What are the most important issues when framing a work of art? We asked master framer Jed Bark, of Bark Frameworks, and the celebrated abstract artist James Siena (who also happens to be a former employee of the company).
Bark Frameworks, founded in 1969, is now located in the former main storage facility of Christie’s in Long Island City. Walking through it is akin to walking through the framing version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with room after specialized room. In addition to crafting frames themselves, Bark and his sizable staff maintain an archive of 20th-century examples and often consult with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as heavy-hitting galleries like Gagosian and Pace. Visit any major museum in the United States or abroad, and you’re likely to see his handiwork (recently, for instance, the Yale University Art Gallery entrusted him with van Gogh’s The Night Café).
Siena, for his part, is similarly detail-oriented when it comes to framing. He designs the frames for his each of his densely patterned works on paper, and sometimes even cuts the mats himself.
When Artspace sat down with Bark and Siena to discuss framing basics, it became clear that for these two veterans the nitty-gritty framing decisions are inextricably linked to the larger context of the artwork and to art history.
If you were advising new collectors on the basics of framing, where would you start? What do you consider to be the primary principles of framing?
Jed Bark: I got a call the other week, “Jed! I got this piece of [Jasper Johns’s] here from 1984. I just took it out of the frame. It’s perfect!” That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
James Siena: With good framing, the work has the opportunity to do what it’s supposed to do: become an image. Framing involves a keen awareness of the life of an artwork. What inspires me when I think about framing or craftsmanship is that people who aren’t even alive yet will have the chance to experience the work. There is a conservation point to framing, a very important point.
JB: I used to give classes to retail framers. I started out by saying, “There are three cardinal rules.” The First Rule is that the materials and methods you use should not harm the work you are framing.
JS: The Hippocratic Oath.
JB: Framers have traditionally done all kinds of terrible things, but if you go to a “reputable” framer now the chances of them using something that is going to harm your work are much slimmer than they were 30 years ago.
The second rule is to protect the work. Be aware of the risks to the work of art out in the cruel world! The world, especially the urban world, is a hostile environment for organic materials, which works of art primarily are. Light, especially ultraviolet light, is one of the enemies. But it’s the enemy that we must have; we must invite light or we can’t see the work. At least we can limit the wavelengths.
Relative humidity is a very important issue because paper will expand and contact with changes in humidity. If a sheet expands a great deal in the summer—you don’t have air conditioning in an apartment, let’s say—paper gets very wavy and can be damaged by being pressed against the glass or acrylic glazing. Temperature is less of a big deal except as it affects relative humidity.
Then, in the city, there are many pollutants. There’s not much you can do about that, but know that the environment is acidic from different kinds of pollutants, and sometimes materials in the art themselves are acidic, so the materials in the frame should be alkaline to counteract this incipient acidifying process that goes on.
This also helps with what the art insurance world calls “inherent vice.” Inherent vice refers to the nature of materials that, in their nature, will age obviously. If you make collages with newspaper, they’re going to turn brown, so insurers won’t insure against it turning brown—that’s “inherent vice.” Or certain inks will fade.
JS: Or oil on paper…
JB: …will make beautiful halos.
Finally, the third rule: we’re not framing just for you, we’re framing for your great-grandchildren. What we do should also be reversible.
In addition to the three “cardinal rules,” are there any specific rules for works on paper?
JB: One of the things about a work on paper is the nature of the sheet itself. For people like Tatyana Grosman [founder of Universal Limited Art Editions] the whole sheet of paper was important. In those early ULAE Rauschenberg prints they inked the edge of the stone a bit, so you see the whole stone in the print. Then you have the deckled edge of the paper itself….
We still have to tell collectors occasionally that the paper is organic material—it will move around a good deal with changes in relative humidity in particular. That’s okay. It should just hang here!
JS: Don’t over-mat it!
JB: Use a minimal number of hinges at the top, hinges made of Japanese paper. Japanese paper has characteristics different from American or European paper because they’re made out of different processes, so the sheets have a different life.
JS: They move.
JB: They all move. Japanese papers move less. They are pressed less—Western papers are produced under huge pressure.
So the full sheet of paper is a major factor for works on paper. What are the major issues framing photographs?
JB: The rule of thumb is that any condition that puts a work of art at risk is going to be especially risky to a photograph. Float-mounting is far preferable. There are various ways of floating. An artist and I were having this conversation the other day about ways he could float his work that would not have consequences. One way is to print it with a border so that the sheet actually has a white border. That’s not a bad solution.
A lot of photographers like to have their work mounted right to the edge—just put into a frame. That is done all the time—we do it, we do it the best way we can—but it’s still going to cause a little damage. The edge, at least, will be a little grated by whatever is pressing against it. That’s the most benign circumstance.
Other bad things can happen: staining. There’s been a fashion which is fading now, of face-mounting photographs. It sort of became fashionable with contemporary German photographs. They have a really good process for that in Germany. But it was not created as an archival process. It was created as a presentation process for advertising.
