A famous 1941 work by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian has been hanging upside down for the last 75 years, an art historian has discovered.
But the work, “New York City I” — which features bright lines of red, yellow, black and blue tape on a white background — will likely continue to be displayed the wrong way, because to change it now could damage it.
“The adhesive tapes are already extremely loose and hanging by a thread,” art historian and German museum curator Susanne Meyer-Büser told The Guardian. “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.”
The work was first publicly displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1945. Since 1980, it’s been part of the art collection of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf.
Meyer-Büser discovered the error while researching a new show for the Düsseldorf art collection. She noted that the lines were thicker in the lower portion of the Mondrian work, rather than at the top ― the way she says they were intended by the artist.
“The thickening of the grid should be at the top, like a dark sky,” Meyer-Büser explained. “Once I pointed it out to the other curators, we realized it was very obvious. I am 100% certain the picture is the wrong way around.”
A photograph of Mondrian’s studio, taken a few days after the artist’s death and published in Town & Country magazine in June 1944, shows the same work sitting on an easel the right way up, with the thicker lines up top, the BBC noted.
A similarly named oil painting by Mondrian ― “New York City,” on display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris ― also has thickening lines at the top of the work.
It’s not clear how the mistake was made, but “New York City I” doesn’t bear Mondrian’s signature, which would have given a clear indication of how the work was meant to be displayed.
Mondrian is regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and a pioneer of the modern abstract style, minimalism and expressionism.