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In the 1980s, Pictures Generation pioneer Sarah Charlesworth fostered a collaboration with Yasuo Minagawa, a downtown art framer. Framing her work with lacquer frames, the backgrounds of her photographs seemed to blend into their surroundings. The result was clean-cut, monochromatic sculptural works in which images emerge forcefully from their flatness through their immaculately fitting frames.
Minagawas New York Times An obituary in 2015 underscored the craftsman’s relationship with artists who frequented his Great Jones Street shop, Minagawa Art Lines, for custom framing, including – alongside Charlesworth – Elizabeth Murray, Dan Colen and Jennifer Barlett. Today, contemporary artists such as Shilpa Gupta, Elad Lassry, and Todd Gray are pushing two-dimensionality further into the sculptural realm by incorporating frames into their photographic practices.
Art is meant to be seen, so it’s not surprising that framing – along with effective lighting, smart curation and smart wall color – is central to presenting a work. But while institutions and galleries have the professional knowledge and resources to confidently navigate the framing process, it can be overwhelming for collectors: an ideal frame must protect the art object while evoking a visual symphony with the work and its surroundings while it is being displayed fits a collector’s budget. And like any aesthetic industry, framing has evolved over the decades and changed in response to different trends and needs.
Below are five tips to keep in mind the next time you’re framing a piece of art.
Find a framer who knows your material
“Rule number one: identify the artwork,” said Robert Benrimon of Skyframe, which has stores in Chelsea and New Jersey. Finding an art framer who understands the monetary and intellectual value of the work, as well as its medium, is important. This means that collectors may need to use several different framers depending on the types of works in their collection: framing a fragile Louise Bourgeois ink on paper from the 1950s requires a different approach than doing the same for a recent one MFA’s digital printing in graduate editions and the insight that framers bring to the fields they work in is invaluable.
Galleries and museums not only turn to established framers to benefit from their technical skills, but also for their knowledge on specific subjects. For example, Benrimon pointed out that “Andy Warhol or KAWS screenprints are always very delicate”. Collectors should look to this level of expertise when looking for a framer – one reason the owner of the 39-year-old shop has clients such as Gagosian and Staley-Wise Gallery.
Think long-term about the relationship of art to the frame…
In addition to providing an aesthetic accent, the framing shields the art. Protection from UV light and sun, dust, physical contact and other external elements is indeed the main goal of any experienced framer. “Look for a conservation framing expert,” said Daniel Beauchemin, CEO of Chelsea Frames, which has operated at the epicenter of the New York gallery circuit for several decades. “Conservation framing not only protects the art, but also ensures that the treatment is safely reversible – we need to protect the art from external influences as much as we protect ourselves.”
This includes attaching the art to a surface without damaging the spine and corners. “Cardboard will leach acid into the paper, so back the artwork with wood or acid-free cotton board and avoid plastic,” added Benrimon. He also explained that in the assembly process he uses everything from pocket corners to rice paper hinges to mulberry hinge paper, depending on the piece he’s working with. An experienced framer will be able to make recommendations and explain the differences between these different methods, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Haruo Kimura, who started his career at Minagawa and later opened his own frame shop in Brooklyn, East Frames, found that the protective quality of plexiglass was constantly improving. “I recommend Optium Museum Plexiglas for those who can afford the material,” he added. The anti-reflective, almost invisible film is the first choice for museums and top-class collectors. And while it can be more expensive upfront than more budget options, forward-thinking framing helps ensure a damage-free lifespan for a work, which Kimura says is “one way of guaranteeing the art doesn’t depreciate in value.”
…But work with framers who can make changes in the future if needed
Collectors should definitely opt for reversible framing when having one of their pieces edited. This allows the art to receive a facelift later – when framing trends change or to complement remodeled spaces, for example – by giving it a new frame, and it ensures that a work is not damaged during the process.
And while it’s important to proactively ask about reversible options, there will likely be instances when collectors need to reframe a work that hasn’t been treated as carefully in the past, whether because a previous owner opted for a less than desired one Frame or a frame is damaged. This means it is crucial to work with framers who are knowledgeable about the conservation aspects of these more challenging cases.
For example, framing a work multiple times may result in a damaged back, requiring conversational paper fillers, or a framer might suggest updating the way a work is mounted or the glass that covers it – what Benrimon calls “sun protection for art”. – to better protect it. And when it comes to re-stretching canvas, an important but crucial detail is using the existing holes rather than punching new ones.
Colors and materials abound, so listen to what the art — and your framer — suggests
Whether it’s organic wood tones like maple, walnut and cherry, the timelessly confident arms of black or white, or more experimental pastels, the color options are more varied than ever. “We have 10 shades of white,” Kimura said. There are also numerous decisions to be made on the material front.
Today, many framers are trying to commit to more sustainable materials and use wood that meets ethical sourcing standards approved by PEFC (Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) and FSC (Forest Stewardship Council). There are also metal frames, and chrome is gaining popularity as a nostalgic nod to the 1980s. With so many choices to choose from, and the increased amount of time they’re spending at home due to the pandemic, Beauchemin has found that collectors are now “taking the time to really explore different frame styles as part of their home renovation projects.”
While all of these decisions may seem daunting at first, a good framer will strive to guide collectors toward options that best suit the artwork, complementing rather than overshadowing it. “We should listen to the story the artist gave us – we can’t tell a whole new one with the framing,” explained Beauchemin. “Our work can be punctuation for work.” Clients might knock on his door with visions of a yellow frame that would match the blue and yellow cushions on their sofa.
But Beauchemin believes it is crucial to intervene at this stage. “If the artist had intended more yellow, he would already have more of that in the work,” he explained. “Art shouldn’t become a feature of the home.” According to Benrimon, muted color palettes help achieve this modest effect: “Our goal is minimal disruption.” And for Kimura, “frames have to respect the art and almost have to disappear,” it is because, an artist comes to them with a specific vision for custom framing that serves as a part of the art itself.
Sophisticated art means sophisticated framing solutions, so use a professional
Contemporary art comes in a variety of shapes, materials and sizes that may require innovative thinking for framing. Reframing a roughly handled or damaged artwork may require the precision of a surgeon. Benrimon recalls cutting a zigzag wooden frame for a Warhol. According to Kimura, who once handled a piece made out of spider nests, fragile materials with moving and/or unstable parts are a big challenge. He also notes that artists are constantly increasing the scope of their work, which creates woodcutting challenges in his studio.
Of course, more difficult framing jobs and the know-how to pull them off aren’t the cheapest option. On that front, Beauchemin said clients should recognize that they are paying for a premium service: “The client needs to understand that more complicated projects increase the cost.” But even with simpler jobs, the cost pays off in the long run. A movie poster that cost the collector $15 “could become a collector’s item in a few decades. …A $300 straight frame with a $20-a-foot metal or wood frame and UV plexiglass can actually preserve that potential value.” It’s better—as with many things—to get the frame right the first time.