Mysteries of Mondrian

Piet Mondrian: 1872–1944 Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, June 11–September 4, 1995; and The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 1, 1995–January 23, 1996

an exhibition at the Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; The National

Piet Mondrian

catalog of the exhibition by Yve-Alain Bois, by Joop Joosten, by Angelica Zander Rudenstine, by Hans Janssen
Leonardo Arte, 400 pp., $32.00 (paper)

Piet Mondrian: The Amsterdam Years

by Robert Welsh, by Boudewijn Bakker, by Marty Bax
Gemeentearchief Amsterdam, Thoth, 160 pp., $32.95 (paper)

Mondrian

by John Milner
Abbeville, 240 pp., $50.00

Mondrian: The Art of Destruction

by Carel Blotkamp
Abrams, 261 pp., $49.50

Mondrian died in New York, the city where he had been happiest, on the first of February 1944. A memorial meeting held two days later was attended by many of the most distinguished figures in the American art world and by virtually every single one of the famous European expatriate artists who formed a community within this world. And yet basically Mondrian died as he had lived: in near poverty, in solitude, and with that spare elegance and sense of personal style that was his alone, inimitable. Given the restrictions that he imposed on his own work, he was a remarkably open man, and he inspired admiration and affection in others; but friends, though trusted and cherished, were also gently kept at arm’s length. Of lovers, as far as we know, there were none. By the mid-1920s Mondrian had become a fixed pole in the evolving story of modernism, and subsequently his reputation grew steadily if slowly, but only in informed circles; he never became a popular artist, nor would he have wished it. And yet his influence was incalculable.

Today his name is a household word, but his work is still not fully appreciated, and frequently it has been misunderstood. No critic would contest the fact that Mondrian’s greatest work was produced after his evolution of a totally abstract idiom, between 1917 and 1919; but the abstract canvases are extraordinarily hard to write about. The works say it all for themselves. H.L.C. Jaffé’s pioneering monograph of 1970 devotes less space to the abstract works than to the background and the works that lead up to them. Carel Blotkamp’s fine, recently issued Mondrian: The Art of Destruction, which expands upon and updates Jaffé’s researches, is better balanced; but once again, having seen Mondrian into abstraction, the pace of his narrative accelerates. John Milner’s monograph published in 1992 is the best introduction to Mondrian and contains some of the most lucid passages of visual analysis ever to have been written on him; but to avoid repetition he deals with the later years in a some-what summary fashion. The problem is compounded by the fact that of all great twentieth-century artists of his generation Mondrian is possibly the one who suffers most in reproduction. Even good color plates make the works look flat and silky and deprive them of the physical and psychological depth and weight that give the originals their great power.

The superb Mondrian exhibition being shared between Holland and America is the most comprehensive yet to be undertaken and is a corrective to the inevitable imbalance in the literature on him. The organizers, under the guidance and leadership of Angelica Zander Rudenstine, have chosen to present Mondrian as he would have liked to be presented: as a truly modern artist. And the particular modernity of Mondrian’s art and vision is the subject of the brilliant and original essay contributed to the catalog by Yve-Alain Bois, one of the exhibition’s …

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