We’re all familiar with the tired trope that “my kid could paint that” — but a recent revelation over a Piet Mondrian painting that hung upside-down for decades has introduced the novel maxim that “my kid’s TV show could do a better job.” The fact that Mondrian’s “New York City I” (1941) has been displayed incorrectly at institutions including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and its current home at the German Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) is a hilarious indictment of modern art in its own right, but it’s made even better by the fact that a similar scenario played out in a 1997 episode of the PBS children’s cartoon Arthur.
In “Binky Barnes, Art Expert,” Arthur and his classmates go on a field trip to the Elwood City Art Museum, where Binky notices that a geometric painting in the style of Mondrian is hanging incorrectly. His friends Arthur and Buster don’t really get what he sees, but Binky goes on to question the painting’s orientation in the museum’s exhibition catalogue as well and suggests putting together a report. In the end, Binky the “art expert” was right.
“That’s the artist putting up the painting the right way,” says Binky as he plays a tape that shows the artist standing with the artwork. Binky then rotates the canvas, which is sitting on an easel next to him.
In real life, curator Susanne Meyer-Büser discovered the work’s incorrect orientation during her research on Mondrian’s evolving aesthetic principles for the Kunstsammlung NRW’s upcoming retrospective on the artist. She observed that the thicker lines in the red, blue, and yellow grid — created by the application of adhesive tape — should mirror that of another similar piece, “New York City,” currently in the collection of Paris’s Centre Pompidou.
Perhaps that visual motif would be obvious only to people who professionally obsess over Mondrian’s path from the early naturalistic paintings to his late abstract works, but the curator also found a photograph of Mondrian’s studio published in the June 1944 issue of Town and Country magazine. The photograph includes the work, with the opposite orientation to which it has been hung for the last 75 years, on an easel in the studio.
Bryan Hilley, a collections assistant at Nasher Museum of Art, was among those who posted the Arthur reference on social media.
“I think as a kid you feel like something like this would never happen at a museum,” Hilley told Hyperallergic. “But working in one you learn that information about collection objects is always evolving with new scholarship. I love that the character in the show comes to the correct orientation through research and primary documentation — the same way that curator Susanne Meyer-Büser verified the actual Mondrian.”
Because of the delicacy of the painting, conservators fear that correcting the error in orientation is no simple matter — it’s possible that rotating the canvas will destroy it. Ideas being bandied about the Internet include everything from rotating the wall label so it faces upside-down to accepting that modern art is fundamentally a mild parody of itself.
Whatever the case, “art expert” Binky Barnes — and curator Meyer-Büser — deserve acclaim for getting it right.