When it comes to abstract art, some jokes write themselves. Without anybody noticing, the famous artwork New York City 1 by the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian has apparently been hanging upside down ever since it was first publicly displayed in New York in 1945. Mondrian had died the previous year and wasn’t around to correct the mistake—now revealed through the research of curator Susanne Meyer-Büser of the Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf, Germany.
The artwork in question consists of horizontally and vertically crossing lines of red, blue, yellow, and black adhesive tape, typical for the work of Mondrian. The Dutch artist created the work in 1941, but it had not been publicly displayed until after his death in 1944. Susanne Meyer-Büser noted that Mondrian didn’t sign the painting, which “makes it sometimes harder to tell” which side is up. Ever since the first exhibition in the New York Museum of Modern Art, the work has been hanging incorrectly; a mistake, Meyer-Büser speculates, that may be attributed to “an employee packing it the wrong way.” Based on this New York exhibition, it entered art catalogs depicted upside down, a mistake that has been replicated wherever the work had been hung ever since.
Meyer-Büser was tipped off by a hunch of Italian artist Francesco Visalli, who had written a letter to the museum describing his nagging feeling that the work may be flipped. “Whenever I look at this work, I always have the distinct feeling that it needs to be rotated 180 degrees,” Visalli wrote. He provided the museum in Düsseldorf also with a photograph from Mondrian’s studio in which New York City 1 was placed the right side up on an easel. This caused Meyer-Büser to conduct further investigations that confirmed Visalli’s hunch. Slowly but surely, things started to make sense. “When attaching adhesive tapes,” says Meyer-Büser, “they’re placed accurately at the top, pulled down, and clipped off at the bottom. This can often leave some residue.” But these “unclean edges” from the bottom are at the top in Düsseldorf.
Another strong indicator could be found in the display of Mondrian’s oil painting of the same name located in the Centre Pompidou in Paris—based on the original work with adhesive tape—is actually hanging the correct way up.
Some experts, however, refuse to make a definitive call on the matter. Harry Cooper, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, for instance, claims that the artwork is “still in process,” arguing that “even though it might have been put on an easel at some point, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been worked on further. A different decision about its orientation could have been made.”
Regardless of whether real evidence of the correct orientation of the work will ever be found, it will remain on display the same way it has been for the past 77 years. “The adhesive tapes are already extremely loose and hanging by a thread,” Meyer-Büser explained. “If you were to turn it upside down now, gravity would pull it into another direction. And it’s now part of the work’s story.”
Asked what Mondrian himself would have thought of the flipped image, Meyer-Büser speculated: “He would have liked it. Mondrian was a very modern artist, who worked a lot with reflections and rotations. He would have certainly liked that we think about what is right and what is wrong.”