It Seems Simple . . . National Gallery Show Gives Context to Work of Piet Mondrian

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THE mega-exhibition of Piet Mondrian has traveled from his native land to his promised land, seeking an audience in the United States more willing to warm to his detached, cold masterpieces.

"Piet Mondrian: 1872-1944" is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Sept. 4.

Mondrian's deceptively simple construction of lines and squares in primary colors turned the Dutchman into an icon of abstract art soon after his death in New York in early 1944.

Just short of gaining American citizenship at age 71, he finally was earning a small living off his art after a life of poverty.

Within a year, dresses with his trademark patterns were being sold in New York and soon turned up on the Paris catwalk. A shampoo line now bears the distinctive grids, a cycling team wore Mondrian on its jerseys and a cigarette brand ran a marketing campaign on it.

But despite all the popular gimmickry, little is known about the artist himself. The biggest retrospective yet attempts to give to Mondrian the depth his paintings so purposely lack.

"Mondrian's influence on the art of our time has been underestimated," said Joop Joosten, an organizer of the exhibition "Piet Mondrian" and the authority on his work.

Americans, who already have Mondrian's later, abstract works in abundance, may discover the early steps of an artist steeped in late 19th-century traditions at the show at the National Gallery of Art.

The exhibition moves to New York's Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 1, where the painter's early, figurative works finally will come face to face with the zesty colors and lines of his final paintings.

"Broadway Boogie Woogie" and "Victory Boogie Woogie," his last two paintings, had to stay at the MOMA because they were too fragile to travel.

The brittleness of the paint and increasing reluctance of owners to lend works means that after the current Mondrian show, there won't be another for a very long time, Joosten said.

Fortunately, the show, with some 180 works, paints a pretty complete picture of Mondrian. …