Two paintings by the American abstract artist Mark Rothko from his Black on Maroon series contain broad black stripes across the canvas defining hazy maroon rectangles. The paintings were donated to the Tate Modern Gallery in London in 1968, which hung them for many years with the stripes running horizontally. The paintings were then rotated so that they were hung with the stripes running vertically for a time, before being returned 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. Rothko's signature indicates a horizontal orientation (see Jamieson 2008
), but the works are currently hung vertically. The artist himself may have been unsure; paint dribbles run in both directions on the canvas. Art historians have debated the relative aesthetic merits of the two orientations. There are anecdotal reports of other disputes about the correct orientation of other paintings, including work by Matisse, Rauschenberg, van Gogh, and O'Keeffe. But does orientation really matter in an abstract or semiabstract painting, at least to the untrained eye?
Modern art often contains little or no recognisable representation of real-world objects or scenes. Abstraction allows the artist to focus on composition and medium rather than on subject matter. In the process of creating a modern artwork, an artist may make an aesthetic decision regarding the orientation at which the work should be hung, based on their intended message. The correct orientation is often specified on the back of the canvas. However, this intended orientation is not always obvious to others viewing the work, especially if there is no recognisable content at all, which raises questions about aesthetics. Is there sufficient information in a modern artwork for a naïve viewer's judgement to align with the correct orientation? Is the impact or aesthetic value of a work diminished by viewing at an incorrect orientation? Relatively few studies have addressed such questions, but answers to them should throw some light on the cognitive processes underlying visual aesthetic judgement. Lindauer (1969
) asked participants to indicate their preferred orientation for 54 abstract paintings and found that half were in agreement with the artist's intended orientation. On the other hand, Swartz and Hewitt (1970
) showed their participants a series of abstract paintings, either in the original format or rotated or mirror-reversed, and asked participants to rate each image aesthetically. Aesthetic ratings were not affected by rotation or mirror reversal. Latto et al (2000
) were primarily interested in preferences for vertical and horizontal orientations over oblique orientations in Mondrian paintings, though they did report slightly higher aesthetic ratings for paintings presented at the intended orientation. Plumhoff and Schirillo (2009
) more recently found some evidence of higher aesthetic ratings for Mondrian's paintings presented at the correct orientation. In Johnson et al's (2010
) study of the same Mondrian paintings, pupil size was significantly higher for the correct orientation than for other orientations.
The present study aims to build on previous studies by (i) systematically investigating the relevance of recognisable content in preferences for orientation (a potential confounding factor in previous studies employing a range of abstract artworks) and (ii) assessing whether a commonly used statistical measure of information content in images has any bearing on orientation-dependent judgements. Recent work suggests that the Fourier amplitude spectrum slope plays a role in aesthetic judgements of art (Graham and Field 2008
; Redies 2007
; Redies et al 2007
). It may also play a role in orientation judgements.
In the first experiment, participants were shown four versions of each artwork, oriented at 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees clockwise with respect to the intended orientation, and asked to select the most pleasing or meaningful image. Was the correct orientation chosen more often than would be expected on the basis of chance?