Losing Control with the Boogie Woogie

(NOTE: For an optimal experience of this blog posting, please beginning playing the music from the embedded video link where indicated, using headphones, while reading)

Standing there in the galleries of MoMA, I saw a lot of classic, seen-it-a-thousand-times-before art that no longer held any magic or surprises for me. Then suddenly, something jumped out at me, startling me with strange feelings of intimate familiarity… it was my old friend, Piet Mondrian…

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, Black, Yellow, and Gray, 1921

Ah, that crazy cat Piet Mondrian… he was the dominant and most strident voice of the De Stijl artistic movement of the early 20th century… the guy who wrote letters and manifestos declaring the “end of painting” with a brand of pure geometric abstraction that he and his Dutch buddies called neoplasticism.

I was transfixed by sheer physicality of Mondrian’s paintings… seeing not a work of art mechanically reproduced onto a flat screen or page of a book…. but feeling the full aura of a nearby object in the room.

In particular, I was moved by Mondrian’s penultimate piece, Broadway Boogie Woogie (“BBW”) that he painted in 1942-1943:

(click the video link below, to roll the music…)

Piet Mondrian was intense. At the height of De Stijl in the 1920’s, he insisted that you (if you were in his group) could paint anything you wanted to…

..anything, that is, as long as it only contained straight vertical and horizontal lines…

…and a had a few squares or rectangles…

..and those were colored white, black, grey or a primary color.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Blue, Yellow, Red and Black, 1922

Meanwhile, the actual founder and leader of the De Stijl group,Theo van Doesburg, prefered to explore matters slightly more freely than our friend Piet.

In fact, at one point Theo had the temerity to start working with (gasp!) straight diagonal lines and (double gasp!) blends of primary colors.

Theo van Doesburg, Counter Composition XVI, 1925

Mondrian was incensed to the point of near-violence… after all, he already had simple solution to the “problem” of diagonals… just tilt the frame, to straighten-out reality:

Piet Mondrian,Lozenge Composition with Yellow, Black, Blue, Red and Grey, 1921

Theo van Doesburg did not relent as he and Mondrian’s diagonal-orthogonal debate raged on.

Ever the playful artist, van Doesburg continued to fool around with the De Stijl “rules,” even using Piet’s most hated color (green) and mixing – yes, mixing! – diagonal and non-diagonal lines.

Theo van Doesberg, Simultaneous Counter-Composition, 1929

Well, this relationship was over.

As the years went on, Mondrian dug his heels in deeper and deeper into his orthodoxy, creating ever more “pure” compositions.

Piet Mondrian, Composition C with Grey and Red, 1932

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Double Line and Yellow, 1932

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that his heels would be grooving on the streets of New York City, after Mondrian fled the burning landscape of WWII Europe.

Living in (and loving) Manhattan, Mondrian discovered a kind of piano dance music derived from the blues, called boogie woogie.

He’d paint in his tightly controlled, exacting way during the day; then let loose, partying and rocking all night…

Which brings us back to BBW:

This artwork, his last completed painting, was the start of a new chapter of Mondrian’s career that ended too soon. Mondrian died of pneumonia on February 1, 1944.

Those who study Mondrian’s art in detail can trace out the evolution of BBW starting with a “revolutionary” diamond piece where he introduced (gasp!) lines that were not black…

Piet Mondrian, Lozenge Composition with Four Yellow-Lines, 1933

..and moving through pieces such as these…

..before finally arriving at station-stop BBW :

We have some hints where the process was headed, thanks to Mondrian’s final (but incomplete) artwork that has been dubbed Victory Boogie Woogie:

Piet-Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie (incomplete), 1944

Yet for all the evolutionary process, BBW stands apart as a radical departure and stand-alone artwork, especially compared to the cool, visual austerity of earlier works.

It seems closer to representational art than his De Stijl would pretend to allow… where something else is being captured and abstracted, beyond formal visual composition.

BBW is an explosion of suppressed feelings modulated through what is almost a (gasp!) picture of the blinking Manhattan grid.

There is irony here, especially given the title… the lights of New York City shine brightest wherever its grid is interrupted by the diagonal line of Broadway, which creates the places where people congregate.  This painting, then, represents the moment the grid has been broken by a diagonal line — the moment of “boogie woogie.” 

Of course, Mondrian would not dare (yet) introduce a diagonal in 1943… but hey, let’s cut this guy some slack. For Mondrian, the BBW done as it is, is a big deal… he has crossed a threshold.

If Mondrian had continued living and painting, BBW would most likely have been followed by dozen of similar compositions, so some of the excitement of BBW comes from the fact that it didn’t get integrated within a plodding sequence of methodical studies.

Instead, this painting stands nearly alone, just barely connected to previous pieces and not yet “systematized” into a series.

Broadway Boogie Woogie is the moment where the accidents of an artist’s life – war in Europe, love of dancing, death from pneumonia – turn a supposed abstract work of geometry into a testimony to the unleashing and expression of emotion that had previously been restricted.

Slip into Mondrian’s leather shoes for a moment… inhale scent of his paint brushes… and imagine that for about two decades you’ve tied yourself into knots with rules and strictures… straight lines only, with no diagonals…. austere squares and rectangles… primary colors bounded by quiet black or white.

One day you find yourself in a new place and realize that your old life is gone. The place and people that supported you can’t be counted on… but you aren’t willing to throw all your rules and principles away… you’re still operating in primary colors and straight lines…

..but within that you’re willing to let go of pride  and prejudice  and give up control in a safe place. You can party rock in the house tonight… Everybody just have a good time.. It’s getting louder now as the pianist plays faster and faster… the rhythm is throbbing and pulsing in yellow and red lights as your sense of hearing and seeing become merged You let the music take over and carry you… And when the song is over… you can go back home… and bottle up those feelings within a set of lines and shapes that pulsate with the passion you felt… So you can open up the bottle the next time you feel like having a night in the city…

Yes, you have found your inner boogie woogie.


About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on September 3, 2011, in Art, Metaphors and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This post is a follow-up to MoMA Moments (Part 1 of 2): Seeing and Being Seen.

    Special thanks to Professors Pieter Sijpkes and Ricardo Castro, who many years ago let me do some HyperCard boogie woogie with Mondrian & McLuhan… some of the learning evidently stuck.

    For those De Stijl purists out there, yes, I realize I’ve stretched the story a bit here and there… just call it my own abstraction and willful ignoring of the particulars of reality, in the spirit of neoplasticism.

    This post would also not have been possible with the very excellent compilation of all things Mondrian-esque put together by Nick Blackburm, http://www.snap-dragon.com/Mondrian.html.

  1. Pingback: 2015 Blog Feed-forward: Building on an Elephant’s Memory | Dan Spira

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