He’s not talking about the paintings.
“These are the frames you almost always see on the van Gogh,” Bark says.
Bark is a master framer. He opened his New York workshop in the mid-1960s and has framed impressionists including Monet, Pissarro and Degas as well as modern and contemporary artists —Warhol, Jasper Johns and fashion photographer Richard Avedon. His frames take about four weeks to make and cost from $300 to tens of thousands, depending upon the size and detail. He’s framed nearly all the photos for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the past two decades, and when the Phillips Collection needed 200 individually designed frames for its exhibit “Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard” earlier this year, it turned to Bark.
Framing decisions are both practical and philosophical. How will this frame work in the space, and how do we best honor the artist’s intention for his or her work? And they can often be existential: How does the framer navigate the tension between wanting his or her work to be seen, and wanting only the artwork to be seen?
“The frame can be virtually invisible; well-made and unmemorable,” Bark says, “or it can take a more active role and have a certain resonance with a picture.” And when you start from scratch, when you design a frame singularly, to work in concert with a piece of art, you can have something powerful, he says. “You can have a dialogue.”
At the Phillips, Bark discussed the framing rationale behind some of the museum’s most important works. Van Gogh frames, usually called Louis XIV frames, are decorative to the point of hyperbole because 19th-century dealers had to convince buyers that impressionist and postimpressionist works were consequential, and they used the showiest frames to help make the case. The painters themselves often designed much simpler frames but many of those have been lost.
It’s Bark’s second time visiting the museum solely to look at frames. The Phillips has a large collection of artist-designed or -commissioned frames including ones by European artist Paul Klee, and American modernists John Marin and Arthur Dove. And Bark says that makes it something of a Mecca for people like him. “Most museums have tossed artists’ frames and most collectors did, too. It’s rare to find any picture from the last 120 years in its original frames, especially if it was an original artist’s frame,” Bark says. “One thing that’s lost is the artist’s vision for how he or she intended people to see that artwork.” That has changed, however, as “more and more scholars are interested in what decisions were made by the artists themselves.”
“The Phillips is exceptional particularly in its artists’ frames, or frames that have been chosen by the artist for his or her work” says Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone. The frame complements and augments the artist’s vision, she says. “It’s the transition. It can make a huge difference as to how the viewer sees the work.”