Every Which Way But Up

When installing a painting or sculpture for exhibition, determining the correct orientation of the work is (perhaps obviously) paramount. When discussing modern art, a seemingly simple question like “Which side is up?” can become much more complicated; and occasionally when dealing with abstract art, this determination can be downright perplexing.

Two paintings recently reinstalled in Gallery 50 at the de Young have raised this question for years. Since they first arrived at the Museums, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Petunias and Arthur Dove’s Sea Gull Motive have puzzled viewers and art historians alike.

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). Petunias, 1925. Oil on hardboard panel. Museum purchase, gift of the M. H. de Young Family. 1990.55. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Many viewers look at the orientation of Petunias and feel that it must be hung upside down. The most common defense of this assertion is that the blue in the lower left corner must be representative of the sky, which reason would have appear at the top of the composition.
In most cases, this question is easily answered by simply looking for the artist’s signature, which would clearly indicate the painting’s correct positioning. O’Keeffe, however, did not believe in disrupting the surface of a painting with the addition of her name. She did sign this painting on the back, but the location of the signature is inconclusive as it suggests that the image should be rotated 90 degrees to the left, resulting in the rightmost, trumpeting blossom facing upwards.

The most definitive evidence available comes from the first publication of the painting in McCall’s Magazine in 1927, which displays the painting in its current orientation. The question becomes further abstracted (pun intended) by O’Keeffe’s affirmation that her painting, The Lawrence Tree, 1929 (now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut), could be (and has been) displayed accurately on any of its four sides.

Arthur Dove (American, 1880–1946). Sea Gull Motive (Sea Thunder or The Wave), 1928. Oil on wood panel. Museum purchase, Richard B. Gump Trust Fund, Museum Society Auxiliary, Museum Acquisition Fund, Peter and Kirsten Bedford, Mrs. George Hopper Fitch, Art Trust Fund, and by exchange of Foundation objects. 1990.19

Significantly more abstract than Petunias, Arthur Dove’s Sea Gull Motive provides fewer recognizable visual references to indicate the proper placement of the work. The painting was completed in 1928 and then went out of the public eye into private collections where it remained from 1934 until 1973. When it finally resurfaced in Andrew Crispo’s gallery show Pioneers of American Abstraction, it was mistakenly hung on its side, as though it were a horizontal landscape.

The earliest publication of the painting in America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait from 1934 displays the painting vertically. Even more telling is an inscription on the back of the painting written in Dove’s hand that confirms the vertical positioning of the painting. In addition, several early studies for the work also signal that the painting is now hanging as the artist intended.

We encourage you to come to Gallery 50 and look for yourself, just be careful not to strain your neck!