Broadway Boogie Woogie, 1942-43,Oil on Canvas, cm. 127 x 127 (50" x 50"), MoMA, NYC, USA

 

In order to understand the genesis of Broadway Boogie Woogie it is necessary to start from the preceding canvas New York City.

 

New York City, 1942

New York City - Diagram A

Broadway Boogie Woogie - Diagram A


Comparison of the two canvases shows a yellow, red, and blue space of virtually infinite expansion in the first and its concentration in a finite dimension of those three colors in the second. The space that continues uninterruptedly in New York City finds a moment of more solid permanence and duration in BBW.

The interpenetration of colored lines generates a multitude of small gray, yellow, red, and blue squares in BBW. The uniform lines of New York City come into direct communication here, with fragments of the horizontal entering the vertical and vice versa. For the first time in a painting by Mondrian, each line expresses opposing thrusts clearly and explicitly within itself. To be more precise, there are no yellow squares but only larger intervals of space between the gray, red, and blue squares. Yellow appears very rarely in the form of a small square and more frequently as a linear segment. The lines of BBW are therefore mostly yellow.

The painting is referred to as BBW from now on. My explanation of it will be based on diagrams, in which I have broken down and analyzed its geometry. Please note that the diagrams should not be intended as an indication of how Mondrian did progressively paint the canvas, rather as a visual aid to understand its meanings.


A

 

B

C

D

E

F

Viewed as a sequence, the diagrams help us to visualize a dynamic process. The planes of BBW are nearly all different from one another in terms of size, shape, and color. In diagram C and D we see some planes express a vertical predominance and others greater horizontal development. Some consist of a single color and others of two. One plane (diagram E - 17), the largest, expresses a balanced interpenetration of the three primary colors.



 

BBW

 

BBW Diagram A

Every horizontal line contrasts with the vertical part of the small squares just as their horizontal component expresses opposition when situated on a vertical line.
They are therefore entities in a state of unstable equilibrium between horizontal and vertical. Closer examination shows indeed that the small squares present variable proportions, with some developing a slight horizontal predominance, some a vertical predominance, and some apparently attaining actual square proportions.

The small squares continuously undergo slight expansion and contraction inside the lines. Everything seems to change incessantly in diagram A. A space of this sort is well capable of representing both the changing variety of shapes that follow one another in the space of physical reality and a succession of drives lasting only a few seconds in the inner space.

The relationship between the lines and the small squares is one of interaction between a space of infinite extension (absolute space of an exclusively horizontal or exclusively vertical nature) and a finite space (the small square) that seeks instead to concentrate and maintain equilibrium between the two opposing directions. Mankind also lives in a condition of inner duality between the natural instincts and the intellectual or spiritual quests. The human being experiences a finite dimension in relation to the infinite space of the universe in much the same way as the small square (finite) on a line (infinite) in a two-dimensional space.


 

BBW

 

BBW Diagram B

The concomitance of horizontal and vertical, which constitutes the very nature of every small square, is "inevitably" called into question by every single line in which the small square is located. The static vocation of the small square is placed under constant pressure by the dynamic nature of the line. It should be noted that these are two opposing tendencies of one and the same space.

What we shall observe from now on is a dialectic between the tendency of the small squares to concentrate the infinite space of the lines toward a finite dimension (i.e. toward their own nature) and a contrary tendency of the lines to expand boundlessly toward an absolute space (only one direction or the other). The small square strives to concentrate space upon itself so as to maintain balance between the two opposing directions. Think of the situations in our daily life when we try to reach a certain balance between opposite drives within us.

Observation of the frenzied succession of small squares reveals some that join up with others of same color to generate some symmetrical configurations along the lines (Diagram B). Symmetry can be described as an extension of space that presents an orderly rhythm generated by repetition of the same elements.
The changing space of the lines - i.e. the ephemeral progression of different small squares - is endowed with greater constancy through symmetries. Human beings also endeavor during their lives to transform the variable flow of existence as far as possible into a more orderly and constant rhythm of foreseeable events.

