Modern Art Ethics: Amusing Evidence That Abstract Art Is The Con Game You Always Thought It Was

“New York City I,” a painting by acclaimed Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian that is composed of interlacing red, yellow, black and blue adhesive tapes, has been hanging upside down in various museums since it was first put on display in 1941. The painting was first exhibited at New York’s MoMA in 1945, and has hung at the art collection of the German federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Düsseldorf since 1980. An art historian has found, embarrassingly enough, that it has been displayed wrong all this time. but warned it could disintegrate if it was hung the right side up now.

When curator Susanne Meyer-Büser started researching the museum’s new show on the Dutch avant garde artist earlier this year, she realized the work was intended to be turned 180 degrees. Since it is supposed to suggest the New York City skyline, she explained, ““the thickening of the grid should be at the top, like a dark sky. Once I pointed it out to the other curators, we realized it was very obvious. I am 100% certain the picture is the wrong way around.”

Very obvious! Just not obvious enough, apparently, for any of the experts in the field to realize that a “masterpiece” wasn’t what they thought it was.

I’m curious: would the experts have been able to figure out that this painting….

….was upside-down if it had been hung wrong initially? I suspect so, but I could be wrong.

For decades, the Great Unwashed have wondered if all the gushing over abstract art paintings that appeared to be meaningless as well as of dubious sincerity (I’m looking at you, Jackson Pollock!) was rooted in the greed of fine art hustlers and the posturing of “experts” who were just making stuff up. The vulgarians’ suspicions have been bolstered by the ability of such auteurs as Congo the Chimp and Hunter Biden to sell their abstract inspirations for large amounts. The Mondrian fiasco is especially telling.

Hey, if you like it, it’s art. But the art world that couldn’t figure out the right way to hang a Mondrian for 75 years (and all the ooh-ing and ah-ing patrons who never noticed the botch for all those years should wear paper bags over their heads.

28 thoughts on “Modern Art Ethics: Amusing Evidence That Abstract Art Is The Con Game You Always Thought It Was

  1. A passage you might find interesting from science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s novel “Stranger in a Strange Land”. His somewhat-self-based SF writer Jubal Harshaw is discussing August Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid with another character. “Abstract design is all right-for wall paper or linoleum. But art is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human.”

  2. Mondrian lover here. Who cares if it’s right side up or not? He wasn’t around to point it out. It’s just really neat geometry and the product of a really interesting mind. My favorite Mondrian story about the guy whose nearly last work is called “Broadway Boogie-Woogie:” Mondrian was dancing at a jazz club and said to his dance partner, “Let’s sit down. The music’s not good. I can almost hear the melody.”

    Pollack is also a favorite (as is Ellsworth Kelly). If you get the chance to see a Pollack up close, it has incredible energy. The paint seems to dance on the canvas.

    But speaking of Dutch Modernist painters, I am NOT a Willem de Kooning fan. Some of his stuff is pretty neat, but his women paintings are just plain awful.

    Good artists create their own world. When you’re looking at a Mondrian, you’re in a very neat world, just as when you’re listening to Beethoven, you’re in a very neat world.

    • I think his work needs to be viewed as a continuum from representation to abstraction. I saw one of his later, rectilinear paintings at the National Gallery in D.C. It’s an oil. The technique is incredible. The white background areas look like milk, they have that much depth. He was classically trained. Frankly, I’m not sure his tape works weren’t mock-ups, or else he figured applying paint was a useless process when you could just use tape.

      Should we really blame artists for their work becoming collectible and super valuable? There’s art and then there’s the art world. Two different realities. I doubt Mondrian was significantly solvent when he died.

  3. My husband loves Mondrian and Pollock. We stopped at the art museum in Utica while on our Dead Presidents Tour back in 2018 specifically so he could see modern art. He walked into the gallery, saw Mondrian’s stuff and said, “Finally! Lines!”

    On the other hand, the Degenerate Art Exhibit by the Nazis back in the ’30s was done to show the Germans how inferior Modern Art was (Hitler hated the modernists) so the art was deliberately hung upside-down or in dark corners, etc.

    The German people still flocked to see it.

    Note for clarification: I am not saying you’re Hitler (!). I don’t see what the point of splotches and lines are either. Give me mountains and meadows any day. But the modernists have their fans.

  4. Best take on the genre I’ve heard: Abstract Art hast been celebrated since world war II in order to make sure no one is ever rejected from art school…

  5. The proof that most abstract art is a con job can be found in this ‘explanation’ of his work:

    “Jackson Pollock is best known for his action paintings and Abstract Expressionist works. For these pieces, many made during his “poured” period, Pollock dripped paint onto canvas to convey the emotion of movement. He explored themes including surrealist navigation of the unconscious and Jungian symbolism.”

    Complete and total gibberish. Worse even than found in academic analyses of literature.

    I think we’ll eventually find that all his paintings — different titles but basically the same thing over and over and over and over again — are also displayed upside down.

    If the exact same paintings had been created by someone other than Jackson Pollock, they would have been worth nothing. Kudos to the morons who have paid millions for his junk.

