It was the small pieces of colored tape applied experimentally at the last moment that made Piet Mondrian’s monumental Victory Boogie-Woogie fragile. They also presented a huge headache for Emily Hall Tremaine who purchased Victory Boogie-Woogie in 1945. “Almost from the day it arrived, this collage began to tremble and I realized that even losing one element might throw the whole thing off that Mondrian was working on, he was so exact,” she said.

Piet Mondrian, “Victory Boogie Woogie.”

Emily fell in love with Victory Boogie-Woogie the first time she saw it in the autumn of 1944, six months after Mondrian’s death from pneumonia in New York City. “I was in the Dudensing Gallery one day and Valentine said I should see one of the most exciting things I’d ever see, and he brought out Victory Boogie-Woogie,” Emily recalled. “I will never forget the impact. I don’t think anything has ever hit me as hard as that and I said, ‘Oh, how much is it?’ and he said ‘It’s not for sale. I’ve got my own ideas about this.’” Emily immediately telephoned her cousin A. Everett “Chick” Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, imploring him to come to New York. “I said ‘Chick, you come down here. I’ve seen a picture where every door that Mondrian closed he has opened again. There’s a whole century of inspiration and art and ideas and vision in this thing. I just see a little bit, but it’s there.’ When he came down, he saw it, said ‘yes, isn’t it true! He’s just opened every door.’”

A few weeks before he died, Mondrian had finished Victory Boogie-Woogie, but then he had taken another look. He began to overlay some sections with small colored rectangles against the larger gray and white planes, yearning to capture the syncopated rhythm of boogie-woogie, his favorite music. But the rhythm died with him—he never got the chance to remove the tape and paint the changes. Finished or not, Emily considered Victory Boogie-Woogie the most important painting in her collection against which every new acquisition was judged. The challenge was that its fragility made public exhibition risky. Yet at the same time Emily believed strongly that great works of art needed to be on view, otherwise, their influence on upcoming generations of artists was lost.

Not long after acquiring Victory Boogie-Woogie, Emily loaned it for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shortly thereafter she consulted with Monroe Wheeler at the museum who advised her to hire an artist to remove the tapes and complete the canvas. According to Emily, Wheeler told her there was “no surface covering which can be put over the painting to keep the pieces of tape from drying out and buckling at the edges.” But she strongly resisted the idea of having someone finish the painting, intuiting that the incompleteness pointed to the spiritual direction in which Mondrian was headed. She loaned it to the Gemeente Museum in Amsterdam following the MoMA exhibition, at which time the director of the museum, concerned about its condition, asked Emily for permission to make an exact copy.

Seeing the merit in his suggestion, Emily considered having a copy made for reference purposes in case the tape fell off. She also wanted a completed “interpretation” based on thorough analysis that would tour with the upcoming Painting Toward Architecture exhibition, so named in homage to Mondrian. There was no way that the original painting could withstand the depredations of a grueling 28-venue tour over a two-year period. Emily decided to hire an artist who was thoroughly versed in Mondrian’s neoplasticism to make the copies and to do a written analysis of the painting, which would then be distributed to artists and art students. It was not an ideal solution, but in retrospect it was probably the only one. After considering several artists, Emily commissioned Perle Fine, an artist she admired greatly and whose work was in the Tremaine collection. Furthermore, Fine’s philosophy and dedication were in sync with Emily’s.

Working with the same paints under similar lighting to that used by Mondrian, Fine worked assiduously to complete the copy on time. Then while the copy was on tour, Emily sent the original to the highly regarded restorers Sheldon and Caroline Keck who, after much research and with the greatest of care, reglued the tapes. Before doing so, they informed Emily that Mondrian had indeed finished the canvas. She consulted with Alfred Barr who agreed that preserving the tapes was the right thing to do. Emily then loaned the original to MoMA for several years where it influenced Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt and many others. Reinhardt told Emily that the abstract expressionists “got our courage toward the unfinished” from Victory Boogie-Woogie.

Unfinished and fragile—in Emily’s mind, those two aspects were pluses, not negatives. “I feel that the Victory was an intense breakthrough that was the culmination of Mondrian’s whole life,” she explained. “The experience of it is wonderful; there is drama caught in it. It’s like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the full orchestration – the chorus forcing octaves almost beyond human ears. Mondrian felt that nothing is ever finished – always proceeding from the material to the spiritual, just as high as you are able to go with it. There is no beginning and no end.”

The full story of how Emily Hall Tremaine came to purchase Victory Boogie-Woogie and the efforts by Perle Fine to paint an interpretation is found in Kathleen L. Housley’s books Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp (available as a PDF on the Tremaine Foundation website) and Tranquil Power: The Art and Life of Perle Fine (MidMarch Arts Press, available on Amazon). 

The Emily Files is a monthly feature where we explore specific pieces from the Tremaine Collection and connect them to themes shaping contemporary art. Each feature is written by Kathleen Housley, author of Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp.

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