When Less Was More

These days, a relentless IMpulse to throw everything lying around the studio floor into contemporary art seems to dictate that a giant-size, interactive photo-text installation with video monitors and Dolby sound is inherently better than a plain old painting or sculpture. Early modernism's heroic attempt to distill visual art down to its absolute essentials--to create transcendently beautiful works that held their own amid skyscrapers and automobiles--has been largely, and conveniently, forgotten. Two magnificent retrospectives--one of the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), and the other of the Dutch painter Pict Mondrian (1872-1944)--not only resuscitate the glories of reductive abstraction, but also aspire to act as esthetic consciences in today's fragmented, junkyard scene. After a couple of hours with Brancusi (at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through Dec. 31) and Mondrian (at New York's Museum of Modern Art until Jan. 25), you can almost hear the two masters telling us it's time once again for a little simplicity.

Brancusi and Mondrian took very different paths to purity. Brancusi's transformation from a neophyte realist to a visionary abstract sculptor was sudden; Mondrian's evolution from a quiet landscapist to what he called "neoplasticism" was gradual, methodical and arduous. Mondrian tried out cubism-albeit halfheartedly--while Brancusi simply avoided simultaneously for more than 20 years, the two apparently never met.

Brancusi was born in a peasant village. At the age of 28, he set out (allegedly on foot) for Paris. He worked for Auguste Rodin for a month and then quit. "Nothing grows under big trees," he said. He also rejected Rodin's method of modeling in clay before casting in bronze, in favor of the ancient technique of carving. Suddenly, in 1910, he was there: heavy chunks of stone were honed into graceful curves, folding in on themselves like birth and death rolled into one.

But Brancusi never turned entirely abstract. "Sleeping Muse," from 1910--a polished bronze cast, taken from molds made from a carving--retains a melodic stylization of a head. Looking almost as if it occurred through some exquisite crystallization we don't yet understand, the piece poetically commands a space much greater than it occupies. Compared with painting, however, sculpture is inherently limited in attempting to stand as a metaphor for a grander harmony in the universe--sculptures, no matter what the artist does to them, are still so obviously things in themselves. Brancusi's achievement m over- coming that limitation makes him the greatest sculptor of the 20th century.

In the 1920s and '30s, Brancusi's work took on a sleekness echoing the popular art deco and "machine age" styles of the time. Once, much earlier, at an aeronautics exposition, his friend Marcel Duchamp had been looking at a propeller and turned to Brancusi to ask, "Tell me, can you do that?" He certainly could, and his increasingly elegant work attracted a loyal coterie of what curator Ann Temkin calls "fancy American ladies," such as Nancy Cunard.

Brancusi's only known personal link to Mondrian is coincidental the sculptor had a son by an English concert pianist named Vera Moore, to whom the painter later sold a work. Mondrian was born Pieter Cornelis Mondriaan (he later dropped one "a") into a strict Calvinist family in 1872. In 1909 he joined the Dutch Theosophical Society, which taught that mankind is evolving toward a universal spiritual brotherhood--and that its progress can be expressed by geometric forms. At that time, Mondrian himself had progressed from delicately gray river scenes to flattened, fauvist paintings of dunes by the sea. He moved to Paris in 1912, where he managed to abstract pictures of leafless trees into a series of tentative, but lovingly painted, ochreish grids. Mondrian was back home in Holland, visiting his sick father, when World War I broke out, and he was stranded there for five years. He pushed further into abstraction--the "Composition With Color Planes" (1917) was painted there--and prepared to return to Paris in 1919.

In 1920 Mondrian wrote, "Why should universal beauty continue to appear in art under a veiled or covert form, while in the sciences, for instance, the trend is toward the greatest possible clarity?" He answered that question definitively with "Composition With Large Blue Plane, Red, Black, Yellow and Gray," a starkly elegant arrangement of primary-colored rectangles and thick black lines. In Paris, the erstwhile uptight, ascetic Mondrian (who'd been engaged once but broke it off when he realized "that it was only an allusion, all that prettiness") discovered American jazz and nightclub dancing. He thought syncopating rhythm had a lot in common with the "dynamic equilibirum" he sought in his abstractions. He also remarked that he'd never return to the Netherlands as long as the Charleston was banned there.

Mondrian's subtlety, depth and perseverance are clearly conveyed in MoMA's exhibition of 160 paintings and drawings, installed with the museum's typical crispness. The viewer is led inexorably to the grand syntheses--all color-squares, no black lines--of the two great last paintings, "Broadway Boogie Woogie" (1948) and "Victory Boogie Woogie" (1944). Mondrian completed them in New York, during his exile from the Nazis. In all his work, Mondrian was hypersensitive to the slightest nuance of paint surface or the not-quite-exact edge of a shape. It's a cliche, but it's true: Mondrian's emphatically handcrafted paintings can be fully appreciated only on the wall, not in reproduction. To quibble that the show is a trifle too neat, that it could have used a blind alley or two (like the absent theosophical 1911 triptych "Evolution"--a blue woman with stars on her shoulders--or some of the flower paintings Mondrian did to pay the rent in the 1920s), is perhaps unfair. Mondrian's straight road is worth a thousand picturesque trails.

Brancusi's epiphany is worth a million clever gambits in today's contemporary scene. As we skid through the final decade of the century, it's more difficult to see that as clearly as we could a generation ago. We look back at a Brancusi sculpture as if it's one of those benevolent sci-fi aliens in movies and comic books. Mondrian, too, seems a little less singular after all the poster rip-offs and couturier knockoffs. But ultimately these two giants of modern art are so much more than any of that, precisely by being so much less.