Preferences for orientation in abstract art


In 1968 two paintings by the American abstract artist Mark Rothko were donated to the Tate Modern Gallery in London. They contain broad black stripes running across the canvas, defining hazy maroon rectangles. For many years the gallery hung them with the stripes running horizontally, then rotated them so that the stripes ran vertically for a time, before returning to the horizontal orientation for an exhibition of Rothko’s work. Controversy has surrounded the question of the correct orientation in which to hang the paintings, one of which was defaced with graffiti in 2012. Rothko’s signature indicates a horizontal orientation, but the works are currently hung vertically as in the photograph. The artist himself may have been unsure - paint dribbles run in both directions on the canvas – and art historians have debated the relative aesthetic merits of the two orientations.
Several of Kasmir Malevich’s works have been hung at different orientations in different exhibitions, apparently with the consent of the artist since photographic evidence was supplied by him (see “Kazimir Malevich: The Climax of Disclosure” by Rainer Crone and David Moos, 1998). There are also anecdotal reports of disputes about the correct orientation of other paintings, including work by Matisse, Rauschenberg, van Gogh, and O’Keeffe. But does the orientation of the hang really matter to viewers of the work?
In a paper published in 2012 I reported the results of an experiment in which participants were shown 40 abstract artworks, each at four different orientations, and asked to select the orientation that they judged to be most attractive or meaningful. The results were complicated by the fact that participants often perceived some meaning in the artworks even when none may have been intended by the artist. To isolate judgements based purely on the abstract form and content of the works, separate ratings were taken of ‘meaningfulness’.
In the case of twelve of the artworks 1-in-8 or fewer participants perceived any meaning at all, and in these pieces the correct orientation (as defined by art historical texts) was only selected 27% of the time on average. Since random selections would be correct 25% of the time, performance was generally at chance levels. However there were marked differences between individual artworks. Over half of participants selected the correct orientation of Jackson Pollock’s “One” (left below) and Joan Miro’s “The Birth of the World” (right below).

But none selected the correct orientation of Malevich’s “Suprematist Compostion” (left below) and only 1 in 20 selected the correct orientation of Mondrian’s “Composition” (middle below) and Sam Francis’s “Towards Disappearance, II” (right below).