His Claim to Frame

Reprinted with permission from US Air Magazine, August 1992
By Nancy A. Ruhling
Photographs by Maryanne Russel © 1992

Eli Wilner, the self-styled curator of antique picture frames, teaches us to look at not only the work,
but the art that surrounds it.

Eli Wilner picks up an antique picture frame, one of hundreds he likes to hang empty on the wall, then holds it up so the light illuminates the veins in its golden grape leaves. "A picture frame is a work of art," he says. "It is the soul of the painting. I look at it the same way I look at sculpture. When the frame is perfect, it brings the painting out to us. It is a spiritual work. A great painting is partly invisible until it is framed properly."

Wilner, the self-confessed frame-ophile who has earned the unabashed praise of the art and antiques world, steps back to look at the art on the wall - a great, glittering collage of frames that frame frames. He's trying to think of a way to make you see what he sees: American Gothic in Gilt. Still Life with Cast Fruit and Flowers. Composition in Composition. Portrait of Putti in Gesso. Ah, now he's got it. He's truly inspired by his favorite - the gilded English one, leaning against the wall, that is large enough to hold even his own willowy 6-foot-2-inch frame. "This is the most beautiful frame," he exclaims as he steps inside. His long, brown curls give him the look of an angel in a Renaissance painting.

"It would take a magnificent masterpiece of tremendous strength to live up to this frame. It is very architectural, and it has this glorious vine motif on the border. It feels like a living vine. It looks like these leaves are growing," he says as he runs his hand along the sinuous scrollwork. "And the green-gold gilding - I find it extraordinary." But Wilner, the self-styled curator of American antique frames, doesn't just want you to see that the picture frame is art. He wants you to feel it, just as he does.

To make sure you really do get the picture, he's ready to show you every one of the 2,000 museum-quality antique frames in his conservation studio in Long Island City, New York. And if that doesn't do it, he'll take you to the Manhattan frames-only gallery that bears his name and show you a couple hundred more. You say you've got an afternoon? Well, don't worry, he's got a lifetime to convert you. That's what he's here for.

After all, it was Wilner, the premier purveyor and acknowledged expert on the subject, who elevated the American antique frame to an art form that now commands thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars at leading galleries and auction houses. Wilner has also convinced major collectors to buy frames for frames' sake and persuaded institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not only to conserve and restore them but to hold exhibitions of empty frames under his sponsorship.

In a field where praise is meted out in terms of the utmost restraint, Wilner is described as inspirational. But try to get him to paint you a self-portrait, and about all you'll get is a sketch. He habitually punches in on the studio's time clock as a joke, likes the feel of gold leaf between his fingers, and plays a mean game of table tennis with the frame restorers in what he calls the Eastlake Room, which besides the table holds hundreds of late 19th-century frames, all of them empty. "We keep the balls on top of the frames so they don't get lost," he says, a boyish twinkle in his eyes.

Although he insists that "dressing up makes me feel like I'm framed," and actually smiles when he says it, you get the distinct impression that he'd willingly trade his impeccably tailored suit and leather boots for jeans and sneakers. And when he doesn't have frames on the brain, he paints. Quite well, you note, even if he won't say so. But enough about himself; he'd rather talk frames.

For Wilner, whose childhood weekends were spent perusing the Met's paintings and, of course, its frames, the 1990 exhibit American Frames in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a first for the institution, was a high point. "That show was one of the greatest paybacks of my life," says Wilner, who spent months consulting with the museum's staff before the 50 Met frames were shown.

When Wilner saw the show, which he always forgets to mention he financed, he was shocked, for not only were the frames on display, so was his name. "He didn't expect to get credit for the exhibition in a public way," says Carrie Rebora, assistant curator of American painting and sculpture at the Met, "and I didn't think to tell him his name would be on the show because I assumed he knew. For him, the fact that a major museum had an exhibition of empty frames was enough. He was very touched."

Rebora credits Wilner not only with helping her develop expertise in this area, but also with providing a focus for frames. "Among curators, an interest in frames has been simmering, and Eli has engaged that interest," she says.

Indeed, so connected is Wilner's name with the frame that once when, at a client's behest, he made the winning bid on an important painting, he caused a sensation when he quipped, "I bought it for the frame." It was just a joke, he explains. Then he breaks into a puckish grin and confides, "But all the same, the frame was fabulous."

