Unframed: An Introduction to the Matting and Framing Department

m+f studio
The Matting and Framing Studio Photo credit: Jessi Kulow

While it may seem quiet to visitors at the museum, behind the scenes it is anything but: curatorial teams are planning new installations of paintings, sculpture, video, and works on paper for You Belong Here: Reimagining the Blanton, construction crews are renovating the permanent collection galleries, and the matting and framing studio is hard at work preparing the many works of art on paper and framed paintings that will hang in the newly refurbished gallery spaces.

Preparator Jessica Kulow
Preparator Jessica Kulow

Tucked away in the matting and framing studio, the Blanton’s Preparator, Jessica Kulow, spends much of her time figuring out the best framing solutions for a variety of objects, from 16th century Italian drawings to mid-century American paintings to contemporary Peruvian photography. Jessica has worked professionally as a preparator since 1999 and just completed her master’s degree in historic preservation at UT before joining the Blanton this year. In her words: “the greater the challenge to presentation, the better.” According to Jessi, “good framing is not only about presentation, it also supports preservation and the safe storage of works of art.”

The frames that visitors see in museums are not that different than a regular picture frame that you might use at home. However, museums frame objects to exceed the guidelines established by The Library of Congress, and the Blanton implements the highest standard: we use only 100% cotton rag matboard, Japanese tissue hinges adhered with wheat starch paste, solid hardwood frames, and UV-light filtering glazing. All of these techniques are designed to not only protect the works of art in the frame, but also provide the best viewing experience for visitors.

Detail showing reflection difference between clear and museum glazing.
Detail showing reflection difference between clear and museum glazing. Photo credit: Jessi Kulow

What are we working on right now in Matting and Framing?

Currently “on the bench” in the matting and framing studio are two Charles White drawings gifted to the Blanton by Susan G. and Edmund W. Gordon: I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned, 1956, and Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961. (The latter was on view in 2015 for the Blanton’s exhibition Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties.)

Both objects are large figural compositions in charcoal. Because of White’s finely built up layers of cross-hatching and a combination of chalks, charcoals, and pencil, the way a visitor looks at the works are highly important. After completing the acquisition, the curator worked with the preparator to determine the best way to display the drawings and decided that the Blanton would acquire a new custom frame for one object and reglaze both. Glazing refers to the glass or plexiglass in front of the object that protects it from humidity, heat, and dirt. The types of glazing material used varies widely from traditional clear glass, to acrylic Plexiglas, to conservation glass, a product which is coated to protect the work from harmful ultraviolet rays. In recent years, a new technique has emerged: an anti-reflective coating applied to the surface of conservation glass. Dubbed “Museum Glass,” this coating is not “frosted” as with previous iterations of the technology, but has a clear coating similar to the coating on eyeglass lenses. Museum Glass allows for optimal viewing of colors, textures, and medium without the distracting reflection: a perfect solution for the two drawings by Charles White.

photo through glass
Photo captured through museum glass showing texture and technique

Steps in the reframing/reglazing process:

The first step in framing is assessment of the object. We note the condition of the existing frame, how suitable the work is for hanging, the presence of any additional archival materials that have accompanied the work, and aesthetic cohesion with other items in the collection. During a consultation with the curator, the preparator makes recommendations about how best to preserve the object and shares findings from the initial assessment. At this time, it is also important to understand the curator’s design intentions, including frame style and color, materials, mat style for the exhibition, and storage. In the instance of I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned, the object was acquired in a frame with a simple frame style and an ebony finish, but Awaken from the Unknowing was in a very different frame. Curatorial and matting and framing teams decided on a custom replica frame that would lend a level of cohesion to the pair when they are exhibited.

Every object is unique and presents its own challenges and considerations. On Awaken from the Unknowing, the charcoal application comes right up to edge of the board. It was important for minimal contact to occur between framing materials and the object, especially when the medium is delicate charcoal. To eliminate the potential for abrasion to the charcoal, the glazing or spacers were not to touch the surface of the drawing. In this instance a matboard spacer was used to lift the glazing off the artwork, resulting in a “shadowbox” effect. The spacer rested on the backing board to which the object was mounted, and the new museum glass floats above the artwork and rests on the spacer securely.

image of frame glass
Detail showing limited reflection even at extreme angle. Photo credit: Jessi Kulow

When revealing the new frame to others at the Blanton, everyone was blown away—it was as if there was no glass covering the artwork! The texture and details became extremely crisp and White’s masterly technique became even more visible. “It is amazing how one material change can so affect and benefit an artwork.” Because of the new frames and glass, visitors and researchers can benefit from a virtually unobstructed view of I’ve Been Buked and I’ve Been Scorned and Awaken from the Unknowing. However, there’s still no touching!

Jessica Kulow is the Preparator in the Julia Matthews Wilkinson Center for Prints and Drawings. To get in touch or for more information jessica.kulow@blantonmuseum.org

1 thought on “Unframed: An Introduction to the Matting and Framing Department”

  1. I did not fully appreciate the complexities of preserving these artistic works that are vulnerable in so many ways, light, abrasion, movement, oxygen, chemistry. Thanks for the inside view.

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