One of Piet Mondrian’s iconic modernist paintings may have been hanging upside down for decades, according to research by an art historian – but the artwork isn’t being turned inside out anytime soon.
The painting, called “New York City I,” features Mondrian’s classic primary color palette and striking geometric lines. The Dutch artist created a series of “New York City” paintings in 1941 and 1942 after moving 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 hosts an exhibition dedicated to Mondrian’s work.
But a photo of the work in Mondrian’s studio shows the painting with the orientation reversed – suggesting that this could be how the artist wanted it to appear.
It may be impossible to ever know the correct orientation with certainty, says the museum in the catalogue. The painter died in 1944.
Still, “if we join the experiment and rotate New York City 1 180 degrees, we find that the image still ‘works,'” the museum claims in the catalog. “In fact, it works extremely well: the composition gains in intensity and plasticity.”
By flipping the painting, it better matches “New York City,” another painting in the same series.
“The density of the strips along the top edge gives the work a resemblance to its close relative ‘New York City,’ where the zone of greatest density is also located in the top edge,” the museum says in the catalog. “The blue strips along the left, top and bottom edges are now placed in exactly the same places.”
The painting consisted of strips of painted tape that the artist placed on the canvas, probably 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 image, whereas those on the lower edge fall out, with pieces missing here and there,” says the museum in the catalogue. “If you assume that Mondrian started by attaching the strips at the top and, following the principle of gravity, unrolled them downwards to attach them to the bottom of the canvas, then the painting has actually 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 working on it, in which case there would be no right or wrong orientation.”
This open quality may also have been part of a larger 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 all directions, like the street map of a big city, in an attitude of openness that moves every way at once, like couples dancing boogie -woogie,’ writes the museum.
For now, the painting will hang in the direction it always has, museum curator Susanne Meyer-Büser said at a press conference opening the exhibition on Thursday. Turning it could risk damaging it – and the confusion of orientation is now a unique part of the object’s history.