Do vertical pictures channel “masculine energy”, as Der Blaue Reiter group of artists claimed early in the last century? Are horizontal paintings somehow more restful? Besides the stereotype that landscapes require a horizontal format and portraits a vertical one, we know very little about why artists choose one over the other. We know even less about how collectors or the general public respond to the orientation of compositions. Would we think differently of a horizontal Jackson Pollock painting if it were hung vertically?
Actually, yes, according to David Anfam, Senior Consulting Curator at the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, who says “the notions of horizontal and vertical are deeply embedded in our DNA”. Anfam believes that “we naturally associate the vertical with life itself. The horizontal equates with the horizon and, thus, with a dissolution of our verticality into an inchoate or entropic space.”
He suggests that certain deep-seated psychological forces led key Abstract Expressionist painters to prefer vertical or horizontal shapes for their canvases. Clyfford Still, for instance, formulated his jagged forms as uprights in order to anchor color fields that were directly inspired by the vast flatlands of the Canadian prairies. Still told one interviewer that where he grew up, “when there were snowstorms, you either stood up and lived or laid down and died”.
About the “zip” paintings of another legendary Ab-Exer, Anfam says simply: “Barnett Newman took a rather similar tack.” Meanwhile, the horizontal stripes of pigment in Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings (which are almost always hung vertically) are rarely construed as mere bands of color.
The stacked rectangles within the works “may be read vertically as an abstracted Virgin bisected by horizontal divisions that indicate the supine Christ”, suggests art historian Professor Anna Chave. While the Guggenheim’s Senior Curator of Photography Jennifer Blessing offers a more secular interpretation of the works, as a “violent battle of opposites—vertical versus horizontal, hot color versus cold” which invoke “the existential conflicts of modernity”.
The can be more prosaic reasons behind the choice to create a vertical or horizontal image, says the curator, critic and artist Robert Storr. “Landscapes are generally, but not always, horizontal because the land spreads out around us,” he says. “One of the basic choices an artist has is deciding how much of that expanse to show, and to what purpose.”
“Are there not cityscapes and paintings of canyons that are more vertical than horizontal?” Storr asks, considering the vertical tendencies of work by landscape artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe or the contemporary Luminist painter Mark Innerst. “As to portraits being largely vertical, that’s because we spend most of our time upright—except when drunk, sleeping or fucking—even when we’re seated,” he says
Centuries-old logistics are an important factor, too, says the painter Dexter Dalwood. “Traditional stretcher sizes for canvases were formulated during the mid-18th century in France,” he says. “First mentioned in Antoine-Joseph Pernety’s Dictionnaire portatif de peinture, sculpture et gravure in 1757, these canvas sizes became standard in the 19th century and were still being used by most painters into the early 20th century. The canvas sizes were divided into three categories: portrait, landscape and marine.”
But what about the marketability of different painting formats? Does one shape sell more than the other? Of the 20 most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, 11 canvases are vertical, one is square and eight are horizontal (including two triptychs by Francis Bacon, both comprising three vertical paintings).
Much is determined, for private collectors at least, by the dimensions of their home. “You can ‘walk’ into a vertical painting, which gives a sense of intimacy that is very appealing for many collectors,” art advisor Allan Schwartzman says. “The challenge, at least on Park Avenue, is what can fit in the elevator or what height the ceilings are.”
As for horizontal paintings, some are short enough to fit above a sofa while others have the presence to hold a full wall. “The challenge in that case is that the art displaces the furniture,” Schwartzman says. “Ultimately, for the serious collector, taste trumps all, and where there is a will, there is a way (or a storage facility).”
Schwartzman notes that, for younger collectors today, “vertical seems awfully popular. My understanding is that this is because vertical works read so well on iPhones, and so much more art is bought and traded amongst this new group of buyers while on the move.”
Perhaps, in the age of Instagram, the question is moot. The square, which many thought dead after Malevich, may yet rise again to supplant both the horizontal and the vertical.