One needn’t be an art connoisseur to recognize Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black. The 1929 oil-on-canvas painting is a simple geometric abstraction consisting of heavy black lines separating different-sized rectangular spaces. The three primary colors make cameo appearances, but the vast majority of the canvas is plain white.
Even if you don’t know this particular artwork, the piece is typical of Mondrian’s late-career shift that would define him. The easy-to-imitate style would be nicked for everything from textiles to housewares to TV game show sets; we still see plenty of it today. Three years ago, the original Composition No. III sold at auction for a record $50.6 million dollars.
You can buy a three-bedroom home in the City of Clairton, around 15 miles from downtown Pittsburgh, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 30 thousand dollars. Clairton’s story is a familiar one to its sister (ex-)mill towns in the Monongahela Valley–a boom for the first half of the 20th century following the massive growth of the steel industry, gradual exodus to the suburbs as families bought cars and became more mobile, then the steep decline with the collapse of Big Steel in the ’80s. Today, Clairton’s population is around a third of its peak in the 1950s.
That’s left a lot of vacant real estate. It’s not an exaggeration to say that for the sale price of this one little artwork–Composition III is just 20 inches, square–every for-sale property in Clairton could be purchased, many times over.
While it’s unlikely anyone in Clairton owns an original Mondrian, the fine residents of the “City of Prayer” have a trick up their collective sleeve–they just have to look out the window or walk down the block. There, for public view on the side streets and little alleyways, is an accidental, but absolutely spot-on survey of 20th century modern art.
Stewart Alley, just a block or two from the center of town, has a dead ringer for Mark Rothko’s soft-form, two-color ambient abstractions. Clairton’s version is rendered in deep red and light purple on the cinderblock wall of a commercial backside. The artist has upped the ante with a jaunty high-level racing stripe just under the roofline.
Just a couple blocks away and across a grassy vacant lot, sits the long side wall of an empty retail storefront. The wall features a riot of overlapping ghost advertisements–for Gold Medal Flour, some kind of tobacco, and others faded beyond recognition. The drywall and peg board from an ex-next-door neighbor are included in the collage, as is the yellow after-market siding protecting the apartment residences above. [Note: not all of this made it into the photo detail.]
Together, the life-imitating-art-imitating-life tableau made up a composition that spoke to the mixed-media/assemblage work of Robert Rauschenberg. Here, some stray, recycled text; there, paint smears, crumpled forms, jagged angles, and overlapping imagery.
Nearby, a wall so exquisite it quite figuratively took our breath away. Four interlocking, independent types of masonry–six patterns when you add in the squeeze of mortar and one stray white square–form such a simple, perfectly-balanced arrangement that it’s hard to fathom how the wall could have ended up that way by chance…or maybe it didn’t?
An older garage on Large Avenue features unique multi-tiered depth around its single, truck-sized garage door, a weathered two-tone paint job, and a bricked-over window that inserts an unexpected vertical box into the façade. That shape plays against the stair step drama of the doorway for a feeling that’s both harmonic and unresolved, balanced and weighted all wrong.
The Over-the-Wall Club held the latest of its infrequent, haphazard meetings in Clairton and we couldn’t have selected a finer set of public verticals. The small city has been through a lot, and contrary to the old saw, these walls do talk. They speak volumes, in fact, on growth and change, weather and time, industrial might and D.I.Y. ingenuity.
Sure, walking into a nice brand new construction brings a bunch of modern amenities and the rehab and reuse of older buildings is terrific. But there’s so much…not world history, but the people’s history in an old wall that often gets lost when the paint rollers and drop cloths come out.
Sometimes club members–like faithful parishioners waiting on the Rapture–get hung up on what’s on the other side. Clairton’s walls tell us to look right here, right now, at the intense beauty we can see in front of our eyes without going anywhere. We can reach out and touch it without the tantalizing prospect of a jackpot lottery payout or taking out a loan on the house. And it makes us value the moment–if history is any guide, these will be gone before you know it.
In fact, old Clairton is coming down hard and fast. An entire block of the St. Clair Avenue main drag has been torn down and planted with fresh grass seed since the last time we were in town. The Treat Yourself to the Best ghost sign was only exposed from a similar pair of demolitions on Miller Avenue. You’ve only got a limited window on these lovely old time-worn and tale-telling walls before they’ll either be meeting the paint brush (hopefully) or, more likely, the wrecking ball (sigh). Consider it your one shot at a traveling exhibit. Take the opportunity to see it and say goodbye while you still can.
 Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
 Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
 Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
 The irony of Clairton is that it still hosts one of the few operating mills in the region: U.S. Steel’s massive Clairton Coke Works dominates the entire curling riverfront downhill from all parts of town. It’s a cliché, but if you’re anywhere in the area you can’t miss it.