Framing and Flattering Works of Art on Paper. (Take Cues from the Museums)

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The subject of framing of works of art--whether to frame, what kind of frame to use, and how much to spend on frames--occupies a lot of time for art dealers and even more for collectors. As a financial fact, frames can be quite expensive, yet there is no denying that they serve a variety of purposes: They protect works of art from light bumps; they distinguish art from everything else around it; they make the work appear complete; and they help collectors imagine how the art will look in their homes. Although some homes and art galleries occasionally have tacked a series of drawings onto a wall and placed a large protective piece of plexiglas over them, drawings, prints, and watercolors are rarely displayed in the absence of a frame, as well as matting and glass. Seemingly, the battle of framing has been won; who should declare victory is not clear.

Two issues face collectors in displaying works on paper, and they are sometimes treated as mutually exclusive. The first: How to use frames in such a way as to present works on paper, especially drawings, as substantial and complete-in-themselves works of art. Paintings, for example, can become a particularly perplexing problem when pale and delicate drawings are displayed in the same room as frequently larger and more colorful paintings on canvas. The second: How to mat and frame works on paper in a manner that will protect them from moisture, excessive light, and a host of airborne pollutants.

Exhibiting a Work on Paper. "In general, I don't put works behind glass next to paintings," says Louis Newman, director of David Findlay Jr. Fine Arts, a New York City art gallery. Drawings and other works on paper generally "recede" in the presence of paintings whose colors are more likely to jump out at the viewer. When a big canvas is nearby, a drawing often will be taken as a preliminary study for the larger work, sometimes regardless of the content of the two pictures. Still, it sometimes happens that a drawing and canvas share a wall, which may take place for a variety of reasons (e.g., as part of a single installation, as context for the other work, or for lack of separate space in the gallery). Newman states that in this case the gallery might paint the wall blue "to neutralize the effect, basically putting both works on a neutral playing field." The benefit of painting the walls is to keep the white drawing paper from seeming to dissolve into the wall itself and, instead, stand out.

The Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City has also painted walls when exhibiting drawings, even when no paintings are present, to "offer a little bit of contrast to the paper," according to the gallery's director, Sique Spence. The wall paint is apt to be a shade of gray--"just a bit of contrast. Red would be overly dramatic." However, that kind of drama is regularly found in the works at paper galleries of major museums, where walls may be green or violet or some other color that contrasts sharply with white paper, especially since the lights are often much lower in these galleries than in the regular painting and sculpture rooms.

Hanging a drawing also poses dilemmas. It is not uncommon to see a single large painting on the wall of a commercial art gallery or museum--a visitor's attention is immediately focused from afar--but "you don't want one drawing, unless it is absolutely enormous in scale, holding up a whole wall," Spence said. "The drawing is likely to get lost in scale that way." The more customary approach is to group a number of drawings together, inviting the visitor up close in order to get a better view. Drawings amidst other drawings force the viewer to forgo looking for the finished larger piece and concentrate on their specific artistic qualities. The obvious drawback in this type of design, however, is that it suggests the individual pictures are not substantial works of art in themselves and need others around to fill them out.

Galleries seek to solve that problem by displaying drawings on smaller walls or in smaller gallery rooms. …