Monday, 7 February 2011

Bite 54: Piet Mondrian - Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-3

Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-3, oil on canvas, 127 x 127 cm
"Art is only a substitute while the beauty of life is deficient. It will disappear in proportion, as life gains in equilibrium." - Piet Mondrian

Staccato beats of colour create the illusion of line and depth: The grid of New York streets, seen from above - more taxis than other cars. The bright lights of Broadway. The organised confusion of American jazz.

As Robert Hughes points out, "once one has seen Broadway Boogie Woogie, the view from a skyscraper down into the streets is changed forever."

While strongly influenced by the urban vitality of New York, where the artist had recently emigrated, we are still solidly within the grasp of Abstraction, Mondrian's principle of reduction, an economy of means, taking a new course but still very much in control. 

Colour is painstakingly positioned, repositioned, precisely applied. Creating a harmonious composition - order referencing the seemingly random - fooling us that it was easy to come by, falling into place on its own - Art and Life in perfect sync. "Rhythm alone emerges," Mondrian explains, "leaving the planes as nothing."

This is a painting to get lost in. To become a coloured square yourself and travel around the grid, tracing new routes as you would explore a new city.

Although immediately acclaimed as a masterpiece, Mondrian himself saw it as a failure. "There is too much of the old in it," he said, referring to his grid paintings of his early career. Yet it is exactly this move 'back' to the vaguely 'figurative' which makes his final works so revolutionary, the opposition of vertical and horizontal as the "immutable" essence of all things becoming real - a total abstraction while referencing the world around him. 

In the collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, Thames & Hudson, 1980.
Hal Foster (ed.), Art Since 1900, Thames & Hudson, 2004.