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Mondrian Sparked My Love of Painting


The first museum show that ever changed my mind about anything was the Museum of Modern Art’s giant 1995 Piet Mondrian show, organized jointly with Washington’s National Gallery of Art and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague.

I had respected the Dutch abstractionist’s irregular black grids with their windows of solid color, but they hadn’t really interested me; they had certainly never made me feel anything. Once the ’95 exhibition’s chronology demonstrated to me, though, how they had evolved from figuration, I was permanently entranced. It was something like a religious experience — one that I fictionalized in the first chapter of my novel “The King’s Evil,” which got me my first art writing job.

Twenty-four years later, for my last visit to MoMA before it closes for renovation, I went back to see my particular favorite, “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Along with “Trafalgar Square,” which was also finished in 1943, it hangs in a gallery devoted to geometric abstraction.

That’s reasonable enough. Like those of Lygia Clark, Josef Albers, Max Bill and the others whose paintings surround his own, Mondrian’s version of sharp lines and bright colors was just one possible approach of many.

You can even follow a thumbnail narrative of the genre’s development without leaving the room. It begins with Varvara Stepanova’s distinctly daubed, still figurative “Figure,” in 1921, proceeds through grittier transitional works by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg and arrives finally at Clark’s and Bill’s serene postwar clarity. (This isn’t the narrative, but it gives you the idea.)

But the truth is that Mondrian is on another level. His style has been reproduced widely, and that familiarity does give them some little added charge. But Mondrian’s peculiar resistance to dilution is one reason his work is so famous. I’ve seen as many de Stijl coasters and shower curtains as anyone else, but I can still spend happy hours in front of his canvases. In black, white and gray; right angle; and three primaries, Mondrian hit on a formula that feels all-encompassing, and the impeccable balance of his palette also comes through in his construction.

A thin white band around the edges of “Trafalgar Square” makes its thick black lines look taut, like leather straps stretched across a bed frame. That imparts a tremendous tension to the entire surface, almost a sense of motion. At the same time, rectangles feel inherently stable, and the contrast between this stability and the sense of motion resolves into a weightless, rushing feeling, as if you’re diving into the painting’s cool white background.

In “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Mondrian simplifies his already elemental system even further, dropping black entirely and reducing red and blue to a series of juddering dashes. The next to last painting he made, before the unfinished “Victory Boogie Woogie,” which hangs in The Hague, “Broadway Boogie Woogie” is a tantalizing suggestion of the exuberant direction his work might have taken if he hadn’t died in 1944.

But for me it still has more personal associations. I still remember my astonishment 24 years ago when I realized, after staring for quite a long time, just how many shades of paint it takes to make an impression of singular yellow. My astonishment was even greater when, after staring for even longer, I finally noticed the gray. I still find it magical.


Works from the Museum of Modern Art’s Permanent Collection

Through June 15 (June 16 for members) at 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.



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