- Iconoclastic Images
I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art.1Piet Mondrian
When Yve-Alain Bois provided us with his remarkably incisive analysis of the development of Mondrian’s painting in the catalogue for the 1994 retrospective that he co-curated, he entitled his essay “The Iconoclast.”2 Unfortunately, his discussion concluded with Victory Boogie Woogie, as did the official exhibition, not with what I would take to be Mondrian’s most iconoclastic images. In retrospect, Victory Boogie Woogie no doubt offered a fitting conclusion to a show that was designed to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Mondrian’s death, not only in so far as it has become an icon of his corpus—and precisely in its unrelenting iconoclasm—but in so far as it is assumed to be his last painting. Needless to say, this is what one would expect of a retrospective, given the temporality that is presupposed in tracing the historical development of an artist’s work. As such, Victory Boogie Woogie met the demand for a conclusion to the narrative, in what is presumed to be the consummation of Mondrian’s career, albeit in a painting that remains unfinished.
There is, however, a well-known photograph in which Victory Boogie Woogie is displayed on an easel (even though it was not painted on one) in Mondrian’s last studio, in which we catch a glimpse of the other paintings on which he was working in his final months (see fig. 1). Whether what have come to be referred to as his “Wall Works” may be thought of as finished is a question that is beyond the scope of our present considerations, since it would require, not a retrospective, but a prospective view of an artistic creativity. For if we take this admittedly controversial title as a proper name for [End Page 24] those color plane constructions that were mounted directly to the walls of the 59th St. studio, then the “Wall Works” would designate a dynamic system of painting: an operating system whose temporality is not designed to be historical but contemporary, and whose aim is to create a painting that is not an aesthetic object but a time-space event.3 Suffice it to say that these works are so iconoclastic that they have effectively been excluded from the corpus, even when they are included, as they were in the mounting of the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), not to mention in the monumental Catalogue Raisonné, whose second volume was compiled by another co-curator of the show, who also contributed to its catalog. In both cases, the Wall Works appear in thumbnails that decorate the narrative “Chronology” of Mondrian’s life with photographs, preceding the presentation of the paintings proper in the catalog for the 1994 exhibition and inserted into the “Documentary Chronicle” that goes between an initial set of color reproductions and the “Catalogue Raisonné.”
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At MoMA, the Wall Works were similarly marginalized: presented on another floor of the museum, segregated from the main exhibition and isolated in a small room of their own, in what amounted to a sideshow. The spatial flow left no doubt that Victory Boogie Woogie was the grand finale of Mondrian’s [End Page 25] career and the Wall Works little more than a sideline or, at best, a supplement to the official show. By contrast, in the photograph of the studio that was taken by Harry Holtzman after Mondrian’s death, it is Victory Boogie Woogie that would appear to be marginalized, or at least set to the side in a space in which there is no longer any room on the wall for such a painting. And while Holtzman’s aim in this staging was, no doubt, to suggest a direct relation between the two types of work, as if the colored rectangles that were previously painted on the picture plane had simply been transferred to the wall, we would see...