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New York City I

People give two arguments for why they believe the Mondrian painting New York City I is upside down:

They’ve seen his photo with him standing next to it and on the photo, it’s 180˚ from how it’s been hanging in the museum and the photo is probably right.

They think the increased amount of line density should represent “the heavy sky”.

Maybe. Mondrian’s WWI era paintings did represent that kinda plastic vision, but when he went back to the palette decades later for his New York and Broadway series, they’re kind of self-referential, ironic, punny, and also invoke a Manhattan city grid from above. (For example, those doubled-up vertical red lines might represent Park Ave.)

There’s a third reason, though. In Mondrian’s neoplasticism, red is considered heavier and denser than blue and yellow. I’ve seen upside down Mondrians before—not in a museum for 75 years, which is why this is newsworthy—but repros on movie sets, in postcard shops, or in people’s homes. To me it’s immediately super jarring and sure enough, when I check against original reference I’ve ended up being right.

This is one of those paintings that does look super upside down to me, the way it’s been hanging, I mean. It’s not as clear-cut of a case as his De Stijl-era paintings are, or not clear cut in the same way or for the same reason, since those have a horizon while this has a birds eye quality to it, but the painting looks so much better when it’s the right side up. The way it’s been hanging (wrongly) it looks unsettling, unstable—but also vibrant, like his Broadway Boogie Woogie series. When viewed correctly it’s like an exhale, it’s like water settling under oil.

Here’s how it’s supposed to look:

New York City I

This is an image that works on many levels. A heavy sky, sure, but also the blinds at the top of a wistful window. Along with, of course, the Manhattan street grid similarity.

If you wanna see this upside-down incident as an indictment of Mondrian, my favorite artist, that he’s such a failure of a painter that his aesthetic couldn’t even convey to the curator what was up or what was down, that’s fine. I’ve always felt about this “map” series of paintings that he was kind of making fun of his own younger self.