I know that much of modern art, especially the more abstract variety, gets a negative reputation from some casual viewers. “I don’t get it,” “My kid could do that,” “They’re just a bunch of lines,” and whatnot. It seems inconceivable, but it shows how far artistic creativity has advanced; that something groundbreaking and revolutionary in its own day is now not particularly impressive. But for all the criticism the art world receives for admiring abstract painters like Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock, we got a bit of a lesson last week that may teach us not to be so dismissive of these criticisms.
New York City I is a work by the Dutch abstract painter Piet Mondrian that has been hanging in the State Collection of North Rhine-Westphalia in the German city of Düsseldorf since 1980. The work is very typical of Mondrian, with a series of perfectly straight lines in black and primary colors, creating various squares and rectangles with empty space. While the original oil-on-canvas version hangs at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, this second version is unfinished, consisting mainly of the strips of painted tape used by Mondrian to help him choose colors and design. The State Collection has been in the process of getting a Mondrian exhibition ready for next year. In doing so, one of the curators, Susanne Meyer-Büser, noticed that the painting had been displayed upside down all this time.
It is not known how this mistake was made. But curators at the State Collection are now afraid that the work has been displayed incorrectly for so long that fixing that error and showing it the right way around could result in the work becoming damaged. Because it is technically unfinished, the work has no markings like a signature, so I suppose without any reference, it’s not particularly strange that museum staff could not know which way it was supposed to hang. Meyer-Büser only realized the mistake when she saw that the “thickening of the grid should be at the top, like a dark sky”. It’s amazing that it took this long to realize their mistake since the original in Paris has always been displayed the right way around. Additionally, photographs of Mondrian’s studio shortly before his death in 1944 show the work on an easel positioned correctly.
While the work cannot be displayed correctly again, having been hung upside down for so long, this little hiccup adds a bit of uniqueness to the work. Yes, it’s unfinished and unsigned, but now it’s the painting that hung upside down for decades. I hope this would draw more people not just to the upcoming Mondrian exhibition, but to the museum in general.