    • Try doing a drip painting and have it turn out as anything other than a mess, E2. It’s virtually impossible. Pollack doesn’t translate very well to the page of a coffee table, or smaller, book.

      • But they really are a mess. I can find meaning in glop of raw egg white on the floor if I choose to. A matter of sensibilities, to be sure, but I am allowed mine, without be challenged to try to copy Jackson Pollock. (And I’ve seen his work displayed at MoMA in NY.)

              • I think his ability to create three-dimensional depth with a grid works regardless of whether a piece is up or down. There’s no horizon in there anyway.

                • I’m not the Pollock hater E2 is…I could see hanging one in my living room. It’s art, just like Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, velvet Elvises and my mother’s well-rendered but pedestrian mosaics are art. I just don’t get the critical raves and the high prices.

                  • Artists doing what they do and the art collecting market are two different things. Dealers and collectors are probably the least creative or artistic people on earth. For them, art is just the commodity they trade in.

                    When Mrs. OB brought this story to my attention, I thought it was funny. Some curators screwed up. Hah hah. So what? If Mondrian had seen it mis-hung, he’d have said, “Hey, that’s wrong. Fix it.” But he died sometime during the War, I believe. But is this incident a reason to dismiss modern/contemporary art as nothing more than a scam? No. Or to call the most recent scam Hunter Biden is running art? No.

          • You are right. I think the Pollack discussion brought up some deeper concerns of mine. As below.

            From the time we are children we are taught what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false, what is worthy and what is unworthy. This travels from art, through history, politics, lifestyles, religious beliefs or the lack thereof, etc. It is so pervasive that by the time we are demi-adults it has taken root.

            For art (graphic, dramatic ,etc.), e.g., a subjective opinion can be discussed without a need for black and white “good” and “bad.” But I think this is the exception.

            In other arenas — history, politics, science even — we are taught by ‘experts’ what is true, what is not, what should be, what should not be. The mid-term elections are full of it already. And it frightens me.

            To me, this is the demise of original, analytical thought, and a growing fear of expressing it.

            So I appreciate your appreciation of Pollack: it’s the other stuff I’m scared of.

            • Agreed. There’s lots of classical music I don’t like. Never mind Schoenberg and the real hard-core modernists, I have a problem with lots of Robert Schumann! But that’s just me. I wouldn’t call Modern music not music or a scam. It’s just not my cup of tea.

              And yes, the “telling people what to think” thing is … a thing. Lack of thinking in any endeavor is a problem.

  6. In my experience, a while lot of “art appreciation” isn’t about actually appreciating the art or finding real meaning in it, it’s a status game about trying to show who’s more sophisticated and intelligent. Hanging a classic upside down wouldn’t slow such people down for a nanosecond.

    “By portraying her in an impossible inverted pose, Whistler was making a powerful emotional statement about the difficulties of coexisting with a maternal figure in one’s adulthood…”

    • I think the important works and artists survive, Jeff. Mondrian was important and the real deal. He’ll survive regardless of all the noise and quackery you describe.

      • Agreed.

        It’s probably not a coincidence that most art critics, collectors, and professors are not artists themselves. There’s a vicarious thing going on, and part of that is trying to exclude others in an attempt to elevate themselves. All of this happens independent of the artists themselves, and is quite easy to ignore if you just want to be left alone to like what you like.

  7. The reason I go directly to the renaissance masters or the impressionists for my art is that their work is recognizable in the human dimension. All of this avant-garde stuff is crap, wrapped in elitism. Jason Pollock was a paint spiller, Warhol was merely a copyist and the only art Mr. Biden could effect was the scam.

  8. I’ll go with some of Dali’s comments about Mondrian & Pollock:

    “Completely idiotic critics have for several years used the name of Piet Mondrian as though he represented the sum mum of all spiritual activity. They quote him in every connection. Piet for architecture, Piet for poetry, Piet for mysticism, Piet for philosophy, Piet’s whites, Piet’s yellows, Piet, Piet, Piet… Well, I Salvador, will tell you this, that Piet with one ‘i’ less would have been nothing but pet, which is the French word for fart.”

    …and about Pollock’s style:
    “…The indigestion that goes with fish soup…”

    In the 1960s Dalí made a video wherein you see Dalí in a film studio that looks like Piet Mondrian’s studio in Paris; he tugs at his moustache, points to a Mondrian-like composition on an easel, looks wide-eyed at the camera and says: ‘Pyet, Pyet? Pyet Nyet!’ Then he turns to the viewer and says: ‘Dalí? Dalí? Dalí Si!’.

    If you happen to find yourself at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Portugal, do yourself a favor and just roam around the outside. The whole thing seems mainly to exist as a self-indulgence by the architect (Gehry), but even so, the building and a few external installations (including maybe the best thing Jeff Koons has ever inflicted on the world) are better than what lurks inside. There’s surprisingly little art inside, but you’ll be subjected to at least one Rothco, and one Pollock. I don’t remember if there’s a Mondrian; I may have suppressed that.

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