JS: I can quote a friend. He’s a painter. He said it’s always better when photography behaves itself, lives in a mat.
JB: Painters are so arrogant. I was just referring to that comment of Ad Reinhardt, that “sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” It’s like saying to photography, “stay modest and small…”
JS: “…and don’t try and be a painting.”
Speaking of paintings: Sometimes they’re framed, other times not. How do you approach them?
JB: Artists framed their paintings systematically until the mid-twentieth century. Morris Louis and those color field painters are often shown without frames. The Twombly room at the Philadelphia Museum [Fifty Days at Illiam, 1978], for example, were stretched after the works were done. The staples are there. Every bit of it is part of that work. The frame is the room in a way. Other paintings look so much better framed, when the drips of the sides of the canvas aren’t part of the work.
How much should you notice a frame? Many are works of art in and of themselves. At other times, an artwork calls for an unusual frame. How do you strike a balance?
JB: Sometimes framing can call too much attention to itself. For example, we framed a Picasso newspaper recently. The newspaper jutted out. So what are you going to do?
JS: What’s going to be the size? Everything but that little hook?
JB: There have been times in the past when I’ve seen people make mats shaped like that, which is nuts. It makes it all about the shape of this thing. My intention was that it would go by the shape of the sheet. We would make the float big enough—
JS: —to clear that little hook.
JB: Don’t consider the hook the controlling factor. Consider the piece a rectangle, but consider that the rectangle has a little clump in it. There’s the object. See what it is without this elaborate construction around it that you would think about.
JS: That’s what it’s about: not noticing. I continue to cut my own mats once in a while, and if I have an irregularly-shaped thing I can take a piece of glassine, trace an irregular window, transfer it to a square-cut mat, cut the window, put the work in, put it in a frame, and you don’t even notice that inner window is irregular. But you would if you made it perfectly square. You follow the error of the thing and it’s perfectly fine.
JB: Excellent point.
JS: One way to make a frame less noticeable, for me, is to make it look like a frame. Not to make it look like something else.
I told a collector that I like to use cherry. The collector said, “You don’t like to use the lighter woods?” The lighter woods get darker anyway, in 25 or 30 years. Cherry gets dark in a more interesting way. It becomes more and more of a frame and you focus more and more on the art.
JB: Cherry wood ages so beautifully.
JS: That’s one of the reasons I get it—I know what happens to it over time.
JB: You can’t stain it.
JS: I hate staining.
JB: It really wrecks it.
JB: We’re starting to use walnut again too. We’re going back to the seventies.
Framing styles go in and out of fashion like everything else. What happens to the outdated frames?
JB: It’s amazing, the frames that have been thrown away. One of the major New York museums threw away one of those scalloped metal Georgia O’Keefe frames. It’s gone.
JS: I would rescue frames out of the trash when I worked for you. I remember one of Andy Warhol’s soup can paintings was in an acrylic, Plexi frame. I put something else in it. If you want it back—
JS: There was also a Lucas Samaras frame in the trash, and I framed my grandfather’s second-grade picture from 1893 in it. There was one other very old French frame….This was before you got into historical frames. I don’t think you would let these things go in the trash now.
JB: No, man.
JS: This old French frame had a really weird slope to it. I’ve borrowed that slope for some of my own frames.
When you’re framing something historical, how do you balance current framing trends with making something both true to the period and resonant for the future?
JB: Some pieces have been badly framed, over and over and over. We’ve been researching historical frames. We really want to get it right, in a way that feels right now and will feel right for a while. If framers are applying an overabundance of their own taste, it is going to look dated and therefore strange eventually—and that may be soon.
Our goal is that if someone with a discerning eye stopped looking at the work for a moment and looked at the frame, they would think “this frame was clearly designed for this work.”
Are there times when artists are not their own best friends, framing-wise? How do you navigate that?
JB: John Marin designed frames that have distressed a lot of people. His last frames really interfered with the art, but they were the art too.
JS: Didn’t Whistler do that?
JB: Whistler did make frames that fit your description. There are little paintings of his in his huge, three-part, gilded frames. At a frame conference at NYU, I said that I would remove the frame—I would keep the frame—but I would put another one on it so I could see the picture. I was practically booed off the stage!
JS: You just contradicted yourself: if he chose it, then you can’t take it off.
JB: Yes, but my feeling was, we know a lot about Whistler and his gesamtkunstwerk idea.
JS: The “total work of art.”
JB: I could imagine that if I had a little Whistler Nocturne, I might want to look at the damn thing without the frame. His early frames were great. The frame that’s on his mother at the Musée d’Orsay [Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, also called Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, 1871] is the later kind, the big, heavy, pompous sort of frame. I think they’re ugly. But I certainly wouldn’t want to destroy the frame; I would just want to take the picture out and look at it.
JS: Sometimes we do know better than the artist.
JB: But if I were framing a Whistler, I would probably do a Whistler frame. We’d make one that was Whistler at his best.