Ralph Gardner Jr: Every Picture Frame Tells A Story

May 5, 2018

A Hudson Valley landscape by Page Curry Ginns
Credit Ralph Gardner Jr.

I’m going public with my addiction because it needs to be nipped in the bud. If I don’t acknowledge it now there’s no telling how much it will end up costing me.

It’s not pills or booze. It’s picture frames. 

Not so much the frames themselves as the aesthetic pleasure I get from taking something that I’d wedged in whatever old frame I happened to find in our basement – whether a painting, drawing or photograph – and getting it properly, professionally framed. 

My go-to guy is a framer with a shop conveniently located on my corner in New York City. 

I arrive with the object in question and consult with him as we try out different treatments – be they conventional frames, shadow boxes, whatever. 

Given the amount of deliberation and mental energy I devote to the exercise you might think I was bringing in the Mona Lisa or Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”

Fortunately, the shop’s owner indulges me. I think it has less to do with wanting to keep me on the hook, hoping I’ll frame every last work of art in my house until I’m totally broke or my family forces me into rehab, than that he’s the chatty sort. Mostly about politics.

I often pass his shop at night and he’s still working. But I suspect that has less to do with the volume of work than because he spends normal business hours gabbing with customers.

But he acknowledged that business is good. Which is saying something these days as more and more storefronts in New York City stand vacant, the reasons apparently including greedy landlords that demand high rents and the toll online shopping has taken on retail.

I’m vaguely aware that you can also shop for picture frames online. But I’m not sure how that would work. There are so many options and combinations when it comes to framing an object, not just the frame but the matting, the margins, the type of glass, that it requires a consultative process. Sort of like when you have plastic surgery, I assume, though I haven’t. Yet. My understanding is that can become an addiction, too.

And mind you I’m not choosing among elaborate Renaissance gold frames; we’re normally talking white, cream, or beige and in metal or wood. The frame shop owner, if he wasn’t such a friendly, loquacious fellow, would be perfectly within his rights to set a timer and tell me you’ve got ten minutes and then you’re out of here. 

Among the recently framed art works that give me the most pleasure is a Hudson Valley landscape by local artist Page Curry that required the bleached blond frame I chose to bring out the subtle colors; and a double-sided frame that I employed to protect the mimeographed invitation to the party where I met my future wife.

The reason that both sides of the humble parchment needed to be visible was that the front indicates the particulars of that primordial event, including this advisory – “beer & set ups will be provided” (in other words bring your own booze) – while the reverse, or “verso” as we say in the biz, displays, in my own intoxicated and now faded penmanship, Debbie’s name, address and phone number.

But what intrigues me most about picture frames is a question that verges on the philosophical. To put it succinctly, or at least make a feeble attempt, why do works of art look better within a frame than without?

Shouldn’t they be able to stand on their own merit?

It almost doesn’t matter the quality. If you’ve ever seen photographs of Picasso’s studio with dozens of completed instantly recognizable canvases stacked against each other – Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, studies for Guernica, whatever – even they look less important, almost disregardable, than once they find the right frame.

The subtle art of framing comes in choosing a border than draws the eye to the work of art in question rather than distract from it. A modest drawing, for example, won’t benefit from a garish intricately carved golden frame.

However, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” by Emmanuel Leutze in the Metropolitan Museum would feel almost naked without its frame’s fourteen-foot carved eagle-topped crest.

There are probably a variety of reasons why frames matter. For starters, they draw attention to the work. They may as well have one of those pull strings on Cabbage Patch Kids that plead, “Hold my hand.”

OK, maybe not that cloying. How about, “Stop and look.”

And once that mission has been accomplished they focus the eye.

But frames also create boundaries, both physical and psychological. They’re subtly telling the viewer that they’re separate and distinct, that whoever it is that created the art within, or the individual or scene depicted, is the result of a curatorial process that has transformed chaos, arguably the default state of the universe, into occasionally exquisite composition, color and order.

So when you think of it, is a couple of hundred bucks so much to pay for that privilege and pleasure?

And if it’s a gateway drug, a gateway to what? The veneration of beauty? More, better art and their companion frames? The decision to redecorate your home completely? 

It could be worse. As far as I know there’s no known lethal dose of the satisfaction and gentle delight I experience when I pass a picture properly framed.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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