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MoMA: How to Look at Modern Art-Danieli

The Museum of Modern Art, designed by Yoshio Taniguchi. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium looking east towards 5th Avenue with
Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk” (1963-69) and Willem de Kooning’s
“Pirate (Untitled II)” (1981). © 2005 Timothy Hursley.

Notes on Hanging

The re-hanging of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art offers the opportunity to consider the framing and the re-framing of parts of the collection, which began even before the museum embarked upon its expansion. Major paintings of the modernist epoch, Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” amongst them, have been reframed recently. This project, while not publicized by the museum, merits some attention.

The relationship of the frame to the pictorial surface is a complex one. Historically, as painting adapted itself to the rectilinear ground, the effect of the frame upon the image has been fundamental in the perception of the imagery per se, and in the definition of the place of the art object within architectural and social structures. Not only visual and perceptual issues, but also matters of taste and social attribution, have together influenced and shaped the development of the styles of framing over the centuries. When a major museum re-frames a masterpiece, it takes all these issues into consideration, while also having to consider matters of crowd flow, shipping, storage, and maintenance.

The complexity of such an undertaking may seem a moot point, but its consequences have a profound effect on the overall experience of the work. The “Demoiselles” is a case in point. The painting is known for its discordant aesthetic. When Picasso painted the painting, the faceting of cubist space, then in its infancy, was articulated with white paint. The new frame that is surrounding the painting is of a white gold, gilded onto a somewhat triangular molding. While standing directly in front of the painting, the bottom part of this molding shines in the viewers’ eyes, and becomes lighter and brighter than the whites in the painting; effectively softening the abrupt and sometimes dissonant transitions that Picasso painted, diminishing the contrast within the painting, giving it a false sense of harmony. The gold itself has a tendency to seem greenish, creating a color complementariness that dulls the garishness of the flesh-tones in the painting. Combined with a recent cleaning, the framing substantially alters one’s experience of the painting.

If we are to consider the reframing project chronologically, however, we should begin with the Cézannes. It seems like the museum has chosen or designed two basic moldings that, covered in a variety of colored finishes, have been applied to many of the Cézannes and to other works in the collection. This is not the place to elaborate on Cézanne’s significance in instigating the modernist dialectic of positive and negative space. One wonders why these moldings weren’t designed to expose the edges of the paintings, let alone diminish the severe dark shadow that they cast on every painting housed within them. Paintings like “Boy in a Red Vest” and “Still Life with Apples” have a shadow cast onto their top that alters the spatial relationships within them. “Chateau Noir” and “Pines and Rocks” are diminished in size by a disproportionately large frame surface. The subtle color constructions within these paintings are competing with a colored frame that is at times overpowering. Why would a museum that is the caretaker of a collection exemplifying these kinds of relationships prove so insensitive to its seminal pioneer? An interesting aspect of this project and the re-hanging is that it offers viewers the opportunity to compare different framing solutions. Paintings by the same artist are framed in different kinds of frames, allowing us to assess the success or failure of different framing styles with paintings of similar aesthetic and historical context. The basic island frame, a narrow molding that is placed at a small distance from the paintings edge, was for many years standard practice with modernist paintings. This style developed out of an awareness of the importance of the paintings’ edges. It also distanced the frame from the picture, giving it a greater sense of being an autonomous object. Many of the comparisons on view reinforce the logic behind the use of this kind of frame. It is possible to create a frame that would retain this island effect while expanding the decorative aspects of the frame. It is surprising that the museum chose not to do this, instead covering the edges of many paintings, some of them masterpieces of modernism.

There are two Paul Gauguins currently hanging in the post-impressionist section. “The Seed of the Aveoi” has been reframed with a large molding, its edges covered and set behind non-reflective glass. “The Moon and the Earth,” on the other hand, hangs in a regular dark island frame, giving it the accessibility and immediacy that are so important to the physicality of Gauguin’s paintings.

As one enters the major cubist room, the framing problems continue. Here, again, top shadow and large frame surfaces abound. Oddly the seminal “Ma Jolie” of Picasso and Braque’s “Man With a Guitar” have been taken out of the quasi “cubist” frames the museum concocted for them a few years ago, and have been placed in simple island frames which do not cause any unnecessary distractions. Yet near them, other cubist masterpieces are burdened with large boxy moldings, some a dark gray and others a dark brown. Picasso’s “The Reservoir,” which is in one of these frames, hangs beside “Girl with a Mandolin,” set in a simple island frame: the difference in the effect these two kinds of frames have on the paintings within them is astonishing. Painters and scholars have considered long and hard why Braque and Picasso used oval canvasses. A decision as radical as that within the development of cubist syntax was not haphazard. Nonetheless, Picasso’s “The Architect’s Table” has been placed in a frame that creates a rectangle around the oval. Why add to the format what the painter had so clearly chosen to subtract from it?

All along the fifth floor of the museum are examples of the reframing of the collection. Paul Klee’s whole oeuvre has been placed in big white box frames. These most intimate and delicate art works, many of which have small simple frames made by the artist himself, are placed behind glass, in frames that do nothing but distance, erecting a barrier between the art and the viewer. While this kind of framing fails with Klee’s small formats, it succeeds with El Lissitzky’s larger “Proun19D.” There are other examples of successful framing. Other examples of successful framing occur more often than not when island framing is used in tasteful and sensitive ways. Leger’s “Contrast of Forms,” Picasso’s “The Studio” and Matisse’s “View of Notre Dame” are all examples of this.

It will take time for the museum and its management to get acquainted with its new building, and with how different works affect and are affected by where they are placed. In fact, rearranging the permanent collection may, over time, help mediate and soften some of the problems in the architecture itself. Works like Rousseau’s “Snake Charmer,” hanging on the café’s partition wall and becoming, with its reflective glazing, practically a mirror of the crowds in front of it, may be moved to more a complementary place.

If Cézanne was the instigator of Modernist space, then Mondrian may be considered the painter that took it to its logical conclusion. On one wall the museum has hung a chronological array of paintings that seem to have all been framed by Mondrian himself. One can see how over the years he developed a reductive yet obviously thought through system by which to frame his paintings. Progressing from island frames that expose the edges of his paintings, he gradually began attaching strips that expand the pictorial plane and then to recess these strips behind the pictorial front surface of the painting, placing them both literally and pictorially behind the picture plane. These frames actually mediate and establish a relationship between the painting and the wall while leaving all relationships within the paintings unencumbered by any other visual data. It would be an achievement on a very high order to frame the whole collection with this degree of subtlety, nuance, and clarity, while addressing both the past and present context of each painting. The museum seems to have found some suitable answers to the framing of some of the paintings, while failing with many others. Luckily, unlike restorations that are not reversible, frames can always be replaced.


Eyal Danieli


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2005

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