EasyFrame

Displaying Art: Framing Ideas from History — 1945 to Today

For our final instalment in our “Displaying Art” series, we’re going to be looking at how the picture frame has evolved over the last 70 years. As we discussed in our previous blog, artists – particularly those within the Surrealist movement – began to revolutionise the picture frame in the 1920s and 1930s, by (if you’ll forgive the pun) reframing the relationship between artwork and spectator.

However, it was in the Post-War era that the picture frame was truly revolutionised – largely due to the efforts of one man, named Robert Kulicke.

Who was Robert Kulicke and how did he change the picture frame?

Robert Kulicke was a painter, goldsmith and frame designer who was born in Philadelphia in 1924. During World War Two he served in the US Army; upon leaving he became interested in framing and in 1951, he opened his own framing business in New York. Around this time, Kulicke was befriending Abstract Expressionist painters such as Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, who spoke to him about their need for thinner, lighter frames to house their work.

In 1956, the Museum of Modern Art approached Kulicke and asked him to create a frame that could be used for travelling exhibitions. In response to this request – and undoubtedly working with suggestions from his painter friends – Kulicke came up with the welded aluminium frame, a strong, thin and elegant frame that could provide adequate support to large canvas artworks. The story goes that this frame was inspired by Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Barcelona chair, but whatever the precise inspiration, one thing was clear: this new frame style was here to stay.

Up until the 1950s, it was still the norm to create picture frames from wood. Kulicke’s invention demonstrated that frames could be smaller and lighter, without losing any of the strength or aesthetic appeal. Kulicke’s next invention proved similarly pioneering; on request from the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, he created a Lucite “plexi box”, a clear wraparound box to contain photographs.

Kulicke’s designs inevitably led to further framing developments, including the metal section frame, which was pioneered by Donald P. Herbert in the 1960s. This light aluminium frame was designed to be assembled and disassembled quickly, and was also made with travelling exhibitions in mind.

Despite these developments, it was around the same time that many artists began to reject the idea of a frame altogether.

When did artists begin to reject the picture frame?

Walk through a modern art gallery today and you’ll notice that many of the paintings hang without frames. Though it’s not a sight that we tend to question these days, it was fairly revolutionary to go without a frame back in the 1960s.

For artists such as John Bratby, by the late 1950s the idea of using a picture frame had become unthinkable. Though Bratby isn’t really a household name, he is known in the art world for his colourful depictions of everyday Fifties life, and for his staunch rejection of the picture frame. When he had finished a canvas, Bratby would stick instructions to the back, detailing that the painting should hang on its stretchers alone and that “Ideally, there should be no frame”.

Around the time that Bratby was painting (and rejecting the picture frame), the artist Mark Rothko was creating some of his most famous works – all of which are notable for being unframed. According to Rothko himself, his aversion to framing came from a desire to “eliminate all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer”.

Though the work of artists such as Rothko inspired many others to reject the picture frame, it never went out of fashion entirely. In fact, during the 1960s, the rise of photographers such as Richard Avedon, David Bailey and Helmut Newton led to new demand for simple, sophisticated and functional frames and mounts in a variety of sizes.

In this photograph from 1969 by Richard Avedon, the frame and mount are used to full effect.

What do picture frames look like today?

In the 1990s and 2000s painters such as Howard Hodgkin gave the picture frame a shot in the arm by incorporating it into artworks. In paintings such as “Come Into the Garden Maud” and “Portrait of the Artist Listening to Music“, the art spills over onto the picture frame, blurring the boundary between (as Rothko would put it) “the idea and the observer”. In Hodgkin’s work the picture frame transcends its original function and becomes an integral part of the artwork itself.

In 2012 further homage was paid to the picture frame, this time by Chris Wilkinson, who designed the courtyard installation for the Summer Exhibition at London’s Royal Academy. This installation was composed of eleven 12-metre-long, empty picture frames, arranged so that they spiral outwards from landscape to portrait. It was a fitting installation to greet visitors entering the gallery – a reminder that all artwork is seen through a frame of some sort, whether physical or not.

Today, improvements in engineering and manufacturing have given the average person – whether they’re an artist or not – easy access to all kinds of different picture frames. Living in an era when nearly everyone owns their own smartphone or device with a camera, it’s unusual not to walk into someone’s home and encounter at least one or two picture frames. The question is: do we have too much choice these days?

At EasyFrame we like to think that too much choice is better than not enough! That’s why we let our customers design their own custom-made picture frames. Head to our Picture Frames & Mounts page and you can enter the precise dimensions of the image you want to frame, then go about choosing your mount and frame style. When you’ve finished, we’ll get working on your frame and have it despatched to your home address in just three days. It’s that simple.

We like to think Robert Kulicke would approve!

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