Local Arts

What difference does a frame make to high-end art? A lot, says curator – here’s how, why he changes them

Before and after with one of the Mint’s works: George Benjamin Luks’ ”Carnival Scene.”
Before and after with one of the Mint’s works: George Benjamin Luks’ ”Carnival Scene.” Courtesy of the Mint Museum; photos by Keara Reburn and Mitchell Kearney

When Jonathan Stuhlman arrived at the Mint Museum in 2006, one of his first orders of business was to assess all 175 paintings in the American collection. He was looking specifically at one thing – something you might assume would be of little consequence to a curator: the frame each painting was in.

Stuhlman, the Mint’s senior curator of American, modern and contemporary art, needed to learn which frames weren’t performing well. A frame must enhance the painting it surrounds but never outshine it. (Every good old second banana – Ed McMahon, Paul Shaffer, Vivian Vance – knows his or her every movement or utterance must be in service to Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Lucille Ball.)

When a work of art changes hands over time, it may be reframed by an auction house or new owner. And a newer frame doesn’t mean a better frame.

In looking at each work of art, Stuhlman said, he considered:

Is the painting in its original frame? (That’s the best-case scenario.)

Is the art not in its original frame – but in another frame from the same time period that suits it? (That’s acceptable.)

Is the painting in a reproduction frame that’s appropriate? (Not ideal, but not an emergency.)

Is the artwork in a new frame that’s not suited to it? (Alert Medic!)

He prioritized 29 paintings in the fourth and least desirable category. Then, he waited. Buying period frames – which Stuhlman prefers to custom-made reproductions – can cost big bucks. The project timeframe, he knew, would be measured in years and not months.

Between 2011 and 2015, four paintings (by Robert Henri, Thomas Cole, Max Kuehne and William Merritt Chase) from the American collection got new frames.

Stuhlman is coy about the cost but said the authenticated, period frames the Mint invests in are usually in the $2,000 to $12,000 range. And that’s a bargain. “Some period frames can cost up to six figures,” he said.

This summer marked the latest phase in the ongoing reframing project. Seven more paintings were matched with new frames, thanks to financial help from longtime Mint supporters Betsy and Alfred Brand.

Fixing frames

A frame is more than an accessory. The right one can make the painting appear to pop right off the wall; the wrong one can force it to fade into the background.

Stuhlman went to premier fine art framing company Gill & Lagodich in New York to select period frames for the paintings that had been suffering, aesthetically, as a result of a bad matchup.

In this role, Stuhlman is sort of a human version of match.com for frames and paintings. There’s scholarship behind what he does – but there’s a little mystery and magic, too.

While Stuhlman is the sole decision maker, he gets a little guidance from the Great Beyond. Notes from long-dead artists reveal what frames they chose for their work. Stuhlman tries to choose what the artists themselves may have chosen. And artists can be persnickety about how their work is presented. The Impressionists, for instance, preferred frames that made their work look, Stuhlman said, “fancy and important.”

LUKS BEFORE 1977.85_v2.jpg
BEFORE: George Benjamin Luks’ “Carnival Scene” had an ornate, gilded frame that didn’t work, says curator Jon Stuhlman. Keara Reburn

George Benjamin Luks liked Dutch-style, ebonized frames, and that’s exactly what Stuhlman gave his 18- x 22-inch “Carnival Scene.” The previous ornate, gilded frame was a spotlight stealer. The darker frame establishes the right mood for the brooding work, says Stuhlman.

LUKS AFTER 1977.85.jpg
AFTER: The Luks work now resides in the kind of Dutch-style, ebonized frame the painter himself preferred. Mitchell Kearney

Some artists built their own frames. Theodoros Stamos (American, 1922-96) was both artist and frame maker. So was Max Kuehne (1880-1968). His “East River Harbor” (1913) is worth seeking out – not just for the sake of the painting, but for the white gold leaf frame, with sgraffito decoration, that he made. (Sgraffito is the technique in which the artist scratches through a top layer of paint to reveal the base coat, of a different color, underneath.) The previous frame, a modern reproduction of an ornate gold French Louis XIV-style frame, threatened to overshadow the work it was meant to support.

A frame can be a work of art itself. Particularly during the international Arts and Crafts movement (1880–1930), frame makers signed their frames just as an artist signs a canvas.

Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s “Trumpet Flowers,” 1919, before ... Courtesy of the Mint Museum; photo by Keara Reburn

... and after. Courtesy of the Mint Museum; photo by Keara Reburn

There’s more that goes into framing decisions than you might expect. Stuhlman said the machine-produced strip frame he found on William Merritt Chase’s “Beach at Shinnecock” (1891) was “killing the painting.” (Think of Angelina Jolie’s award-winning performance in “Girl, Interrupted.” Audiences hardly noticed the supposed star, Winona Ryder, was in the picture.)

Stuhlman wanted the 6- x 8-inch seascape “to sing.” When he found a gilded oak period frame, he knew he’d struck, well, gold.

“You can see the oak grain through the gold,” he said. “It mimics the ocean waves in the painting. And the gold frame reflects light back onto the painting.”

The right frame, like a good supporting actor, brings out the best in the lead.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

Get framed

The Mint uptown isn’t the only museum celebrating the oft-overlooked frame. Through Feb. 17, 2019, the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art’s second-floor gallery holds an exhibition dedicated to the art of framing. “Framing It!” demonstrates how the wrong frame can degrade a masterpiece while a carefully chosen one can bestow prestige on an average painting.” www.bechtler.org

When you visit the Mint, how will you know which paintings are in Stuhlman-approved frames? Look at the wall labels. In addition to providing context about the work and the artist, the text will tell you about the frame. www.mintmuseum.org