Abstract artist Piet Mondrian didn’t visit New York until he was 68 years old, but his love for the city infused his art with new life and took it beyond the simplistic lines and forms of his previous compositions. Broadway Boogie Woogie may adhere to the primary colors and rectangular shapes that Mondrian is known for, but the fast-paced, exciting lifestyle of New York inspired him to add a new layer of complexity to his work. Singulart looks at Mondrian’s relationship with New York and boogie woogie music, and how these elements led to the creation of Broadway Boogie Woogie.
Mondrian and New York
Mondrian moved to New York in October 1940. In September 1938, he wrote to an American fan, “You know I have always wanted to live in New York, but I haven’t dared risk it. Until now, I could work peacefully in Paris… I would like to come to New York and rent a room, a studio would be too expensive.” Upon his arrival, he quickly set himself up in a studio not unlike his previous spaces in Paris and the Netherlands. On 353 East 56th Street, he worked from a room with white walls, an easel, a cot and a gramophone to listen to his beloved jazz records. He also painted fruit crates white and displayed them around the room, finding their horizontal stripes aesthetically pleasing. The plain walls were decorated with numerous colored rectangles, which he would redecorate as he saw fit, drawing inspiration for future pieces Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie.
Mondrian was inspired by the bustling lifestyle of New York. Writing for the New York Times, journalist Alan Riding stated that in New York, Mondrian could “free himself, in his words, ‘from the captivity of black lines’. In their place came colored lines and even the suggestion of depth… by all accounts, he was also happy in New York, satisfying his passion for jazz in Greenwich Village cafes.” In a later profile he added, “Everything about New York amused him. He liked the light, he liked the jazz, he liked that miraculous novelty, colored adhesive tape, and he liked the people. He even seems to have liked the traffic patterns. Among New Yorkers by adoption, he ranks high.”
Broadway Boogie Woogie
While Broadway Boogie Woogie echoes Mondrian’s experiments with grids and blocks of color, it is distinctively a step forward from his previous works such as Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow. Broadway Boogie Woogie is almost busy, with its grid patterns and colored dots inspired by both the gridlike architecture of New York and the frenetic energy of boogie woogie music.
In this piece, Mondrian has abandoned his characteristic thick black lines, making Broadway Boogie Woogie lighter and more open. Although the dots at the top of the artwork are grey and spaced out, they become busier towards the bottom of the piece, drawing the viewer’s eyes downwards. The spaces in between the grid pattern are occasionally occupied by planes of blue, yellow and red, each unique and never repeated. Mondrian has placed the most complex of these planes on the right hand side of the piece, near the top of the artwork, while in the lower half, the planes are reduced to singularly colored blocks, more constricted in the smaller spaces.
The stuttering blocks on the yellow grid lines could also be seen as a reference to boogie woogie music, which employed a fast rhythm and tempo. The smaller planes of color, which are in direct contrast to Mondrian’s earlier work which employed bold continuous lines, recall the eight and sixteen tempo of boogie woogie music.
“I came to the destruction of volume by the use of the plane. This I accomplished by means of lines cutting the planes. But still the plane remained too intact. So I came to making lines and brought the color within these lines. Now the problem was to destroy these lines also through mutual opposition… Perhaps I do not express myself clearly in this, but it may give you some idea of why I left the cubist influence. True Boogie Woogie I conceive as homogeneous in intention with mine in painting.”
The Music Behind the Art
Mondrian had been a fan of jazz since he was introduced to the genre in Paris. On his very first night in New York, he accompanied Harry Holtzman to a jazz concert where they listened to pianists Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. Holtzman recalls Mondrian’s exclamation of “Enormous, enormous.”
Boogie woogie music had been created in African American communities in the late 1800s, but was brought to the forefront of popular culture in the 1920s. It utilizes a twelve bar blues form, fusing eight-bar-to-the-measure bass lines, performed with the left hand, with the more melodic rhythms of the right hand. Although it is a form of blues music, it does not rely heavily on emotion, instead being more commonly associated with dancing. Mondrian clearly found some inspiration from dancing, having named two of his previous works Foxtrot A and B. In 1920 he wrote, “In the new dances outside of art, the tango, fox trot, etc., we can already see something of the new idea of equilibrium through opposition of contraries.”
Mondrian later contradicted these words upon his introduction to jazz, writing “[T]he duality in modern dance music is not an opposition of true contraries- although in the jazz band we sometimes hear sounds by which their timbre and attack are more or less opposed to traditional ‘harmonious’ sounds, and which clearly demonstrate that it is possible to construct ‘nonsound’.”
However, no style of music was as influential to Mondrian as boogie woogie. Boogie woogie was characterized by its frenetic rhythm, often played on two or three pianos at a time. This is reflected in Broadway Boogie Woogie, with its hectic, boisterous arrangement of colored planes on a yellow grid, depicting the frantic boogie woogie tempo. As James Johnson Sweeney wrote in his 1945 essay for the Museum of Modern Art retrospective, “The eye is led from one group of color notes to another at varying speeds. At the same time, contrasted with this endless change in the minor motives we have a constant repetition of the right angle theme, like a persistent bass chord sounding through a sprinkle of running arpeggios and grace notes from the treble.”