The art of the upside-down

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It was discovered last month that Piet Mondrian’s New York City I (1941) had been hanging upside down for more than 75 years. Currently on display in an exhibition entitled Mondrian: Evolution in Germany, the exhibition’s senior curator, Susanne Meyer-Büser, made a profound discovery. She found a photograph from 1944 which captures Mondrian in his studio with New York City I upside down from how it has been seen for the last three quarters of a century.

The undated, unsigned, unfinished, abstract work is composed of a grid of lines in red, yellow, and blue made from strips of coloured paper. Although simplistic, there is a cluster of closer, more densely spaced lines at, how Mondrian intended, the top. The lack of a figurative or objective subject matter firmly establishes this work within the period of modernism, but more particularly, the concept of geometric abstraction. However, with no distinguishable subject matter is it not fair enough that it was the wrong way round?

Speaking to The Guardian, Meyer-Büser said she is “100% certain the picture is the wrong way around”. Despite this, New York City I will continue to be exhibited in its current orientation for conservation reasons.

Hanging upside down for more than 75 years

A similar occurrence happened in New York in October 1961. At the Museum of Modern Art, the very temple of modernism, they opened their doors to an exhibition called The Last Works of Matisse: Large Cut Gouaches; at the launch they were unaware that one of the works by Matisse, Le Bateau, was hanging upside down. This went unnoticed for almost two months until an expert pointed out that Matisse “would never put the main, more complex motif on the bottom and the lesser motif on top”. It was very swiftly flipped around.

In 2015, also in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art purposefully displayed Jackson Pollock’s Number 27 (1950) vertically rather than horizontally. Although not upside down per se, this curational decision was made to prompt the viewer as to whether they could see anything within the work that they had not seen previously amongst the chaos of the paint splatters.

Street-artist-like gimmick or a provocative act of genius?

Similarly to Mondrian’s style, Pollock adopted a completely abstract approach in Number 27 and again, there is a lack of figurative or objective subject matter. Entwined with abstract expressionism, if there is no explanatory orientation for a work, then should it not be the curator’s choice how it is displayed?

On the topic of upside-down art, it is not always necessarily unintentional. German artist Georg Baselitz is most well-known for his portraits which depict his sitters the wrong way up, defying gravity. Originally a graphic designer and sculptor, Baselitz quite literally upended his traditional modes of working and began to paint and display his subjects upside-down, gaining the title of “the pioneer of upside-down art”.

Baselitz’s first upsid-edown work is titled Der Wald auf dem Kopf (The Wood on its Head), (1969). A pun in itself, this snowy landscape of trees and mountains is the ground work on which he then moved onto portraiture. Most well-known for his portraits, Baselitz depicted friends, family, and pets; a set of six of these topsy-turvy portraits was displayed in an exhibition in Dresden last year entitled Georg Baselitz: Pivotal Turn. Critics have argued whether this radical gesture of painterly inversion was a street-artist-like gimmick or a provocative act of genius.

Baselitz also paints his portraits upside down, claiming it slows down the whole process, allowing him to create something that hovers between abstraction and figuration. Of course, if you were to turn his portraits upside-down, they would not be accurate as they are truly upside-down in every sense of the term. Through adopting a deliberately alienating method and mode of display, Baselitz intended to resist literal interpretation, and to unleash people’s more creative sides. In conversation with him recently, he remarked “there’s some sort of irritation, and that’s intentional” because “when you’re irritated, you pay closer attention”.

Creating something that hovers between abstraction and figuration

So, to return to the point, what fundamentals of contemporary art make it what it is? There is undoubtedly a clear di!erence between creating a work that is perceived as upside-down, such as Baselitz, and not having your work displayed the way you intended for it to be, in the cases of Mondrian and Matisse. As consumers and curators of contemporary art, should it be our decision as to which way round contemporary, abstract artworks are displayed if it is for personal enjoyment?

The field of contemporary art is full of unknowns and variables. New media is constantly being created, and existing material is continually being redisplayed and recycled. Therefore, in a time of such artistic development, perhaps the best thing to do is go with the flow and take the mindset of what happens, happens.

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