Careful observation of the symmetries formed on the lines shows however that they are not wholly regular and precise geometric structures. While the alternation of colors is symmetrical, both the size of every small square and the space between them vary. We are thus faced with flexible symmetries under constant pressure from the dynamism of the lines. The symmetries highlighted in diagram B can be seen as portions of measured and hence finite space generated inside an infinite space like that of the lines, as though the incommensurable space of the lines contracted for a moment into a finite segment (the symmetrical sequence) before reverting to infinite expansion. The symmetries must be seen in an elastic way as they seek to restrain and articulate the infinite space of the lines, which instead subject the concentration triggered by the symmetries to an expansive momentum.

   

BBW

   

BBW Diagram B

A certain vertical correspondence between two horizontal symmetries can be seen in the section of diagram B labeled 1. The correspondence appears to be slightly staggered by the movement of the lines.

An analogous situation can be seen between two vertical symmetries at point 2, where the correspondence is fully attained. Two vertical symmetries with a red center establish a horizontal symmetry between them.

Through the act of contemplating a horizontal relationship between two vertical symmetries (2), we actually generate a field of greater extension, i.e. a plane, which covers the space between the two vertical lines. In that very point, we see the birth of a small blue plane and then of other planes which are being shown in diagram C.


BBW

BBW Diagram C

By comparison with the small squares from which they originate, the planes appear more stable with respect to the dynamic and unstable flow of the lines; more stable but still in a state of dynamic equilibrium between the two opposing directions. Some undergo greater horizontal influence, some vertical predominance, and some appear to attain a relative condition of equilibrium between the two opposite directions.

The dialectic between symmetrical aggregation of small squares (Diagram B), which try to maintain their finite simultaneous presence of horizontal and vertical, and disintegration (the infinite, either horizontal or vertical line) gives birth to larger planes where the relationship between opposites (the nature of the small square) finds a relatively more stable situation. Every instance of opposition can subsequently work in a broader context to generate a new and more stable balance.
What appears negative today can become positive tomorrow. Our plans are sometimes obstructed by random and apparently extraneous factors that can, however, perform a useful function in prompting us to reformulate a project during its execution and ultimately improve it. The opposition of events should always be welcomed as an opportunity to adjust and develop the initial idea. Only in this way can equilibrium and dynamic unity be attained between individual and universal interests, subject and object, thought and nature. In everyday life, this presupposes a certain amount of patience, mental openness, and wisdom, qualities that are not always forthcoming among human beings.

Some planes are still partially combined with the space of the lines (3), some are partially isolated (4, 5, 7) and some appear to be totally self-contained (6).
The two planes 5 and 7 appear to be equal on first sight but closer observation shows that 5 has slightly greater vertical development.

BBW

BBW Diagram D

Plane 8 extends downward and drags with it a fragment of horizontal gray line, which is transposed into the vertical and becomes a rectangular field inside plane 9.
Planes 8 and 9 should be seen as two successive moments in a dynamic sequence transforming a yellow surface into one made up of two colors (yellow and gray).
If the painting is observed in a static way, the two planes are seen as a single vertical band. When viewed in dynamic terms, which is what Neoplastic painting demands, this band is nothing other than the transformation of the plane 8 into 9.

New planes are thus born, as shown by diagram D, that differ from those observed in diagram C by presenting an inner space marked with a different color.

We can regard the transition from the frenetic and precarious space of the small squares to the more constant space of the planes (from an external to an internal space) as a plastic symbol of the gradual consolidation of an inner world through resistance to the conflicting pressures of the external world (symbolized in BBW by the lines) and reinforcement of the equilibrium within (synthesis and the equivalence of opposites). Every small square has one part of itself (horizontal) that is opposed to the other (vertical). Every line strives to open up the concentration that every plane endeavors in its own way to consolidate and preserve. This generates a dialectical process of evolution between external (the lines) and internal (the planes) space.

