The Over-the-Wall Club: Mon Valley Mondrian

brick wall with many styles and paint colors, Clairton, PA

Composition in Four Quadrants, Large Avenue, Clairton

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[1].

Piet Mondrian's painting "Composition No. III, with-Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black"

Piet Mondrian, “Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black,” 1929

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[2]. 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[3].

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[4].

cinderblock wall painted red and blue with a white stripe, Clairton, PA

Lavender over Dark Red with White Stripe, Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimal abstract painting "Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray)" by Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko, “Number 207 (Red over Dark Blue on Dark Gray),” 1961

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.

brick with layers of "ghost signs" overlapping, Clairton, PA

Treat Yourself to the Best, Waddell Avenue, Clairton

mixed media/collage artwork by Robert Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg, “Magician,” 1959

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.

exterior wall built in multiple styles of brick and cinderblock, Clairton, PA

Komposition von mehreren Mauerwerk (Composition of Multiple Masonry), Miller Avenue, Clairton

Karl Peter Röhl's geometric abstraction "Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat"

Karl Peter Röhl, “Komposition mit Ruhendem Quadrat (Composition with Resting Square),” 1924

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.

brick wall with worn paint job in several different levels, Clairton, PA

Five Layers, Large Avenue, Clairton

Jasper Johns stacked painting "Three Flags"

Jasper Johns, “Three Flags,” 1958

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.

brick wall with handmade "no drugs" painting on wood, Clairton, PA

No Drugs, Mulberry Alley, Clairton

Burgoyne Diller's geometric abstraction "Second Theme"

Burgoyne Diller, “Second Theme,” 1949

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.

10-speed bicycle leans against a weathered cinderblock wall, Clairton, PA

10-Speed (The Orbitmobile), Stewart Alley, Clairton

minimalist painting "Series #14 (White)" by Robert Ryman

Robert Ryman, “Series #14 (White),” 2004


[1] Source: https://www.christies.com/features/In-The-Saleroom-Piet-Mondrians-Composition-No-III-6090-3.aspx
[2] Source: https://www.zillow.com/clairton-pa/
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clairton,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] 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.

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Winter Meeting

weathered brick and sheet metal factory wall, Etna, PA

factory, Etna

Every inch of the wall tells a story. Consider just the thick steel doors, rusted so far that a firey red is bleeding through the darker brown surface as if the earth’s crust was finally giving way to its molten core. Miscreants have scratched their tags and in-jokes into its surface and an off-the-shelf safety placard warns us about what we already know–DANGER lies on the other side.

Surrounding this lone entry point are a patchwork of industrial building materials: brick of a couple shades, cinderblock, concrete, sheet metal, corrugated fiberglass, PVC pipe, blue light bulbs suspended in a strand, and thick, high-voltage electrical wire.

There is but a single design detail committed for its aesthetics. Within one of the red brick surfaces, the mason has crafted an off-bias diamond that interrupts the stacked pattern in the gentlest of ways. Otherwise, this place is all business.

roofline with several commercial buildings, Charleroi, PA

roofline, Charleroi

If you’re tired of writing, the old wisdom goes, then you’re tired of living.

For The Over-the-Wall Club, there’s a similar mantra: if you’re tired of walls, then you’re really just tired of seeing. Put those eyes away–into a box in the bottom drawer, or send them off to the thrift shop so someone else can use them at a cut-rate price.

When last we met, the Over-the-Wall Club was pondering that old stand-by of the Dumpty clan, what’s on the other side? But let’s not ignore the trees for the forest. What’s right here in front of us may actually be the more interesting subject. Just because it’s blocking the view of those other things we think we’d rather be looking at doesn’t make it any less fascinating.

brick wall painted green and aqua with homemade address sign, Pittsburgh, PA

row house apartments, Oakland

Walls. America loves talking about them, and–gosh darn it–Mexico loves building them…at least, that’s what we’re told. But try to convince the federal government to put up a two-tone, aqua-on-lime green splotchy brick wall along the Rio Grande and see how far it gets you. In fairness, it’s a color scheme that maybe even Enrique Peña Nieto might get behind–but we still doubt he’s going to pull out the nation’s wallet any time soon.

alley wall with ghost signs and many materials, Butler, PA

ghost signs, ghost windows, ghost paint job, Butler

Another entry in the wall-as-modern art category. This geometric bricolage of styles and materials in a Butler alleyway competes with Etna’s factory row (above) in sheer density of visual stimuli. Two different mid-century Firestone Tires ads have ghosted themselves almost out of readability against a field of brick and stone, tin and particle board, paint and ash. If you can’t imagine a century’s worth of narratives playing out against this scenery, you’re not trying very hard.

tiled wall with cross and mountain, Pittsburgh, PA

ex-church, West End

If these walls could talk, they say–but some do! How does a former house of worship manage to preserve its midcentury terra cotta Jetsons cross and mount with but a few cracks and crumbles and still shed the loose bricks around it like tears at a funeral? I know, I know–it’s God’s way, or something like that, but there may be an equally fascinating or boringly prosaic reason. No matter how much church we go–or skip–we’ll probably never know.

