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DMA's Mondrian Exhibit Melds Science and Art

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: The story of the Dallas Museum of Art's Piet Mondrian exhibit begins with a man named Harry Cooper. In 1997, Cooper was the new associate curator of modern art for Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum.

Harry Cooper, Associate Curator of Modern Art, Fogg Art Museum: This all started when I got to the Fogg three years ago, and I was on my way to my office on the first day, and a man named Ron Spronk grabbed me and said, "Let's work on Mondrian."

Sprague: Spronk was a research curator at the Fogg and a Dutch expatriate who had long been intrigued by the work of his fellow countryman, Piet Mondrian. Mondrian had a varied career, but he is best known for his color block paintings of strong black lines and rich primary colors. Of particular interest to Spronk were 17 works Mondrian first painted in Europe, then changed, often dramatically, after he moved to New York City. Spronk wanted to see what lay beneath Mondrian's top layer of paint. So he began to examine 12 of the so-called "Transatlantic paintings" with photographs, x-rays and microscopes.

Ron Spronk, Associate Curator for Research, Straus Center for Conservation, Fogg Art Museum: We digitized all the technical documents and we layered them together in one computer file, so that allowed us to toggle back and forth between the ultraviolet light, the first stage photo, the second stage photo, the x-ray, etc.

Sprague: At the Dallas Museum of Art, many of those images are loaded into computer terminals for the public to view. And so for the first time, visitors have an idea of how Mondrian altered some of his most famous color block paintings. Again, Harry Cooper.

Cooper: The most obvious change he made was to add small blocks of color - red, yellow, blue - usually around the edges of the paintings, without putting black lines around those areas of color, so that they're independent, sort of free flowing accents of color, scattered around the paintings.

Sprague: Mondrian also added more, often skinnier, black lines. And he repainted the large, white areas of the canvas with aggressive brush strokes. The $64,000 question is, why? And the answer may rest in the headlines of the time.

[Music from "The Last Time I Saw Paris," a melancholy WWII era song]

Sprague: Mondrian came to the United States in 1940 to escape the violence of World War II. His paintings had been labeled degenerate by the Nazis, and he faced certain persecution. But Harry Cooper says Mondrian also grieved over leaving Paris, where he had lived for nearly two decades.

Cooper: But when he got to New York, things really exploded; and I think it was certainly a reaction to the dynamism of New York, to boogie-woogie music - which he discovered when he got there - which is a very complicated rhythmic swinging kind of music often played on two or three pianos at the same, so you can imagine the acoustic excitement of that for him.

[Boogie -woogie music begins to play]

Sprague: Cooper says Mondrian may have liberated his color blocks from the black outlines because he felt free for the first time in years. His paintings may have become busier, more energetic, to reflect the heartbeat of the city and the boogie-woogie music he came to love.

[Boogie-woogie music fades into ambient sound from the museum gallery]

Sprague: The Dallas Museum of Art has nine of these Transatlantic paintings on display now. The museum owns one of them, the famed "Place de la Concorde." But European Art Curator Dorothy Kosinksi wanted to expand the local presentation of the Fogg exhibit to capitalize on the DMA's other Mondrian holdings.

Dorothy Kosinski, European Art Curator, Dallas Museum of Art: We see his earlier landscape works, which are darker, more realistic. We see him moving through those early decades of the 20th century towards what is sort of his signature style of the 1920s.

Sprague: Most of the Mondrian paintings owned by the DMA were given to the museum by Dallas modern art collectors James and Lillian Clark.

Jim Clark, son of James and Lillian Clark, art collectors and museum benefactors: I wish I could tell you exactly why, but my father just identified with him as soon as he saw his first Mondrian.

Sprague: Jim Clark is James and Lillian's son. He remembers the dining room of his parents' Park Cities home, where several of the Clarks' 27 Mondrians were hung.

Clark: It was a very spare - sort of long, narrow room with a sloping ceiling, a very simple dining table, generally with a very simple floral arrangement in the center, and four Mondrians around the walls. It actually felt like you had dropped back about 30 or 40 years in time when you sat down there, and it was an incredibly emotional experience.

Sprague: Mondrian himself was an advocate of simple, harmonious design. And in 1919, he launched a magazine called "Der Stijl," or "The Style," that preached the virtues of this approach, which he called neoplasticism. "Der Stijl" tackled art, architecture, furniture design and typography. Dorothy Kosinski has tried to bring that spirit back to life at the DMA's exhibit.

Kosinski: What we've done is we've recreated an entire room.

[Sounds of footsteps echoing on a tile floor]

Sprague: Kosinksi walks into a small and spartan room with blocks of color painted onto the walls and floors. This is a reproduction of an actual room two of Mondrian''s colleagues designed in 1923.

Kosinski: Instead of putting thick, tufted upholstery, which would have been typical of the late 19th century, you pare it down to what a chair is: a vertical and horizontal, two planes upon which you sit.

Sprague: The lounge chair in the DMA's neoplasticism room would hardly be considered comfortable by today's standards. It's flat and hard. But the last gallery of the exhibit shows how pervasive Mondrian's style is today. A dozen paintings that draw on Mondrian's techniques line the walls. And, as Kosinski points out, you'll find imitations of Mondrian's color block paintings in everything from designer dresses to hair spray bottles.

Kosinksi: In a funny way, as much as people in general have that hesitancy about abstract art, it has kind of permeated advertising, marketing design, typography, modern furniture design. It's there in a way that we clearly have come to accept.

Sprague: "Mondrian" continues at the Dallas Museum of Art through November 25th. You can also view the Transatlantic paintings on-line at For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.