Internalizing the exterior means opening up, going beyond the narrow boundaries of the conscious self, and allowing this to be enriched as far as possible by the unpredictable diversity of the world, not only the external world but also the internal, the almost infinite reality that we bear within us and often find it difficult to decipher. It means taking cognizance of the duality existing within us; understanding that our every act (thought or action) is the result of opposing drives, just as every small square or plane of BBW is born out of impulses that unavoidably undergo a vertical shift while intent on developing horizontally and vice versa.

Indian wisdom says that the self is the friend of the self for those who overcome the self through the self. Those who resist initial impulses and overcome situations of duality transform conflict with the self into synthesis and unity of being. At the same time, however, the process of growth and enrichment would not be possible without conflict and opposition.

BBW

BBW Diagram D

Due to the vertical predominance in plane 9, the internal gray band displays slightly greater horizontal development.
Analogously, but in the opposite sense, plane 10 is counterbalanced by a red vertical segment just as the red vertical predominance of 11 is offset by a gray horizontal segment. The space of BBW is made up of constant contrast and reciprocal opposition.

The equilibrium attained between exterior and interior is never static. Neoplastic space is therefore grounded on a dynamic relationship between opposing entities. These are moments of equilibrium attained, lost, and then regained in a new form. The greater the effort to establish an equilibrium in a stable and absolute form, the more it opens up to a new movement making it unstable and relative. So it is in our lives.

Observation of the sequence 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 shows that the process of spatial internalization (beginning with 9) continues in other planes where the gray field, which is still open on the sides in 9, is concentrated and stabilized in the form of a small square (12, 13, 14). A sign of linearity opposing the layout of the plane (9, 10, 11) gives way to a more balanced configuration that reduces the opposition to the interior of the same plane (12, 13, 14).

Let us consider plane 12 for a moment in relation to plane 13. The former undergoes greater horizontal influence while the latter develops a marked vertical predominance. The two internal quadrangles seem to reduce the imbalance manifested so obviously with the respective yellow parts of the planes. The internal quadrangles are the first timid sign (gray is the most tenuous chromatic value) of a shared inner nature that is more constant and detached from the frenzied and contradictory movement produced on the external lines.

Let us now summarize the various phases of spatial transformation observed so far as visualized in a single sequence.

 

BBW

BBW Diagram E

We can see at points 15 and 16 of diagram E how the self-internalization of space continues and there are now four colors concentrated in the area of just two planes: blue and yellow in 15, red and gray in 16. The two planes are equivalent in their degree of formal development but prove opposite and complementary in terms of color, each being in fact characterized by the colors lacking in the other. A single plane expressing a synthesis of the three primary colors is finally reached at point 17.

 

New York City

New York City - Diagram A

BBW - Diagram F

The opposite directions colored yellow, red, and blue, which disrupted our visual field at the beginning of the process by keeping the eye in constant motion (New York City - Diagram A), attain unitary synthesis here (BBW - Diagram F).

 

BBW

BBW Diagram F

Diagram F: Note how a quadrangle expresses equilibrium and synthesis of the opposing directions in the two planes 15 and 16 while a segment still opposes the field containing it. We have seen in plane 14 how an internal quadrangle develops (9) from a segment (8). The segment inside the two planes 15 and 16 is therefore an indication of a potential second internal quadrangle, which is shortly to develop in plane 17.

The segments inside the two planes 15 and 16 tell us that they are still influenced by the dynamism of the external in comparison with plane 17, where the entire space (yellow, red, blue) instead attains a more balanced relationship between horizontal and vertical. Though partaking of the interaction between the opposite directions, this "vertical-horizontal" unity seems to resolve the opposition and contrast in felicitous equilibrium.

