A Piet Mondrian painting has been hanging upside-down for decades, art historian says

Published 30th October 2022
"New York City I," a painting by the artist Piet Mondrian held at the Kunstsammlung Nordheim-Westfalen, may have been hanging upside down for decades, according to new research by the museum.
Credit: From Piet Mondrian Website
A Piet Mondrian painting has been hanging upside-down for decades, art historian says
Written by Zoe Sottile, CNN
One of Piet Mondrian's iconic Modernist paintings may have been hanging upside down for decade, according to research from an art historian — but the piece of art isn't going to be turned right-side up any time soon.
The painting, called "New York City I," features Mondrian's classic primary color palette and striking geometric lines. The Dutch artist made a series of "New York City" paintings in 1941 and 1942 after relocating to the city from Europe.
"New York City I" has long been shown with the thickest cluster of lines at the bottom of the frame, according to an exhibition catalog from the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the German gallery that acquired the painting in 1980. The museum is hosting an exhibition dedicated to Mondrian's work.
But a photo of the work in Mondrian's studio shows the painting with the reverse orientation — suggesting this might be how the artist wanted it to be shown.
It might be impossible to ever know the correct orientation for sure, says the museum the catalog. The painter died in 1944.
Still, "if we go along with the experiment and rotate New York City 1 by 180 degrees, we find that the picture still 'works,'" claims the museum in the catalog. "In fact, it functions extremely well: the composition gains in intensity and plasticity."
Flipping the painting makes it match more closely with "New York City," another painting in the same series.
"The density of the strips along the top edge lends the work a resemblance to its close relative 'New York City,' in which the zone of greatest density is also located at the top edge," says the museum in the catalog. "The blue strips along the left, top, and lower edges are now positioned in exactly the same places."
The painting was made up of strips of painted tape that the artist laid on the canvas, likely planning to replace them by painting directly on the canvas later, according to the museum. And the upside-down orientation is consistent with Mondrian placing the strips from the top to the bottom of the canvas.
"An initial visual inspection confirmed the suspicion that by turning the canvas upside down, the adhesive strips on the upper edge are aligned with the edge of the picture, whereas those at the lower edge peter out, with pieces missing here and there," says the museum in the catalog. "Assuming that Mondrian began by attaching the strips at the top, and, following the principle of gravity, unrolled them downward to attach them at the bottom of the canvas, then the painting has indeed been hanging upside down ever since it was first exhibited in 1945."
It is also possible, according to the museum, that "Mondrian repeatedly turned the picture around while he was working on it, in which case there would be no right or wrong orientation."
This open-ended quality also may have been part of a greater message about New York City itself.
"This may be the truly revolutionary feature of New York City 1: the fact that it can be read in any direction, like the street map of a big city, in an attitude of open-mindedness, moving every way at once, like couples dancing the boogie-woogie," writes the museum.
For the time being, the painting will stay hanging in the direction it always has, said museum curator Susanne Meyer-Büser at a press conference opening the exhibition on Thursday. Turning it may risk damaging it — and the orientation confusion is now a unique part of the history of the object.