Piet Mondrian’s New York City I is a classic piece of abstract art, consisting of straight yellow, red, and blue lines that suggest the Manhattan skyline. It is unsigned and, like many pieces of abstract art, it doesn’t have an obvious orientation.
Now the art world believes that the way the painting has been hung since 1945, shown above on the left, is in fact upside down, and Mondrian actually created it with the orientation shown at the right.
The Smithsonian magazine tells the interesting story of the realization that an important piece of modern art may have been incorrectly displayed for decades. The story began with an Italian artist, Francesco Visalli, having the nagging feeling that the work was hung upside down and communicating his views to the German museum that owns the artwork. The curator of the museum did some digging and found a Town and Country magazine piece from 1944 that shows the painting on an easel, with the thickening lines at the top of the painting rather than the bottom. That’s also the way another, similar Mondrian painting called New York City is configured. The museum believes the thickening lines at the top of the painting are supposed to reflect a dark sky and are convinced that the orientation at the right is the way the piece was meant to be seen.
So, how did the piece come to be displayed upside down for more than 75 years? No one knows for sure, but it may simply be that whoever unpacked it when it arrived at the museum thought the thickening lines went at the bottom, and none of the people at the museum, or the many people who have seen the piece since, noticed the mistake before Francesco Visalli had the impulse that literally turned the art world upside down.
It’s pretty embarrassing to think that a painting has been incorrectly hung for decades. I wonder how many museums will now be taking a hard look at their abstract pieces and trying to confirm that they are displayed right side up?