The space of this plane expresses a comparative state of calm, albeit in a dynamic way, by comparison with the surrounding space. Again recapitulating the geometry analyzed so far in its individual parts, we see that the lines in BBW generate a multitude of small squares, which give rise to symmetries that then generate monochromatic surfaces. These are transformed into a certain number of two-colored surfaces that then become a single surface constituting a synthesis of the three primary colors. The space of BBW undergoes uninterrupted transformation from a condition of multiplicity to one of unity, from the many to the one.

For centuries religions have been dealing with the many and the one identifying the latter with the idea of a God; on a more rational level philosophy has been trying in many different ways to explore and pinpoint nature and human mind; more recently science has been searching for one law which could explain all phenomena of the physical world. Without realizing it, we address relations between unity and multiplicity every day, e.g. every time we summarize something that strikes us as unduly complex. We create a relationship between the parts and the whole both when we strive to see all the different facets of reality and when we are driven by emotion to trace everything back to a few elements and make generalizations. Though aware that the reality is far more complex, we often tend to make narrow, summary judgments. The reality before us is always more complex than our descriptions but we cannot always concentrate on it and investigate every single aspect in depth, not least because every single aspect is in fact an infinite reality in itself. This has always been true and is even more so today given the level of complexity attained by modern societies. Nor is this something purely intellectual. We often experience a drive for concentration when rational explanations give way to an urge that transforms all the complexity and fragmentation of a vision thought into the almost absolute synthesis of a vision felt. When we fall in love, for example, the whole of our fragmented daily life seems to come together in a concentrated form of energy that makes us feel in harmony with the world. Here too we can talk of multiplicity becoming unity.

 

BBW

BBW Diagram G

Diagram G: Plane 18 is the same size as plane 17 but consists solely of red and gray rather than the three primary colors.

The inner space of the plane presents a gray quadrangle and two gray segments, one of which is part of a horizontal line running through the plane. The quadrangle is a sign of permanence and greater equilibrium between the two opposing directions while the two segments, especially the one belonging to the line, are signs of movement that accentuate the horizontal direction in sharp contrast to the vertical layout of the plane itself.

After the equivalence and the synthesis of three primary colors attained in plane 17, the colors are again reduced in plane 18 and the external dynamism of the lines reappears to generate new opposition. The horizontal line running suddenly through the vertical plane tends visually to disrupt the previously attained equivalence of opposites. After the degree of comparative calm, constancy, and unity achieved in plane 17, spatial movement thus seems to reappear in plane 18. The unitary synthesis opens up to external space and the colors are separated and flow back toward the more dynamic and variable space of the lines (19, 20). The indication provided by plane 18 finds further confirmation in plane 19, where blue, yellow, and red are juxtaposed but no longer interpenetrate as they did in plane 17. The juxtaposition produces the impression that the whole is less compact and solid, whereas the interpenetration combines the three colors in a single structure of greater stability. Note how the yellow on the right of 19 already seeks to cross the perimeter of the plane and flow into the yellow of the surrounding lines. Plane 19 can therefore be seen as plane 17 in the process of dissolution.

Configuration 20 possibly represents the conclusion of the process of reopening the unitary synthesis in that it can be seen as a continuation of the disintegration of 19. The yellow section that tends to emerge to the right in 19 becomes the external space of the lines in 20. Observe the six diagrams below as a single sequence:

A

 

B

C

D

E

F

The lines (A) are first concentrated into small squares (B) and then into planes (C) that became a single plane (D) which expresses in a unitary form the multiplicity of A and B. The unity then opens up again (E) and reverts to the more dynamic and variable condition of the endless lines (F and A).

The geometry of BBW can therefore be summarized as a dynamic sequence that moves from a multiplicity of lines to the unitary synthesis of a plane and then expands from the unity of a plane toward a multiplicity of lines. An external and manifold space gives way to an internal and unitary space and then again moves outward from the inside. From expansion toward increasing concentration and then from concentration back to expansion: this is the way BBW breathes.

