Mondrian’s painting has been hanging upside down for 75 years

Mondrian’s painting is false on the left and correct on the right
Left: Mondrian’s painting where it was improperly hung. Correct: how it should look.

A painting by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian has been found hanging upside down in various museums since it was first shown 75 years ago, an art historian has found, but he warns that it could fall apart if hung from the right side up now.

The 1941 portrait, an intricate tangle of red, yellow, black, and blue sticky tape titled First New York City, was first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1945, but hung in the art collection of the German federal state of North Rhine. Westphalia in Dusseldorf since 1980.

The way the image is currently held shows the thickness of the multicolored lines at the bottom, suggesting a very simplified version of the horizon. However, when curator Susanne Meyer Bowser began researching the new museum display for the avant-garde Dutch artist earlier this year, she realized the image had to be the other way around.

“The thickness of the net should be at the top, like a dark sky,” Meyer Boozer said. “Once I explained it to the other curators, we realized it was very clear. I am 100% sure that the photo is wrong.”

The work does not bear Mondrian’s signature, perhaps because he did not consider it finished. Photo: Henning Kaiser/DDP/AFP/Getty Images

Indications that indicate an incorrect comment are manifold. The oil painting of the same name and same size, New York City, shown in Paris at the Center Pompidou, has the thickness of the lines on top.

A photo of Mondrian’s studio, taken a few days after the artist’s death and published in the American lifestyle magazine Town and Country in June 1944, shows the same photo sitting on an easel in the other direction.

Meyer-Büser said it’s possible that Mondrian worked by starting his intricate seams with a line right at the top of the tire and then working his way down, which also explains why some of the yellow streaks stop a few millimeters from the bottom rim.

“Was it wrong for someone to remove the work from their chest? Was someone sloppy when work was on their way?” said the curator.

Part of the problem is that unlike most of Mondrian’s previous work, New York City does not bear the artist’s signature, perhaps because he did not consider it finished.

Despite all the evidence that the work is currently shown upside down, the work will be shown the way it has been suspended for 75 years at New Mondrian. Evolution show starting in Dusseldorf on Saturday.

“The adhesive tapes are very loose and attached with a thread,” Meyer Boeser said. “If you turn it upside down now, gravity will push it in another direction. Now it’s part of the business story.”

This article was modified on October 28, 2022 because an earlier version misspelled Susan Mayer Boozer’s surname in several places. This has been corrected.

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