A work by Piet Mondrian was found by an art historian to have been displayed upside down for the past three-quarters of a century—and there are no plans to correct the error. Curator Susanne Meyer-Büser discovered the mistake while conducting research for the exhibition “Mondrian: Evolution,” which opened this past weekend at K20 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf. After carefully looking at Mondrian’s New York City I, 1941, a grid of narrow yellow, red, and blue tape stripes that grow denser at the bottom of the canvas they occupy, and then looking at similar works made by the renowned Dutch abstractionist around the same time, Meyer-Büser determined that the work had been incorrectly hung since 1945, when it went on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (sixteen years later, MoMA would infamously hang a Matisse upside-down as well, capsizing a simple gouache cut-out of a sailboat).
“The thickening of the grid should be at the top, like a dark sky,” Meyer-Büser told The Guardian, which first reported the story. “Once I pointed it out to the other curators, we realized it was very obvious. I am 100 percent certain the picture is the wrong way around.” Her theory is supported by the presentation of the artist’s New York at the Centre Pompidou in Paris: Made a year after the contested work and of a similar size and appearance, the work is hung so that its accumulation of lines gather near its upper edge. As well, a photograph of New York City I in a June 1944 issue of Town and Country shows the painting sitting on an easel in Mondrian’s studio, with the denser lines appearing at its top. “Was it a mistake when someone removed the work from its box? Was someone being sloppy when the work was in transit?” Meyer-Büser said. “It’s impossible to say.”
The process of determining the proper presentation of the painting was additionally complicated by the artist’s death in February 1944, a year before the work went on public display, and by the fact that the painting remained unsigned—possibly indicating that Mondrian considered it unfinished. Regardless of the artist’s intentions, the work, which the German institution acquired in 1980, must henceforth be displayed as it always has been, with its “sky” given the role of “ground.”
“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.”