It is necessary to view BBW in a state of dynamic equilibrium between one stage and another of the process rather than stopping on the isolated states of the individual parts; to see the geometry in its state of becoming; to see the planes an instant before, as they develop out of symmetries, and to see the symmetries while they are generated by the small squares, which are generated in turn out of the interaction of opposing lines, each of which, taken in itself, expresses an absolute and infinite space that eliminates any possible relationship.

The space of BBW blossoms in a multitude of different entities that gradually turn into a single "thing", which then splits and reverts to a manifold condition. This happens endlessly in accordance with an interminable flux that is necessarily depicted by the painter in a certain form but not exhaustively captured within it. Expansion and concentration: something changes every time there is expansion and every instance of concentration will appear in new and different form while consisting of the same energy or matter. Like nature: immensely varied but nevertheless one. Like every single thing: simultaneously one and many. Recall the example of a tree seen from far and close distance.

In addition to the external landscape, however, I am thinking also and above all of its internal counterpart made up of varied and contradictory signs that sometimes display a certain continuity and become like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, ultimately revealing a single overall design.
We often feel the presence within us of conflicting selves that generate discordant animation. We must all know ourselves. Ours is the sometimes difficult task of understanding the sense of the conflict and opposition and finding a "guiding self" which can resolve oppositions into a synthesis capable of endowing our actions with a sense corresponding to our true nature. The unity we see in BBW is a vertical plane colored blue that succeeds in reaching a horizontal "soul" colored yellow through an equivalent plane colored red. All this is a synthesis of the greatest diversity, which is expressed in painting by means of the most contrasting values. BBW urges us to attain full and conscious self-fulfillment through a dynamic process. Diversity must not prevail and invade the self, the many must not prevail over the one, but still less can the self avoid confrontation with multiplicity. The goal is to find equilibrium within oneself through continuous interaction with the external world. Discover to our deep sorrow that external conflict is often born out of unresolved tension within us.

It is essentially a question of measure and proportion. Neoplastic space tells us that the excessive predominance of any part of us will sooner or later generate an opposite reaction. In BBW, as in life, excess generates its opposite. A traveler who keeps heading east will eventually arrive in the west. This is how things seem to work on this planet. This is how the space of BBW works. We are reminded of Dante Alighieri and his law of divine retribution.

In BBW an infinite space (lines) becomes finite space (planes), the external internal, and multiplicity unity. Opposing concepts assume the same value.They appear as antithetical realities in the human dimension; in actual fact, they are the same thing. Opposites become one only through a dynamic process that ideally reunites the two contrasting aspects without either being able to obtain permanent value on its own. In a dynamic vision, which therefore entails a certain temporal sequence, the duality present within us reveals an intrinsic unity, which is instead experienced as lacerating duality when a static vision, restricted to the particular facts of the moment, prevails. The purpose of these reflections is, however, not to explain life but to show the relations between an abstract painting and life.


The process observed in BBW - from lines to symmetries, then one or two-color planes, and finally the unitary plane - tells us that life is change (the dynamic lines) but if people are to live, they need to reduce and stabilize the ever-changing flux of existence, which does not, however, allow itself to be governed all that much (the unitary plane flowing back into lines). As Mondrian put it, "It is important to distinguish two types of equilibrium in art: 1) static equilibrium and 2) dynamic equilibrium. It is always natural for human beings to seek static equilibrium. This equilibrium is obviously necessary for existence in time. But vitality always destroys this equilibrium in constant temporal succession. Abstract art is a concrete expression of this vitality." The lines, which express the maximum degree of energy and continue to infinity, represent vitality. The symmetries and planes, which express a measured space and are endowed with greater permanence, albeit not total immobility, represent the equilibrium required for existence in time.

