How a Mondrian Painting Has Accidentally Hung Upside-Down for 75 Years

Piet Mon­dri­an’s New York City I was recent­ly dis­cov­ered to have been hang­ing upside-down on dis­play for the past 75 years, which made for a cul­tur­al sto­ry prac­ti­cal­ly designed to go viral. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, some of those keep­ing it in cir­cu­la­tion have read it as proof pos­i­tive of the fraud­u­lence of “mod­ern art.” How good could Mon­dri­an be, after all, if nobody else over the past three-quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry could tell that his paint­ing was­n’t right-side-up? That isn’t a cogent crit­i­cism, of course: New York City I dates from 1941, by which time Mon­dri­an’s work had long since become aus­tere even by the stan­dards of abstract art, employ­ing only lines and blocks of col­or.

“The way the pic­ture is cur­rent­ly hung shows the mul­ti­col­ored lines thick­en­ing at the bot­tom, sug­gest­ing an extreme­ly sim­pli­fied ver­sion of a sky­line,” writes the Guardian’s Philip Olter­mann.

But “the sim­i­lar­ly named and same-sized oil paint­ing, New York City, which is on dis­play in Paris at the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou, has the thick­en­ing of lines at the top,” and “a pho­to­graph of Mondrian’s stu­dio, tak­en a few days after the artist’s death and pub­lished in Amer­i­can lifestyle mag­a­zine Town and Coun­try in June 1944, also shows the same pic­ture sit­ting on an easel the oth­er way up.” It was just such clues that Susanne Mey­er-Büs­er, cura­tor of the art col­lec­tion of North Rhine-West­phalia, put togeth­er to diag­nose its cur­rent mis-ori­en­ta­tion.

Regard­less, New York City I will remain as it is. The eight-decade-old strips of paint­ed tape with which Mon­dri­an assem­bled its black, yel­low, red, and blue grid “are already extreme­ly loose and hang­ing by a thread,” said Mey­er-Büs­er. “If you were to turn it upside down now, grav­i­ty would pull it into anoth­er direc­tion.” The artist’s sig­na­ture would nor­mal­ly be a dis­trac­tion in an invert­ed work, but since he did­n’t con­sid­er this par­tic­u­lar work fin­ished, he nev­er actu­al­ly signed it — and if he had, of course, it would have been hung cor­rect­ly in the first place. In any case, it’s hard­ly a stretch to imag­ine hav­ing a rich aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence with an upside-down Mon­dri­an; could we say the same about, for instance, an upside-down Last Sup­per?

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch the Dutch Paint “the Largest Mon­dri­an Paint­ing in the World”

Japan­ese Com­put­er Artist Makes “Dig­i­tal Mon­dri­ans” in 1964: When Giant Main­frame Com­put­ers Were First Used to Cre­ate Art

Philoso­pher Por­traits: Famous Philoso­phers Paint­ed in the Style of Influ­en­tial Artists

What Hap­pens When a Cheap Ikea Print Gets Pre­sent­ed as Fine Art in a Muse­um

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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