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Dubuffet & Scully – Antique Frames on Contemporary Art

March 27, 2020

5 minute read

Dubuffet & Scully - Antique Frames on Contemporary Art

When it comes to contemporary paintings, from Pop Art and Minimalism to Photo Realism and Conceptual Art, many collectors prefer simple gilded frames with a clean, smooth surface that function primarily as unobtrusive protective borders simply finishing and protecting the art they enclose. But some contemporary paintings, particularly those done in more expressive styles can be best enhanced by using more traditional frames with expressive carved and ornamented surfaces that compliment both the style and personality of the artwork. Lowy is always ready to advise collectors, dealers and curators who prefer this less conventional and ‘riskier’ approach to framing contemporary art.

One art collector, in particular, a longtime Lowy client, always frames his contemporary paintings in traditional frames. He recently brought a painting by Sean Scully, “Maroon Pink White,” and a pair of lithographs by Jean Dubuffet to Lowy for framing. Though Scully is usually thought of as an abstract painter, his seductive painterly grids are imbued with a Romantic emotional quality that extends beyond pure abstraction. Scully’s irregular-edged, brick-like masses, executed with a light-infused palette, suggest solidity and vulnerability, order and chaos, precision and poetry, the tension of life itself. Not surprisingly, his highly expressive style lends itself to frames of equal expressive strength, such as the 17th-century Italian Bolognese-style frame that Lowy created specifically for Scully’s painting based on an antique frame from its extensive inventory of frames. This frame has a receding profile, which appears to “push” the painting forward into view; carved continuous acanthus leaf ornament, which dazzles the eye with its organic exuberance; and a rich, glowing finish that enhances Scully’s subtle, carefully chosen colors. Together these elements lend drama to the painting, complementing rather than overshadowing it.

“For the Scully painting, we could have selected a simple geometric molding that made no particular statement, or interpreted the artist’s work to make a more personal framing statement that enhanced the artist’s personality, sensibility and purpose,” says Larry Shar, president of Lowy. “In this case, the owner wanted to draw attention to the presentation without diminishing the artist’s intent. Many collectors like to put a personal stamp on their collection, and framing is one way to this. Scully’s painting reminded us of paintings by Nicholas de Stael, whose Swiss dealer, Daniel Varenne, was a proponent of bold, anachro- nistic frames for de Stael’s work. The frame we made for the Scully painting is undeniably a bold state- ment, but why not think outside the box?” To make the anachronism mare palatable, Lowy “floated” Scully’s painting, using a hidden, recessed supplementary frame that allows for space between the main frame and the painting, thereby producing a levitational effect that reveals the edges of the paint- ing. In doing so, Lowy demonstrated that this prac- tice, which is often used when framing contemporary paintings with modern and contemporary frames, could also work with traditional frames. For the Dubuffet lithographs, which depict the naïve, child-like figures for which this Art Brut pioneer is known, Lowy and the owner chose to create reproduc- tions based on a 16th-century Spanish cassetta frame. Developed in Italy during the late 15th century, cassetta frames consist of a central flat recessed band or frieze with applied inner and outer mouldings. “The flat panels of cassetta frames work well with the flat planes of much contemporary art,” says Lisa Wyer, vice president of sales and marketing at Lowy. “In fact, many modern frames are based on cassetta frame designs.” Additionally, the chunky, strong shape of this cassetta frame particularly complements Dubuffet’s bold, sculptural images. Cassetta frames also express the love of decorative ornamentation that characterized Renaissance frame making. The antique frame model used to create the Dubuffet frames has faux pietre dure (inlaid stone) panels and is gilded and decorated with sgraffito (stenciled and painted scroll-like decoration) at the corners. These whimsical features enhance the playful quality of the prints. In an effort to make the reproduction frame even more authentic, Lowy copied the traditional lap joinery of the original, which echoes the primitive, handcrafted look of Dubuffet’s prints. Lap joinery produces a more complex, detailed corner than the common machine mitered corner. “This frame was a quirky, unique approach for an artist who was very much an individual; I felt a simple contemporary frame would not do justice to his spirit of individuality,” Lisa says. Among traditional framing choices, 16th- to 18th-century Spanish and Italian frame styles tend to work best with contemporary art, according to Larry. “Antique Spanish and Italian frames are not as fussy and man- nered as 18th-century French frames, for example,” he says. “They often have a more expressive bold and less refined quality which when paired properly can enhance the expressiveness of a contemporary artist..”

Indeed, some of Lowy’s most famous artist clients throughout its 100-year history, including Salvador Dali and Alfonso Ossorio, have preferred such frames for their own artworks. Lowy prides itself on keeping its framing services new and fresh, and will work with clients to deliver any type of frame they prefer. Unlike other framing firms, Lowy is equally skilled at creating and supplying both contemporary and traditional frames for contemporary art. Some clients use antique frames as inspiration to design their own frames, and Lowy can craft these as well. Lowy has for many years framed this particular client’s contemporary paintings with historically accurate replicas of antique frames. “But he didn’t want his frames to look too old or distressed,” Lisa says. “While the frames we created for Scully’s and Dubuffet’s art have the character of the antique originals on which they were based, they don’t show the wear and tear that inevitably builds up over time on antique frames. This cleaner, fresher look was deemed more appropriate for these contemporary paintings.” Wayne Reynolds, head of gilding at Lowy, oversaw the painstaking, time-consuming process of creating these frames. “The specific challenge was to capture the char- acter of the early craftsmanship and the rich layers of patina of the original frames,” Wayne says. “This involved using the traditional skills of the workshops of the period, which included carving, gilding, faux finishing and sgraffito decoration.” Framing contempo- rary art with antique frames or antique frame repro- ductions may be a controversial approach. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. “Lowy has always tried to remain on the cutting edge of the framing profes- sion,” says Larry. “Once we even framed a painting by Mark Rothko for a client, despite the artist’s own well-known preference that his work never be framed! Shame on us!” 

“Maroon Pink White” by Sean Scully, reframed by Lowy in a 17th century broadly carved Italian style giltwood frame.

“Nez Carrot” by Jean Dubuffet, reframed by Lowy in a 16th century Spanish style cassetta frame with faux petre-dure panels.