"Piet, you're such a hep boogster!," rich old Peggy Guggenheim might have
said, had the word hep been a part of the upper class, art-collecting
public's vocabulary. Instead, probably little was ever said about Piet's
dancing, or his art. When you are active, you act. (Likewise, when looking
at Victory Boogie-Woogie, no doubt little is said about Piet Mondrian, or
about how he could boogie.)

Dancing, for Piet Mondrian and others, was an entertaining, creative, social
activity, with its protocol, rhythm and color. It is a great leveler, just
you, the music, your partner, your clothes, your jewelry. For Mondrian,
however, dancing led to music, which led back into painting. Several of his
most characteristic works of the 20s were based on popular dance themes,
such as Fox Trot A and B. In his last years, American jazz music began to
have a more obvious and profound influence, as Mondrian abandoned the
severe, black Calvinist grid he had made famous in his work from WWI to
WWII. He derived and embodied a new sense of motion and syncopation from
popular music of the 40s, as well as his own absorption in pure color and in
a vital New York City, where he had moved in 1940. These combined to
lighten, and energize his sensibility and to propel him into an area of
speculation at which he had hitherto only been aiming.

Once ensconced in New York, Mondrian abandoned the color black while working
on his New York City series. He also took to using colored tape of uniform
widths to expedite the design of his works. These two events, in an
aesthetic as reductivist as Mondrian's, constituted an enormous deviation
from his by then decades old methodology. That a man in his 70s, who had
spearheaded the movements De Stijl and Neoplasticism, could change so
abruptly and do, in my opinion, the greatest work of his life, is nothing
short of amazing. He was able to shift and take advantage of the great
swell of American life because he had remained obscure. He never sold out
his convictions, so they were still his to develop. No one really cared
what he did at that point (and his work is still undervalued compared to the
amount of money dropped on the crappiest Picassos, Matisses or Renoirs).
Thus he was able to maintain his own center, and move into significant new
areas of creativity. I'd give anything to have watched him work and to have
been able to discuss it with him, wouldn't you?

Mondrian survived precariously, doing sensitive, but salable watercolors of
flowers to augment his meager income. He lived like a kind of secular monk,
never marrying, ascetic, alone with his art, his ideas, and seeing friends
when it suited him. He was not antisocial, he was merely a quiet, modest
and deeply contemplative person, absorbed in a great speculation on the
significance of form on human life. No wonder he is so underappreciated.
(Can you imagine him taking acid? And then painting? Goodbye New York and
geometry, hello Big Sur and the new Macrame-Neoplasticism.)

It is not well known that he designed his own furniture (from orange crate
slats) in accordance with his highly developed Neoplasticist sense of
balance. The grids in his paintings became the legs and crossbraces for a
table or a chair. He would also pin colored rectangles of paper to his
walls and arrange them so that the entire wall became a work of art.
This is where he showed concretely his sense that the art which we know of is an
incomplete expression, one destined to expand into every sphere of life,
from urban design, to, presumably even the smallest gesture and decision.
He is very much a part of the optimism of the early part of the century when
people felt it possible to improve life for everyone in the society. How
far we've come.

Whatever his desires regarding the need for art to become a total way of
life, his practical expression was more modest and personal - a desk, his
studio, his paintings, and his own life. He was neither didactic or
autocratic. His utterances were often in response to others' questions
about or attacks on his art. When he did not like something he merely
remained silent, as when once, in France, Marcel Duchamp showed him and Max
Bill his Rotoreliefs, disks which when spun on a record player created
spirals and illusionary objects in a kind of 3-D. It was not to Mondrian's
taste. He did not comment. He merely observed. It seems odd to me that he
was not more sympathetic to one such as Duchamp, but Duchamp was much more
offhand about art and art's goals than was Mondrian, for whom art took on a
kind of ongoing spiritual meditation, one which hoped to colonize all of
life in the West. Artists, like the rest of us, live in their own world.

Victory Boogie-Woogie, which, before the venal S.I. Newhouse sold it
irretrievably to the Dutch government was hoped one day to have graced the
walls of a major American museum when was done playing with it (preferably
in New York where it was painted), was the final work for the redoubtable
Piet Mondrian. It was found by his friends on its easel, awaiting perhaps
some final touches, but essentially completed, according to his protege
Harry Holtzman.

Unfortunately Mondrian died in 1944 of pneumonia which he contracted, and
when he was unable to summon help, was too sick to survive when he was
eventually hospitalized. His passing was a sad end to an artist who, to me,
remains a towering figure in 20th Century modern art. He lived the life of
a poor man, when he could have earned a much larger income in any other
field of endeavor. He wished to devote his life to real art. That is one
reason he could perhaps not afford a telephone in his studio, and, when he
fell sick, was unable to get timely help which might have saved him. A
cruel irony for a life given to expressing to the world one of the finest
sensibilities ever to take brush to canvas. He saved his best for last.

Victory Boogie-Woogie was one of the largest canvases Mondrian ever worked
on (about 70 x 70"). He was not secretive about his art, as Duchamp
sometimes was. His friends saw it progress for over a year. It slowly
became a great, pulsating, dancing field, where larger forms broke down into
smaller pieces, where lines could be edges of rectangles, and rectangles
could be thought of as lines. Color and form were no longer separate
concepts which rarely interpenetrated, as in his earlier European canvases.
Now, all was form, all was color. He was getting close to where Cezanne was
in his later years, as he abandoned some of his self-imposed strictures of
picture making. What had been black "lines" in his earlier canvases now not
only were not black, but they were made up of squares of various primary
colors, as though color had won some kind if victory over black and now was
occupying what had been black's zone. He was not the first well-known
artist to be influenced by Black American, Carribean and African culture
(the Cubists, DeBussy and Bartok are some others), so it is mildly ironic
that Mondrian, by banning black from his palette, used that decision to
boost the influence of Black American jazz on his work. Victory
Boogie-Woogie was at that moment meant to celebrate the demise of the Nazi
regime. It was a celebration of life, against forces of darkness and
organized death. That may be why Mondrian also chose the lozenge shape for
this canvas (the bottom of the lozenge looks like a "V" for victory).

Mondrian at this point definitely appears freer than he had been at any time
in his career. He had by this time lived long enough to have come to grips
with his own assumptions, limitations and strengths. His persistent
experimentation had allowed him to take wing like some great bird, to new
heights. Victory Boogie-Woogie represents, with its multiplicity of colored
areas, a final expression of faith of the artist's ability to grow and to
create a formal, serious and lively symbolic engine of meaning. The
spectator is necessary to spark that engine to life and reveal in the myriad
squares and rectangles communion with the earth, with others, and not least
with the soul and the great mind which felt compelled to bring it forth.


Copyright © 2002 John Sheridan