Sometime in the 2000s, I became hooked on an online video game called “Pac-Mondrian.” It was like “Pac-Man” — you gobbled dots while running from ghosts — but replaced that game’s grid labyrinth with Piet Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie.” Very droll. Surprisingly addictive.
When he painted “Broadway Boogie Woogie” in 1942-1943, Mondrian (1872-1944) had been living in New York City for just over two years. The Dutch artist was in his early 70s. Like many other European artists, he had fled the war in Europe, finding refuge in London and then in New York. On his very first night in Manhattan, he was introduced to boogie-woogie music and fell in love with it.
Early forms of boogie-woogie — by Pinetop Smith, for instance — had lyrics that doubled as instructions with a binary dynamic — on/off, move/don’t move:
“Now, when I tell you to hold yourself, you get ready to stop, and don’t move a peg. And when I say get it, I want you to shake that thing.”
In a similar spirit, Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” was a kind of algorithmic translation of music and dance into imagery.
“All art constantly aspires toward the condition of music,” wrote the critic Walter Pater. Mondrian’s painting, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, would seem to bear that out. But playing “Pac-Mondrian” made me wonder whether Mondrian wasn’t also aspiring to — or at least paving the way for — the digital.
Think about it. His art reduced empirical things — apple trees, waves on water — to a binary language of vertical and horizontal lines. This process of distillation gradually led to his compact yet open, modular language of vertical and horizontal lines and colored rectangles.
Mondrian was raised by strict Protestants. He carried spiritualist, even monastic tendencies into his adulthood, and like his 17th-century compatriot, the rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, he discerned a link between geometry and ethics. He purged his paintings not only of spatial illusion, but also hierarchy. No one aspect of the composition was to be more important than another. Within his rectilinear framework, Mondrian arranged colors — usually red, yellow and blue along with black, white and gray — to construct images that, still today, give off a feeling of astonishing lucidity and “rightness.”
Mondrian’s motto — “each element is determined by its contrary” — drew on Hegel’s dialectics, according to which oppositions pitted against one another result not in stasis but in constant evolution. “It is in human nature to love a static balance,” Mondrian wrote. “The great struggle, and the one which every artist must undertake, is to annihilate a static equilibrium.”
Of course, when you’re in their presence, Mondrian’s paintings don’t feel at all digital. You notice instead just how much he loved paint. His brushstrokes animated surfaces that would otherwise feel dead. In London, the critic Herbert Read watched him at work in his “immaculate white cell” and wondered why he kept going over one black line. Was it about adjusting the line’s width? No, said Mondrian. “It was a question of its intensity,” explained Read, “which could only be achieved by repeated applications of the paint.”
These sensuous aspects — the painting’s facture, the colors’ intensity — are as important, in their way, as Mondrian’s organization of form and space. In fact, the tension in Mondrian’s work between rationality and sensuousness led the critic David Sylvester to detect in it a “suppressed violence.”
Mondrian appealed to Americans in part because his aesthetic dovetailed with the Dutch Pennsylvania and Shaker traditions of surface tension and simplicity, and with Frank Lloyd Wright, whose architecture transposed the hubris of verticality into the harmoniousness of horizontality.
His paintings always had rhythm, and when he arrived in America, he was by no means a newcomer to jazz and modern dance. (There’s a 1930 painting in New Haven, Conn., called “Fox Trot.”) But “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” which is as seminal to modern art as “Pac-Man” is to gaming, was a late-career revolution. Harnessing the stop-start rhythms of Manhattan’s stupendous streets — and specifically, it’s jazziest street, Broadway — it represented a new level of ambition in Mondrian’s decades-long effort to use a severe-seeming language to express movement, uplift and joy.
The makers of “Pac-Mondrian” tapped into that same spirit. Last time I checked, alas, it had disappeared from the Internet.