historic opposition between line and color as art's authentic conveyor of truth gets erased. Mondrian begins to use a heavily loaded brush. Emphasizing the painted mark splits the difference: Line becomes color, color is indistinguishable from line.

Mondrian also splits the difference in other surprising ways. Dozens of his landscapes focus on riverbanks, where earth and water, rooted stability and constant fluidity, coincide. Dusk emerges as a favored time of day -- those mysterious, in-between moments between daylight and darkness, when clarity of form gives way to ethereal atmosphere. At dusk, abstract form replaces the explicitness of objects.

Throughout these early years, Mondrian paints with obvious sureness. He also repeats motifs incessantly. There's a highly nuanced sense of wanting to get it right and of knowing the big impact that even the smallest compositional shift can make.

His approach speaks of the larger Symbolist ethos common to so much art of the day, in which nature harbors a spiritual dimension that transcends appearances. Coupled with his growing interest in theosophy, with its faith in the power of mystical insight, Mondrian's landscape paintings radiate presence.

But they remain fundamentally conservative. Not until he was 35 did he begin to embrace progressive Modern art -- from the chromatic experiments of Kees van Dongen to the visual fireworks of Van Gogh. (The crimson "Mill in Sunlight" of 1908 makes you squint.)

When he did, his work began to metamorphose. The Kimbell show lays out Mondrian's encounters with Cezanne and then Cubism in a thoroughly bracing display.

Even here, though, in what would appear to be extreme variations on abstract form -- Cubist grids interrupted by occasional arcs, a muted palette of grays, pinks and ochre -- Mondrian never leaves landscape completely behind. The show points out how the lines of the grid remain a visual figure floated on a colored ground. Cool tonalities at the bottom of the picture typically lighten toward the top, much the way earth transitions to sky.

The show stops here, just before the pivot of the war years. And, yes, it has made its point about continuity in the artist's aspirations.

Still, there's no getting by the fact that Mondrian after the war does look different from Mondrian before the war -- and that difference is critical. The Kimbell exhibition shows Mondrian going through a long process of abstracting from nature. What happened next was a struggle to abandon even the slightest hint of mimicry while maintaining nature's truth.

Call it a search for ways to abstract toward nature. The Kimbell show fills in a lot of the powerfully compelling back story, but Mondrian's greatness lies in how he made painting an independent proxy for nature. The MOMA show got it exactly right: An artist's intent is finally less important than an artwork's effect.

*

`Mondrian, 1892-1914: The Path to Abstraction'

Where: Kimbell Art Museum, 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth

When: Through Dec. 8. Closed Mondays

Price: $8

Contact: (817) 332-8451

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