How Do You Know If You’ve Hung a Painting Upside Down?

Isaac Kaplan
Mar 12, 2018 12:00PM

Employees hanging Black on Maroon (1958) at the Tate Modern in London. Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images.

Genevieve Habert was the only one to realize something was amiss at the Museum of Modern Art’s Henri Matisse exhibition. None of the other 116,000 visitors to the show—which ran from October to December 1961—had noticed that something wasn’t quite right. Nor had MoMA’s experts. Even Matisse’s own son, Pierre, hadn’t spotted it.

But by her third stroll through the exhibition, Habert became filled with what the New York Times described as a “stabbing certainty” that Matisse’s cut-out work Le Bateau (1953) was hanging upside down. With great economy of line, the artist had depicted the outline of a boat and its reflection in the sea below. It appeared, however, that the reflection had been portrayed with more care than the actual boat—a detail Habert found suspicious.

She spent $3.50 ($29 today) on a catalogue and discovered that the work was, in fact, printed the other way around. After dealing with a less-than-helpful guard—“You don’t know what’s up and you don’t know what’s down and neither do we,” he reportedly told Habert—and finding that the relevant MoMA staff had departed for the day, Habert turned to the Times. When MoMA curators finally took another look, they realized Habert was right and flipped the work. The way holes had been drilled into the painting’s frame, however, indicated the New York museum was hardly the first to mishang the Matisse.

“Mrs. Habert should be given a medal,” the painter’s son told the Times.

As the historical record of errors drilled into the back of the Matisse indicates, the correct orientation of an artwork isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it requires archival research—and the results can be more than trivial. Often, they provide valuable insight into our understanding of an artist.

The Jewish Museum, for instance, engaged in some directional detective work of its own as it prepared for a major re-hang of the collection unveiled this January—the first in 25 years. As researchers sifted through the works held by the institution, they ran across some historical debate surrounding the orientation of a 1952 Morris Louis painting known as Untitled (Jewish Star).

“That stimulated us to try and get to the bottom of it,” Jewish Museum curator Stephen Brown told Artsy. The work, which includes the Star of David, was created at a transitional moment in Louis’s career; its figurative elements differ from the artist’s better-known (and fully abstract) Color Field paintings.

Brown and his co-curator, Claudia J. Nahson, were aware of a missing work by Louis titled Man Reaching For a Star. It had been exhibited at Washington D.C.’s Workshop Art Center Gallery in 1953, but all that remained was a written description. So they flipped the Jewish Museum’s painting around, and there it was: the figure of a man reaching for a star.

Installation view of Scenes from the Collection at The Jewish Museum, NY. Left: Nancy Spero, Victims, Holocaust, from The War Series: Bombs and Helicopters, 1968. Center: Morris Louis, Man Reaching for a Star, from the Charred Journal series, 1952. Photo by Jason Mandella. Courtesy of The Jewish Museum, New York.


“All of a sudden it made sense to us—this was one and and the same as that painting we knew had been shown in the Workshop Gallery in 1953,” Nahson said. When the curators examined the back of the work, they discovered arrows that confirmed the new orientation.

In the case of these works by Matisse and Louis, figurative elements were instrumental in determining which way the paintings should be hung. Lacking such clues, Brown noted, Abstract Expressionist works can be particularly challenging.

A photograph of a work taken during the artist’s lifetime is often instructive, the rationale being they would not allow their own work to be shown “incorrectly.” The orientation of an artist’s signature can also help. But it’s not always definitive—and some abstract artists didn’t sign all their work. (Lee Krasner in the 1940s is a prime example, Brown said.)

And, sometimes, “right-side up” is simply open for interpretation. Some artists are comfortable with their work swapping between vertical and horizontal hangs; other artists have left their intentions unclear. Take two works by AbEx painter Mark Rothko from his “Black on Maroon” series, for instance.

These paintings, donated to the Tate not long before the artist commited suicide in 1970, have hung both horizontally and vertically throughout the years. In 2008, the Daily Telegraph’s art critic took issue with their current vertical positioning. “If this is not a blunder then it is a very extreme way of presenting his work,” Richard Dorment said.

Then-Tate Modern director Vicente Todoli responded in The Guardian, noting that Rothko “never gave definitive instructions for their orientation, except in his deed of gift to Tate Gallery, which clearly states they are vertical format paintings. Sadly, Rothko died in 1970, well before the paintings he donated to Tate were installed at the gallery. This is why Black on Maroon 1958 and Black on Maroon 1959 have been the focus of so much research and debate.”

Achim Borchardt-Hume, director of exhibitions at Tate Modern, confirmed to Artsy that a number of Rothko murals feature markings by the artist which suggest they can be displayed in different directions. The final choice of orientation, however, is typically based on historical precedent.

Compared to the process of actually making (or understanding) a work of art, hanging it correctly might seem like a no-brainer. And, yes, sometimes all it takes is a skim through the catalogue to identify an error. But other times there’s no right answer at all—just different ideas of which way is up and which way is down.

Isaac Kaplan