In 1989, seven months after Kirk Varnedoe became director of the department of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, he began to eliminate what he called the "cacophony" of frames in the Post-Impressionist galleries.
He disliked the elaborately carved and gilded frames on several works by Seurat, Cezanne and van Gogh. "They have little to do with the artist or the period in which the works were painted," he said. "The frames were selected by collectors for interiors where the paintings no longer reside."He was also troubled by the austere strip frames that his predecessor, William Rubin, had introduced in the early 1980s. "Bill Rubin's framing radically emphasized the picture as object," he said. "I wanted to reconquer more of the picture as window."
The idea of a frame that functions like the molding around a window is central to Varnedoe's thinking. And so he is slowly replacing the frames he inherited with new ones that combine modern and period aspects, some dating back to the Renaissance.
They are wider than the strip frames. Many are colorful, with stained, painted or metallic finishes. None is carved, and all are simpler than the collectors' frames but more elaborate than the Rubin frames.
So far, 11 paintings have been reframed. (The remaining two are on loan.) Seven more are in the process of being reframed.
The frame being made for van Gogh's "Starry Night" illustrates the complexity of what Varnedoe seeks to achieve. It was one of the first frames he discussed with W.H. Bailey, a consultant who designed all the new frames.
Varnedoe said the Rubin frame had exposed unpainted areas on the edge of "Starry Night," which distracted the eye from the illusion in the painting of tunneling into space.
Varnedoe's solution is embodied in a frame nearing completion at Bark Frameworks in SoHo. The wide-panel frame looks like a modern interpretation of a Dutch 17th-century one.
For months, artisans have been refining the surface to be compatible with the image of the sky in the painting. "We started with a metallic finish - silver based rather than gold based," he said. "We wanted something that had a kind of twilight or moonlight darkness. That's what they are working on now: the alchemy of that finish."
The impact of the window effect is most visible in the framing of three Seurat landscapes - "The Channel at Gravelines, Evening, Summer 1890," "Evening, Honfleur," from 1886, and "Porte-en-Bessin, Entrance to the Harbor," from 1888 - that hang side by side in one gallery.
All are flat, layered frames with surfaces that are rougher than sandpaper, textured to pull the viewer's eye back into the painting. "The pebbliness of the surfaces stops them from being too stark," Varnedoe said. "It just makes everything merge better."
The texture also heightens the impact of the Pointillist borders on the paintings. Each frame is painted a different shade of white, tones taken from the clouds, beach or water in the paintings.
The design and colors of the frames were inspired by Seurat's "In Poseurs," a painting of his studio. On one wall in the painting, Seurat depicts four works on paper, framed with big mats in a range of tones from gray to white. "So we are convinced that we are not only serving the paintings well, but it is the kind of esthetic that Seurat himself liked," Varnedoe said.
The frame for "Starry Night" has been in the works for more than seven years, but most take from six months to a few years to complete. Though no one will talk about the total cost of the project, Varnedoe has said one can expect to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for a large frame.
The new frames are also being produced by Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Co. in Manhattan and the museum's frame department.
Museumgoers may wonder why Varnedoe is going to such lengths to reframe these paintings. "We're lending paintings all the time," he said. "And the galleries are constantly being rehung." As paintings are shifted, they acquire new neighbors and, he added, the frames should be harmonious.