PRINT October 1995

Finish Line

WILLEM DE KOONING: I consider all painting free. As far as I’m concerned geometric shapes are not necessarily clear.

AD REINHARDT: An emphasis on geometry is an emphasis on the “known,” on order and knowledge.

HERBERT FERBER: Why is geometry more clear than the use of swirling shapes?

REINHARDT: Let’s straighten out our terminology. . . . Vagueness is a “romantic” value, and clarity and “geometricity” are “classic” values.

DE KOONING: I meant geometry in art. . . .

MODERATOR [RICHARD LIPPOLD]: This means that a rectangle is unclear?

DE KOONING: Yes. . . . If a man is influenced on the basis that Mondrian is clear, I would like to ask Mondrian if he was so clear. Obviously, he wasn’t clear, because he kept on painting.

From the “Artists’ Sessions at Studio 35,” a symposium held on 22 April 1950, published in Modern Artists in America no. 1, 1951

PIET MONDRIAN WANTED TO take Cubism to its logical conclusion. But who could have ever imagined, in 1912, what that conclusion would be? His paintings of the 1920s inexorably work their way through all the implications of Cubist structure based on the “classic values” of “clarity and geometricity.” But had Mondrian been interested in “order and knowledge,” he could have painted variations on his 1922 paintings for the rest of his life. Theory could have eventually replaced painting, everything would have become clear, and he might have retired. But as Willem de Kooning observed, “Obviously, he wasn't clear, because he kept on painting.”

By the mid ’30s, perceptual complexity, in the form of an uncontrollable opticality, turned all the knowns in Mondrian’s work into unknowns, and all the certainties into doubts. Then, in the 1940s, in an unforeseeable transformation, this most methodical of painters began a headlong dash to dismantle the foundations of Western pictorial art. The penultimate work of his “destructive” phase was Broadway Boogie Woogie, a painting that, nonetheless, disappointed the artist, who confided, “There is still too much of the old in it.”

In her 1961 article “Mondrian: A Memoir of his New York Period,” Charmion von Wiegand tells this story of his last paintings:

One afternoon when I called on Mondrian, he came to the door in a mood of suppressed excitement, and pattering back to the bedroom returned immediately, holding out a small sheet of paper. “Last night I dreamed a new composition,” he said. I saw a drawing traced freely in pencil, not so much a sketch as a fragile notation of his idea. That idea grew during the long winter months of 1942. In their initial stages, both Boogie-Woogie pictures were conceived in lines of primary color. . . . Mondrian alternated in working on the two pictures, and at one period Victory Boogie-Woogie was declared complete. At that time, it was a composition of unbroken primary colors. The next time I saw the picture, it had been destroyed and was in process towards “a new solution.” The white plane bore the marks of struggle; the long colored lines were broken up into small rectangles, cut by various large planes, and tiny pieces of tape were superimposed everywhere on the surface. This was to happen again and again, so that under Victory Boogie-Woogie lie buried six or seven different solutions, each of which might have been a complete picture.

Weeks later I found him painting on Broadway Boogie, and he was just putting a yellow rectangle in the center of a red plane. “But that doesn’t go with your theory,” I exclaimed.

“Does it work?” he asked, and standing back to look he said, “Yes, it works.” After an interval of painting he continued, “You should know that all my paintings were done first and the theory derived from them. So now perhaps we will have to change the theory.”1

Around February 1943 Fritz Glamer photographed Mondrian putting the ''final touches“ on Victory Boogie Woogie. But in October 1943 he was still struggling to complete it. He had no other paintings in progress. On 10 January 1944, Sidney Janis visited the studio and reported that Mondrian’s only remaining doubt concerned whether the lower left ”need[ed] more work.“ By the 17th of January, Mondrian was able to tell von Wiegand that Victory Boogie Woogie, now virtually clear of tape, was ”all right except the very top.“ And when Harry Holtzman saw it on the 20th or 21st, with what was supposedly its final taping, Mondrian told him, ”Now I have only to paint it.“ According to José Luis Sert, who dropped by to see him on the 23rd, Mondrian was sick but still working on the painting in his pajamas. No one visited for the next two days. Mondrian had no telephone. On the 26th, Glarner discovered Mondrian in bed, seriously ill. After Mondrian was taken to the hospital, von Wiegand returned to the apartment, where she was struck by the ”radical change“ in the painting, which she remembered as having had hardly any tape on its surface only ten days before. It was ”now covered once again with small tapes and looked as though he’d been working on it in fever and with great intensity.“ He had ”broken away from all those straight lines and opened the entire surface again."2 Mondrian died on 1 February 1944.

In the two days between Sert’s visit and Glarner’s discovery of the sick Mondrian, the artist had completely ripped apart and reconstructed Victory Boogie Woogie along radically new lines that contradicted even his latest theories. Yet only three days before, and after a year’s work, he had considered the painting finished. What had happened? Is it possible that, in his fevered last days, he had had another dream? Did he see what was beyond the logical conclusion? Could he have gone further? Has anyone?

Mel Bochner is an artist living in New York.

1. Charmion von Wiegand, “Mondrian: A Memoir of His New York Period,” Arts Yearbook 4, 1961, pp. 64–65.
2. Joop Joosten with Angelica Zander Rudenstine, “Chronology, ” in Piet Mondrian: 1872-1944, exhibition catalogue, Boston: Little, Brown, 1994, p. 84.