Next week, a new exhibition will open at the Tate Modern featuring the works of Piet Mondrian, famous for lines, alongside that of Hilma af Klint, the early 20th-century Swedish painter and theosophist whose art-historical significance is been largely obscured in part because his abstracts, produced primarily as an expression of his spirituality, were not only never actually shown in his lifetime; they were sealed, according to her wishes, until 20 years after her death.
But balancing the works of these two very different artists: the bright and bold one, lively enough to have inspired countless ephemeral cultural products; the other outsider – up to monasticism – will hardly have been the only problem buzzing in the minds of the curators. What I’m sure they must have been most terrified of is the possibility that they could hang one of the pieces upside down.
This fear will have been triggered by recent events. In October last year it was discovered that the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf had hung New York City 1, a late work by Mondrian made up of a grid of colored ribbons that had been turned upside down over the past 75 years. And not only that: the mistake can’t even be remedied, because the work is deemed too fragile to be moved. Memories of Tate’s own struggles with hanging abstract art surfaced: Ever since purchasing a pair of Rothko’s Black on Maroon in 1970, the curators couldn’t seem to decide whether they should be hung vertically or horizontally. over the years, there have been many occasions in which they have been rehung with a different orientation.
But what does it mean to hang an abstract upside down? Apparently, Wassily Kandinsky’s experiments in abstraction were originally inspired by a moment in his studio, when he was struck by the alien beauty of one of his paintings, which he had seen upside down. In promotional materials for the exhibition, Tate herself speaks of abstract art as offering a “new way of seeing,” and this seems exactly right: by breaking free from the traditional streaks of representational art, the early abstract painters offered us a new way of conceiving, being in the world. As pioneers of modernism, they departed from received ideas not only about art, but also about the world and the self.
But who’s to say that this brave new world even has a “right” way out? Artists who toyed with the possibilities offered by abstraction certainly questioned this: in a 1962 exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, for example, Daniel Spoerri actually “rotated” one of the rooms by 90 degrees, gluing pedestals, chairs and mannequins to one of the walls and placing the paintings on what “should” be the floor.
When it came to Mondrian’s “discovery” last year, the story might have been funny, but the evidence was vaguer than the headlines suggested: one of the museum’s curators in Düsseldorf, Susanne Meyer-Büser, noted a photograph of Mondrian in which he appeared upside down on an easel, then he noticed that other similar works by his creator have a “thickening” of lines at the top, “like a sky”, while in New York City 1 said thickening had been placed down. But equally – aside from the fact that no one noticed the “mistake” for so long – one of the reasons the curators don’t seem to have known how to hang it is that Mondrian didn’t sign it, probably because he didn’t has ever considered finished. What if he never figured out the “correct” orientation himself?
And then: even if it were true that Mondrian intended the work to be hung upside down – who cares? In what world should there be abstract art to decentralize us from everything we thought we knew and inspire a new way of seeing… except when it comes to the intention of its creators, which must be held sacrosanct and superior to all else ? Artists are no more the absolute arbiter of what their work is, or means, than I am the absolute arbiter of whether or not to upset someone by walking into a restaurant and eating food off other customers’ plates. Clearly my intentions should count for something, but they can hardly be the be-all and end-all.
“Property” in art is still a funny thing. Of course yes, it is somehow important. Art objects are real, material things that have actually been produced at a given time, in a particular context, with a set of definite or nebulous intentions behind them. But “fairness” can also be a way of keeping tabs on: even a corny joke like the detail in Glass Onion, that Edward Norton’s billionaire character hung a Rothko he owns the wrong way, presumably put there to warn viewers with an eagle eye of his stupidity, he tells everyone else that they really should be experts, if they are to dare to deal with such things (despite the fact that even “experts” sometimes have no clue).
At best, art – abstract art in particular, perhaps – isn’t really like that: it’s raw, primal, unifying, fun. It’s the colors and shapes that make your brain and the world explode. Or he can do what someone like a Rothko does, which is kind of humming and reflecting on the sublime greatness of things, no matter which way the canvas goes. When art really speaks to you, it shouldn’t matter which way it’s hung. I hope no one at the Tate has given it too much thought.
Hilma af Klint & Piet Mondrian: Forms of Life is at the Tate Modern from 20 April to 3 September. Tickets: 020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk