Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Don’t let them hang your works upside down

The Sunday Times (November 9, 2008) published an article titled "Tate gallery’s Rothkos are left in a twist
", with the subtitle: The gallery may have hung seminal works the wrong way round.

The works involved in this controversy are the Black on Maroon paintings by Rothko. The article explains:

“Curators of the blockbuster Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern in London have displayed two of the artist’s best known works on their side, contrary to Rothko’s original intentions.

The two paintings from the Black on Maroon series have been hung vertically with bold stripes running from top to bottom. However, Rothko said he wanted the works — which he donated to the Tate before committing suicide in February 1970 — to be hung with the stripes running horizontally. His signature on the back of the paintings is thought to reflect this wish. “

It’s not that Rothko did not care. The article mentions that Rothko discussed the matter with Norman Reid, who was director of the Tate, in 1970, when the paintings where first put on display. Furthermore, Reid sent Rothko a model of the gallery room in order to obtain his approval… So, in this case, you can’t blame the artist.

Tate modern has indicated that it would not be able to check Rothko’s signature on the back until the end of the exhibition. I understand it is rather embarrassing for the curator, in particular if the paintings have been reproduced this way in the exhibition catalogue (I have not checked, but I suppose it is the case).

Practically, if you paint abstract works or you think there could be any doubt on which way your painting should be hung, make sure that you indicate clearly which way you want your work to be hung:

  • Your signature should give a good indication

  • If you are signing on the back of the painting, this gives a good indication if you sign horizontally. If you sign vertically, your painting may be exhibited on its side (as the curator would think you signed the piece horizontally)

  • The best way seems to me to be explicit and trace an arrow indicating the way up on one of the vertical stretchers.

Related resources

Rothko Exhibition

26 September 2008 to 1 February 2009

Tate Modern
London SE1 9TG
020 7887 8888

Open Sunday – Thursday 10.00–18.00
Open Friday and Saturday 10.00–22.00

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