Curator Emeritus, John Elderfield: Broadway Boogie Woogie is Mondrian's last fully completed picture. Painted in New York in 1942–1943, it brings to an end an extraordinary career, which goes back to the early part of the century. Mondrian gradually shrugged off the depictive kind of painting and started to make compositions restricted to the three primary colors, red, yellow and blue, plus white, black and grays.
What's so striking about this very late work is that Mondrian has replaced the black lines, which characterize the earlier work, by these bands with pulsating color within them. The title refers to music and Mondrian's interest in this kind of boogie woogie jazz, which he felt analogous to his own practice. He talked a lot about dynamic symmetry, about oppositions, and I think that his interest in jazz was in this kind of syncopation, which we see in this work of these elements running in sequences, working against each other and so on.
Mondrian is willing to totally decentralize the composition, creating this sort of optical fluttering that happens across the picture, so that your eye moves and picks up accents where it wishes, which looks forward to the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock.
Mondrian, who had escaped to New York from Europe after the outbreak of World War II, delighted in the city's architecture. He was also fascinated by American jazz, particularly boogie-woogie, finding its syncopated beat, irreverent approach to melody, and improvisational aesthetic akin to what he called, in his own work, the "destruction of natural appearance; and construction through continuous opposition of pure means—dynamic rhythm." In this painting, his penultimate, Mondrian replaced the black grid that had long governed his canvases with predominantly yellow lines that intersect at points marked by squares of blue and red. These atomized bands of stuttering chromatic pulses, interrupted by light gray, create paths across the canvas suggesting the city's grid, the movement of traffic, and blinking electric lights, as well as the rhythms of jazz.
Mondrian arrived in New York in 1940, one of the many European artists who moved to the United States to escape World War II. He fell in love with the city immediately. He also fell in love with boogie-woogie music, to which he was introduced on his first evening in New York, and he soon began, as he said, to put a little boogie-woogie into his paintings.
Mondrian's aesthetic doctrine of Neo-Plasticism restricted the painter's means to the most basic kinds of line—that is, to straight horizontals and verticals—and to a similarly limited color range, the primary triad of red, yellow, and blue plus white, black, and the grays between. But Broadway Boogie Woogie omits black and breaks Mondrian's once uniform bars of color into multicolored segments. Bouncing against each other, these tiny, blinking blocks of color create a vital and pulsing rhythm, an optical vibration that jumps from intersection to intersection like the streets of New York. At the same time, the picture is carefully calibrated, its colors interspersed with gray and white blocks in an extraordinary balancing act.
Mondrian's love of boogie-woogie must have come partly because he saw its goals as analogous to his own: "destruction of melody which is the destruction of natural appearance; and construction through the continuous opposition of pure means—dynamic rhythm."