In this dialectic between what persists and what changes, crucial importance will attach to establishing rules, laws, and institutions capable of remaining open to the changes that existence brings with it and hence of performing their regulatory function without stifling vital demands any more than necessary. When laws and institutions oppose the movement and transformations that life brings with it, all they do is generate greater unrest over time, which in turn generates greater resistance on the part of the institutions and so on in an exhausting vicious circle where it is ultimately life that prevails and not our "symmetrical" stubbornness. This is what human history teaches. This is what is shown by the geometry of BBW, where space arrives at a certain degree of control and then opens up again to becoming.
In social life too, greater importance now attaches than ever before to the ability to handle the relationship between the one and the many, moving constantly back and forth between the parts and the whole so as to avoid the predominance of either the multitude of particular interests or the will of the few. The former brings chaos and makes it impossible to work for the common interest; the latter brings the paralysis of democracy if not indeed oligarchy and dictatorship.


Mondrian's pictorial evolution shows that, contrary to common belief, the artist had no intention whatsoever of forcing existing reality into rigid geometric schemata but rather of making his geometry as open and flexible as possible. In Broadway Boogie Woogie every form is born, grows and develops as every natural form does. As in natural space, nothing lasts forever; no entity is pre-established but becomes such in that particular situation, in that particular positional relationship with respect to the other forms undergoing reciprocal determination. Every point of Broadway Boogie Woogie is unique and unforeseeable but, at the same time, part of a process that brings all of the elements together like a universal rhythm. A fluid space that gives concrete form to becoming more than being, to relations more than the individual things in themselves; a geometry that is anything but rigid, cold, or exclusively rational; a space that strikes me instead as very similar to life.

The immediacy of the painted image is certainly very different from the much longer and more intricate processes of real life. Neoplastic space expresses the instantaneous life of the moment while simultaneously evoking processes that can last a long time in reality and ultimately suggesting the unity of all things, i.e. a dimension that we associate with the eternal. BBW is to be seen as a concentrate of space and time: what lasts the length of time required for perception of the visual fact in the representational dimension of art can instead dilate and last for days, months, and years in the space-time of real life. The thousands of different situations that orchestrate the rhythms of our existence are condensed in the work of art that represents life in essential and hence abstract terms. If it were not abstract, if it were concerned with the fleeting aspects of each individual situation and thing, it would lose sight of the whole and be unable to express life at a universal level.


I think it necessary to say a few words also about the title Mondrian gave this painting. It may have been as a tribute to the place that offered him a home, as he had already paid tribute to Paris with a work entitled Place de la Concorde and to London with Trafalgar Square. The title has, however, given rise to no small number of misunderstandings by suggesting superficial parallels with the outward appearance of the city of New York.

The painting obviously has very little to do with the lights of Broadway or the street plan of Manhattan. If we really want to stick to the city where the image took shape, we could if anything think in terms of the contrasts, the constant movement, the infinite variety of humanity, situations, and disparate elements that make up New York. Moreover, I do not believe that Mondrian ever intended with BBW, as with other works of his, to give pictorial form to a certain type of music, or indeed that music was the primary source of inspiration for his compositions. What the fox trot or boogie-woogie may have in common with Mondrian's paintings is the fact that both music and images tend to create dynamic sequences. The analogy with music must, however, serve toward the full understanding and enjoyment of painting.

No, Broadway Boogie Woogie is not to be understood through reference to its title. The substance of things lies and remains wholly in the visual data. Those capable of seeing in the painting only what the title suggests to them will have to wait until their vision becomes more finely honed and reveals the deeper reality, which lies always and exclusively in images and not in words, at least in the case of the visual arts. As Mondrian observed, "A true critic can, simply by drawing upon the depths of his humanity and observing with purity, write about the new forms of art even without a knowledge of the working technique (...). But a true critic is somewhat rare." (Piet Mondrian, Tutti gli Scritti (a cura di Harry Holtzman), Feltrinelli, Milano, 1975, p. 46)

 

Copyright: Michael (Michele) Sciam 1989-2021 All Rights Reserved

 

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