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"The Frame in America: 1860-1960"
2001-12-08 until 2002-02-03
San Diego Museum of Art
San Diego, CA, USA United States of America

This exhibition presents a comprehensive survey of the most prolific and creative period in American picture frame design. The Frame in America: 1860-1960 examines the development of American picture frames over a one hundred-year period when artisans created a wide range of styles, often based on regional experiences and tastes. The exhibition is curated by Bill Adair, one of the nationís leading authorities on the conservation of frames and their history.

A unique aspect of The Frame in America is that all ninety-eight frames included in the exhibition are displayed without pictures in order to assist visitors in focusing on each frameís individual characteristics. Many of the frames are also nested one inside the other to allow for easy comparison of various traits within a particular style of design. In addition, approximately seventeen frames from the Museumís own collection, with their paintings still inside, are integrated into the exhibition to reveal how a painting benefits from a successful pairing with a great frame that is sympathetic to its style and character.

This is a special opportunity for our visitors to appreciate what is often an overlooked and undervalued aspect of American decorative arts, and one that has benefited from much scholarly attention in recent years. The exhibition not only deepens our understanding of the importance of the frame as an art object in its own right, but of the significant role each plays in how we view the picture it frames, says the Museumís executive director, Dr. Don Bacigalupi.

One of the most distinguishing attributes of American picture frames is the extreme diversity of styles. This is particularly evident in the one hundred year period (1860-1960) examined by the exhibition. These inventive frames, as the paintings for which they were made, are curious hybrids of prevailing European styles coupled with original American contributions. Before the Revolutionary War, American frame-makers drew heavily from English designs. But, as the country gained its independence, prospered economically, and grew in population, several factors contributed to the development of a greater variety of styles. Geographic location, increased industrialization, the influence of prominent painters and artistic styles, and current trends in architecture helped to inspire new American frames.

Among the highlights of the exhibition are frame designs by well-known American artists including expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistlerís reeded frames reflect a tendency toward simplicity and strength of design in reaction to the prevailing Victorian penchant for superfluous ornamentation. Dissatisfied with the visually heavy frames of the day, Whistler sought a lighter, more modern style based on flat planes and classical reeding. The Whistler frame remains one of the most popular styles of frame design, and as such, it is arguably as significant as his contribution to the history of American painting.

Whistler was among the first on what would become a long list of American artists to design their own frames. Another was Stanford White, who was not only part of the prestigious architectural firm, McKim, Mead, and White, but also a very influential frame designer. White turned to the classical elegance found in Renaissance design for his tabernacle frames, examples of which are included in the exhibition.

Warren Platner whose firm designed the Windows of the World restaurant atop the World Trade Center is another important architect represented in the exhibition. A frame he designed and that once hung in Windows on the World will be the first frame visitors see upon entering the exhibitionís galleries.

Out west Arthur Mathews and his wife Lucia Mathews, California designers and artists, made hand-carved, polychromed frames in the Mission style for their paintings. By the middle of the twentieth century, painters such as John Marin were producing frames that were sympathetic to their modernist style. An example of a Marin frame from the Museumís collection will be included in the exhibition along with the painting for which it was designed.

The exhibition also examines frames produced by such companies as Carrig-Rohane Shop, Inc. of Boston, that hand-carved and custom-finished frames to meet the needs of the painting. Another firm was the Newcomb-Macklin Company of Chicago, which copied many of the most popular designs and then manufactured prefabricated moldings that could be ordered from pattern books.

To provide a greater understanding of the frame as an independent work of art, the exhibition includes working drawings, photographs of frame makers at their craft, design catalogues, and cross-sections of frames. An exploration of how picture frames were made is another important aspect of The Frame in America, and the tools, materials, and methods traditionally used to manufacture and gild them will also be on display.

In addition to the works in the exhibition, the Museum has created an interactive computer kiosk, which explores in greater depth the history and aesthetics of both American and European picture frame design. A special feature of the kiosk allows visitors to see how different frames effect how we perceive and appreciate the same work of art.

Another unique highlight of SDMAís presentation of The Frame in America is the incorporation of live framemaking demonstrations in the galleries. Janos Novak, owner of J. Dewers, will be on hand each Saturday afternoon from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. to instruct visitors in the techniques of frame manufacture and gilding.

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