Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

Building better wall text

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As I was walking through the galleries at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts I stopped in front of this Charles Sheeler. It was smartly hung in a corner, next to a 1958 Ralston Crawford and below a 1951 Alexander Calder. It’s a smart hang — precisionism kicked forward a bit on the walls, streamlined forms given the biomorphic treatment hovering up above . After I’d spent a few moments with the paintings, I found that I kept looking at the unusual frame around the Sheeler: What is that and where did it come from?

Fortunately, VMFA does something unusual with its wall-text labels: It doesn’t just list the artist, the title of the work and the acquisition date/info, it includes data on the frame. In the case of this Sheeler the label reads:


American, 1883-1965

Steel-Croton, 1953

Oil on canvas

John Barton Payne Fund, 54.3.3

Original frame

American, ca. 1953

Wood, carved and painted

Frame information! Sure, the label doesn’t say if “original” means its Sheeler’s frame or if it was just the frame a dealer put around the painting way back when, but that’s still about 98 percent more information than most (any?) other museums provide.

I’ve only seen this at VMFA and only in the museum’s American galleries. VMFA American curator Sylvia Yount told me that the museum has done this for a while, dating back to the tenure of her predecessor, David Park Curry (who is now the American curator in Baltimore). “We consider them important transitional objects between the paintings and decorative art holdings,” she told me in email.

It’s a practice that I wish would spread to other museums and to other curatorial departments. How many times have you seen atrocious frames on impressionist paintings and thought, ‘That frame has to be about the collector and his sense of self-importance, right?’ and so on. (And maybe, just maybe, being a little more up-front about frames would motivate curators to use more sensible frames, too…)

Related from VMFA: Genre paintings tell two Civil War-era stories. An unfortunate atrium. VMFA reopens — and why it deserves more attention.

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  1. greg.org says:

    oy, give dealers and collectors a break. museums can be just as likely culprits for slapping an “atrocious” frame on something.

    Or more likely, the conventions of framing have changed, and what was once standard equipment is now out of fashion. It’s still SOP to use a period frame if the original historic frame is gone.

    And as for that Courbet, your visual point is valid, but when you blame the “self-importance” of the collector, you do know that it was from the John Johnson Collection, which the PMA basically hijacked in Orphan’s Court, emptying Johnson’s own house museum in order to fill their new building. Right?

  2. William Rudolph says:

    The frame was Sheeler’s design and is preserved on many of his paintings, including examples in our collection at Worcester, the Dallas Museum of Art, RISD, Butler Institute, and Smith College, among others. Unfortunately, the linen liner is also Sheeler’s original choice, which we’re all stuck with!

  3. LW says:

    I appreciate provenance information in text panels, and naming the collectors — I feel that’s a fine sign of respect and, if it keeps collectors from wanting to put their names on other areas of the museum, I say KEEP IT UP.

    Anecdotes about the artwork in context with the artist’s life — either a quote from the artist or content produced by a curator — are really appealing to me.

  4. Ken Ashton says:

    Sometimes the frame information is important to have.

    Museums should take care for the frames as well as the art.

    When an artist makes a frame choice he’s making a decision on how he wants his art to be seen.

  5. kirsten gray says:

    A very common frame style for that era and over the years I worked with my mother in buying antique works of art, I became quite accustomed to the look. Whenever a painting came in with the original frame, we let it be. I’m glad the VMFA kept the frame. I would imagine the extra note regarding the frame was a justification because most find the style ugly, however, I don’t. Just recently I went into a home with a sweet late 40’s perhaps early 50’s painting framed in a similar way hanging over the mantel and my friend commented on how they needed to reframe and I told them not to.

    Outside of streamline basic subtle frames, no matter how contemporary, many frames eventually look dated and even ugly.

  6. Emma Lou Martin says:

    Artists often frame or make their own frames for their paintings to complete the total look they are after. John Marin is a great example. Frames can be restored just like paintings, linen liners replaced, paint freshened, etc. In cases like this is is wonderful to keep pieces framed as the artist intended. Curry did a fabulous job changing some frames at VMFA to ones that were appropriate to the period from ones later put on by galleries or owners.

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