Is the Mondrian upside down, or is it an abstract enigma?

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Is the Mondrian upside down, or is it an abstract enigma?
A curator concluded that a piece featuring thick, colorful tape had been hung at her museum the “wrong way around.” But it’s difficult to truly discern Mondrian’s vision for an unsigned work.

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- About a year ago, an Italian artist wrote to a museum in Düsseldorf, Germany, to share a nagging feeling he had about an abstract work that had been at the institution for decades.

The artist, Francesco Visalli, had been researching the work of Piet Mondrian, the Dutch painter known for gridlike works with geometric pops of primary colors. The artwork in question was an unfinished piece called “New York City I”: a canvas layered with crisscrossing red, blue, yellow and black lines of tape.

“Whenever I look at this work, I always have the distinct feeling that it needs to be rotated 180 degrees,” Visalli wrote to a museum leader. “I realize that for decades it has been observed and published with the same orientation, yet this feeling remains pressing.”

Visalli also presented evidence to support his hunch: a photograph, from a 1944 issue of the American magazine Town & Country, that showed the work resting on an easel in Mondrian’s studio shortly after his death. Compared to how it hung in the German museum, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, the artwork was flipped.

The email persuaded the museum staff to take a closer look. Was it possible that “New York City I” had been displayed upside down for more than 75 years?

“I am 100% certain the picture is the wrong way around,” a curator, Susanne Meyer-Büser, said, according to The Guardian, as the museum prepared to open an exhibition marking the 150th anniversary of Mondrian’s birth.

The declaration prompted an improbable deluge of headlines about 20th-century abstract art. But some Mondrian experts are skeptical that the evidence is definitive, especially considering that the piece was unfinished and without a signature. Mondrian was even known to flip his pieces while working on them, said Caro Verbeek, an art historian at a Dutch university who contributed to the exhibition’s catalog.

“It’s still in process,” said Harry Cooper, a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington who has helped organize two Mondrian exhibitions. “Even though it might have been put on an easel at some point, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been worked on further. A different decision about its orientation could have been made.”

Susanne Gaensheimer, the director of the German museum, which acquired the Mondrian in 1980, said Monday that its orientation had been a tangential piece of information in a news conference about the exhibition — before exploding into an international curiosity.

Meyer-Büser did not respond to requests for comment. And Gaensheimer clarified that the museum was not saying that the work was definitively hanging upside down, but rather that its research had determined that Mondrian had created the work from the opposite perspective.

“We cannot know what is correct or incorrect,” Gaensheimer said.

On Page 198 of the catalog accompanying the exhibition, Meyer-Büser cited another work, “New York City,” which is the only one in a series of similar works to have been painted rather than created with adhesive tape. (After relocating to New York from war-torn Europe, Mondrian began experimenting with colored tape, which allowed him to quickly rearrange his designs as he plotted out works.)

The painting, on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, is hung with a close grouping of several lines at the top — the same way as depicted in the 1944 photograph — rather than at the bottom.

Another piece of evidence described by Meyer-Büser is the direction in which the tape appears to have been rolled out. As the work is currently hung, there are gaps between some of the ends of the tape and the top of the canvas, suggesting that Mondrian started at the opposite end.

“Assuming that Mondrian began by attaching the strips at the top,” she wrote, “and, following the principle of gravity, unrolled them downward to attach them at the bottom of the canvas, then the painting has indeed been hanging upside down ever since it was first exhibited in 1945.”

Other experts pointed out that Mondrian had tended to work with his canvases laid flat, walking around them and approaching them from different angles, which Meyer-Büser acknowledges in her essay. If he did work from different perspectives, she said, “there would be no right or wrong orientation.”

In her essay, Meyer-Büser also cited the photograph sent by Visalli, which was taken shortly after Mondrian’s death in 1944, when the artist’s friend and heir, Harry Holtzman, opened up the studio for a fashion shoot. In the photo, a model poses with her elbow on a mantle, part of the canvas in question visible off her left shoulder.

Cooper, from the National Gallery of Art, noted that a different photograph of Mondrian’s studio from around the same time shows another Mondrian work — “Victory Boogie Woogie” — in what appears to be the same position on the same easel. The photo suggests that someone other than Mondrian could have positioned “New York City I” after his death, Cooper said.

Despite its curator’s convictions, the German museum has no plans to flip the work, because it has grown increasingly fragile.

Visalli said in an email that he agreed with the decision, writing that without a signature or inscription from Mondrian, there was no way to know for sure.

“Above all,” he wrote, “who can say what Mondrian really wanted?”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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