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Tracing the artistic path of Mondrian

Mondrian Studies, by Kermit Swiler Champa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 150 pp. $29.95. What makes Kermit Champa's ``Mondrian Studies'' such a compelling book is the appropriateness of its methodology to its subject. The central fact when considering Piet Mondrian is the autonomous excellence of his paintings, not their relation to his Calvinist personality or to his theorizing, which was for the most part after the fact of his creating.

Through a ``spotlighting methodology,'' in which a limited number of the best paintings are analyzed fully, Mr. Champa establishes an organizational superstructure for his book that mirrors the development of Mondrian's aesthetic.

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Throughout his critical analyses, Champa focuses on the nonillusionistic flatness of Mondrian's paintings and its relationship to their high artistic quality. Hence, Champa sees an early ``atmospheric'' representation of the Amstel and a canal, ``The Amstel: Haze'' (1907), as illusionless in its frontality and aesthetically strong in the complexity of its brushwork pattern.

These early experiments toward the elimination of spatial illusion and its replacement by pictorial complexity gave Mondrian a head start in the understanding of Cubism before his arrival in Paris in 1912, and they helped him move into the Cubist vanguard by 1913-14.

Back in Holland for the war years, Mondrian began his well-known ``Pier and Ocean'' series late in 1914. In spotlighting these works, Champa emphasizes that no prior Mondrians ``manage the sheer, sustained energy involving the whole surface structure that develops here.'' Although Champa's methodological focus on the visual properties of the paintings themselves is resolute, it does not limit the range of observations he makes. He points out that Mondrian's use of hard-edged and ungraded planes of pure color, for the first time in 1917, was due to the influence of his fellow countryman Bart Van der Leck. In fact, similar observations about the influence of Van Gogh, Munch, and the French confidence in optical ``rawness'' give the book a historical substance that supplements its critical and interpretive acumen.

In 1918, Mondrian began to experiment with the black-line grid, which was to remain a part of his formal language until 1942. Champa explains that in the more conventional works of 1918-19, ``the question of how to make the color planes, the grid, and the picture shape converse plastically is not easily solved by Mondrian,'' and that in a number of these works there is a tendency to ``suppress one or more of the voices in this language in order to develop the pictorial range of another.''

Addressing this problem, in 1918 Mondrian began to employ the tipped square or lozenge format, which gave him the aesthetic opportunities to develop asymmetrical compositions and to present his rectangular grid lines as apparitional rather than as merely deduced from the physical boundaries of a conventionally shaped canvas.

Returning to Paris in 1919, Mondrian temporarily abandoned the lozenge shape and reached a breakthrough in 1920, according to Champa, with ``Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow-Green'' (Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen) ``which maintains masterful expressive control of both its black line structure and its relational development of color planes throughout its entire structure -- from edge to center and back to edge.''

Mondrian developed this successful control of all the voices of his pictorial language in a group of influential works in 1921, and thus began the series of internationally revered paintings.

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The final work to be singled out is ``Broadway Boogie-Woogie'' (1942-43), which ``carries the full burden of the artist's aesthetic accomplishment at its most mature and complex.'' Champa points out that the painting is one of a group in which the artist used colored cloth tape to determine where to apply pigment. Yet the most important innovation is not technical but pictorial: ``The particular form of `dynamic equilibrium,' to use Mondrian's favorite term for expressive success, that emerges in `Broadway' is astonishingly unexpected,'' Champa writes. ``Alternative and opposed readings of the whole pictorial structure of the painting replace the internal balances and oppositions that are the rule in earlier works.''

``Mondrian Studies'' is not an easy book to read, yet the diligent will be rewarded by being put closely in touch with Mondrian's creative intuitions, which are unsurpassed in significance by any other topic in the study of abstract art.

John Baker teaches at the College of Art, Boston.