facade of building with shadows of telephone pole and wires, Pittsburgh, PA

Industri l Engi & S p ly, Homewood

It’s the stories, man–the stories. The letters probably just fell off all on their own, but someone made a very conscious decision to block in those windows and repaint just one section in a warm, sun-baked yellow-orange that makes the whole mundane façade look like a poor man’s Mark Rothko. The criss-crossing shadows of a strong wooden utility pole and warped telephone lines decorate in the most abstract of ways.

interior of cinderblock warehouse with shadows of roof structure, Pittsburgh, PA

roofless warehouse, Strip District

Maybe there’s a set of parallel shadows that dance across the suddenly-exposed wall surfaces and make the whole scene light up like special effects at a discotheque or fancy lighting in a theatrical production. How many precious moments do we have before this old warehouse either gets a new roof or has the cinderblock walls felled to clear the lot? We can only wonder.

mural on outside retaining wall of fish and sunset, Penn Hills, PA

retaining wall mural, Penn Hills

…But that’s what The Over-the-Wall Club does best, wonderWhat’s on the other side? Sure. But also how did we get right where we are? And how can we stay just like this forever? If only it were that easy.

Until next time, we’ll see you over-, under-, roundabout-, and upside-the-wall.


See also:“The Over-the-Wall Club” (Pittsburgh Orbit, April 12, 2015)

The Over-the-Wall Club: A Secret Picnic Spot

cement wall with graffiti, trees, and smokestacks in the distance

Over-the-Wall lies a secret picnic spot

When last we left The Over-the-Wall Club, members were straining their necks, up on their tip-toes, peeking and peeping. Sometimes we catch a break and actually make it over to have a look on the other side. And every once in a while we find out that the grass really is greener over there.

The most perfect secret picnic spot lies high in the aerie of Peregrine falcons, reachable only by trained tall tree-climbers with provisions shuttled in by drone. Sigh, someday. Until then, Orbit staff stumbled across a right nice substitute, on a grassy bank of the Ohio River, in the shade of flowering Spring trees, attainable only by bicycle. [Technically one could drive, park, and walk a trail, but that’s not as much fun.] The spot is accessed through a breach in a concrete wall.

woman laying on grass by the Ohio River

A very Pittsburgh picnic spot: Brunot Island power plants on the far shore

It is early May, the first definitive shorts-weather occasion of the year, and a glorious post-Pittonkatonk, post-marathon Sunday afternoon comin’ down. Not to nit pick on the picnic, but the menu was nothing to brag about (my fault, entirely). That said, we can credit Shur-Save with providing an acceptable board of fare (after we applied some after-market vegetables and condiments to the “Anytime Deli” sub) at a price that didn’t dent this blogger’s wallet.  Next time–and there will be a next time–we’ll do it up right.

But what’s really special here is the amazing peace on this particular stretch of riverbank. We were well within Pittsburgh city limits, but never heard the sound of an automobile, a booming stereo, shouting, clattering, or any other noise (man or machine) for that matter. In fact, the only “traffic” we witnessed was one long coal barge and a couple pleasure crafts on the river.  One train rumbled by on the Brunot Island bridge.

barge on the Ohio River near Pittsburgh

This barge is all the traffic we encountered at the Secret Picnic Spot

The Secret Picnic Spot is known to at least a few other river dwellers.  There was an empty Black Velvet bottle in the weeds and the burnt offering of an old school hobo fire.  A stray patch of brick wall embedded in the ground had been graffiti’d in black Sharpie.  We crossed paths with a pair of amorous middle-agers and a grandfather/granddaughter combo, but the spot’s fifty-or-so yards of riverbank can handle at least that much of a crowd with relative privacy.

bricks embedded in grass and dirt with handwritten "awsome" graffiti

Don’t take our word for it: Lizz + Neo + Oly confirm that the Secret Picnic Spot is awsome

If you’ve got a tip on a great Pittsburgh picnic spot (secret or otherwise), please let us know. We’ll show you ours if you show us yours.

The Over-the-Wall Club

Bloomfield rowhouses seen over a wall

Bloomfield

What’s on the other side?

The question that drove thousands (millions!) of seekers–from Lief Ericson and Amelia Earhart to Harry Houdini and Charlie Sheen to that darned chicken.  What’s on the other side?

Walls make us wonder all the time, especially those that give just glimpses above of what might be masked below: treetops, a roofline, hillside, telephone wires.  What’s going on over there? Who’s in there? Is the grass really greener?

Photographically, they’re strange creatures. There’s very little visual action in a wall (depending on the wall), and you probably wouldn’t want to only look at a just a plain old wall. But what if it bisects a scene into neat geometric chunks: bands of near and far, light and dark, patterned and dissonant.

The Over-the-Wall Club meets irregularly to share photos of their findings, gulp coffee, inhale paint fumes, stare over the wall, and ask the question one more time: what’s on the other side?

Corrugated metal wall, Lawrenceville

Lawrenceville

Leslie Park Pool, seen over the pool wall

Leslie Park Pool, Lawrenceville

Troy Hill, seen over a wall

Troy Hill (from the Strip District)

Lawrenceville row houses from Allegheny Cemetery

Lawrenceville (from Allegheny Cemetery)

ALICE IN WONDERLAND, W.C. Fields, as Humpty-Dumpty, 1933

The Over-the-Wall Club’s most famous member