Pop Quiz: Is This Painting Upside Down?

The “upside down” painting. Photo: HENNING KAISER/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

You would think, in the era of the Art Basel banana, that art could be anything: a digital cartoon purchased with bitcoins; a lone disc of cucumber brined in vinegar and dill; the recipient of a tomato-soup projectile. But apparently there is one thing that art absolutely cannot be, and that is: hung upside down.

The modern-art world was recently rocked by the discovery that a painting by Piet Mondrian, famous for his abstract grids of overlapping lines in primary colors, has been hanging upside down for 75 years. The piece, which Mondrian assembled using adhesive tape in 1941, has been on display since 1945 at various renowned museums, starting with the MoMA. It’s about to be the focal point of an exhibit in Düsseldorf, Germany, where a curator suddenly realized that the black, blue, and yellow lines on the bottom were supposed to be the black, blue, and yellow lines on top.

Apparently, Susanne Meyer-Büser was doing research while curating the exhibit when she found a 1944 photo of Mondrian’s studio, where the painting, called New York City 1, was resting on an easel with the opposite side up. Although I cannot tell heads nor tails of what lines go where, Meyer-Büser identified a telltale cluster of stripes that she believes belongs at the top of the piece, suggesting that, given the way Mondrian wove the tape together, he would have had to work from top to bottom and do this section first. Further evidence that someone royally fucked this up: an oil-painted version of this piece called New York is hanging at the Pompidou with that same thicket of stripes at the top.

Thankfully, no one was harmed by this lapse in orientation judgment except maybe the painting: It is expected to literally disintegrate if hung the right side up. According to Meyer-Büser, the lines of tape are “extremely loose and hanging by a thread,” and reversing the gravitational pull on the piece will probably cause them to fall off entirely.

Abstract art being what it is, this is not the only fumble MoMA has made when it comes to hanging these things: In 1961 a stockbroker visiting the museum declared that a Matisse cutout called Le Bateau was hung upside down — a mistake that had gone unnoticed by curators, art critics, museum guests, and even Matisse’s own son. You’d be forgiven for thinking that if even the artist’s son didn’t know which way the painting was supposed to go, it doesn’t really matter, but it caused a major fuss.

This time, though, it seems like curators and art lovers alike will weather this storm. Due to the whole disintegration thing, Meyer-Büser is going to continue to hang it upside down. “It’s now part of the work’s story,” she told a German newspaper, theorizing, “Maybe there is no right or wrong orientation at all?” Sounds like freshman-year art history all over again.

Pop Quiz: Is This Painting Upside Down?