Before Wilner entered the picture a decade ago, institutions and galleries, in a quest to "modernize" their collections, were more likely to discard than display period frames. While they were tossing them out, the ever-vigilant Wilner took to riding up and down Madison Avenue in a taxi, rescuing prime examples designed by 19th- and early 20th-century greats like Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, and James McNeill Whistler from trash bins.

"I was picky then because I could afford to be; I didn't take them unless they were perfect. Now I wish I had all the ones I left because they are getting harder and harder to find," he says. "At that time, in the early 1980s, the art world was changing and was beginning to regard the 19th and early 20th century as important, and I figured frames would follow."

So he followed the frames. He decided to quit his high-paying, high-prestige job framing paintings in a Manhattan art gallery and began to scour every attic and antiques shop in the state, snapping up frames for about $25 each. With $6,000 invested in hundreds of "dusty, old" frames that he crammed into his studio apartment, and with only one prospective client, he woke up to their real worth when a frame fell off the wall and knocked him on the head while he was sleeping. "That's what made me decide it was time to open my gallery," he laughs.

While he was trying to tell the world that the antique frame bordered on art, his friends in the art world were telling him that his mission bordered on insanity. But the attention he received, not to mention the $200,000 he eamed in his first year, proved them wrong.

One of his first frame fans was art collector Jeffrey Cooley, owner of the Cooley Gallery in Old Lyme, Connecticut. "I'll never forget walking into [Wilner's] gallery the first time," he says. "There were other people dealing in frames before him, but nobody took it as seriously or as passionately." Almost before Cooley knew it, Wilner's enthusiasm had rubbed off, and the two were holding an exhibition of empty frames at Cooley's gallery. Not only is Wilner an extraordinary source of antique and replica frames, but, Cooley says, "He has that extra-special flair and eye for color and design and an artistic sensibility. He has an utterly thorough understanding of what a frame can do for a painting."

Wilner's eye for the art of the frame has led the country's major museums to call on him to reframe their masterpieces, works such as John Singer Sargent's Madame X, Thomas Eakins' Max Schmitt in a Single Scull, and Winslow Homer's Veteran in a New Field, all of which hang in the Met. When frames and paintings are mismatched, "It's a desecration of the artist's intent," Wilner says. "It limits the potential of the painting; it hides it; it obscures it. It is so sad for the public, for the paintings, for everyone involved." Wilner the painter says, "Frames are my palette. The process of pairing a painting and a frame is one of discovery rather than pure imagination. A frame must be not only of just the right period, but of the right scale, design, color, organic form, or architectural form. The frame has to echo the subject and convey the essence of the subject, the spirit. It is easier to frame a masterpiece than an ordinary painting because many frames are too good for the art they surround. It is a symbiosis; I can't imagine one without the other."

Wilner was particularly taken with the reception accorded his recent reframing of three of Thomas Moran's Western landscapes for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art. Working from photographs, Wilner's staff spent 1,800 hours carving replicas of the 12-foot-by-17-foot originals. "Some of the curators were completely overwhelmed by their beauty when they were unveiled," Wilner says. "Those frames will stay on the paintings way beyond my lifetime. Just think how many people will be affected. They will never perceive these objects in the same way."

[Eli Wilner]This month his work on Masterworks of American Impressionism from the Pfeil Collection is on exhibit at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Wilner, who chose, replicated, or restored the 80 frames for paintings by artists such as George Inness and Mary Cassatt, calls it his "most amazing framing experience. The Pfeil Collection is very important because the frames are my own vision," he says. Wilner is quick to point out that his fascination with frames is no mere fling. An artist ever since he was old enough to hold a paintbrush, Wilner was in the habit of giving his pictures to his great-uncle Michael Zagayski, an art collector, who proudly hung them right next to his Marc Chagalls and Amedeo Modiglianis. "I couldn't wait to see which frame Uncle Michael would choose," Wilner says.

But it was his great-aunt Doris who gave Wilner one of his greatest avant-garde ideas. At his gallery's opening, after looking at all the empty frames, she advised him to put mirrors in them. "I thought it was a far-fetched idea, but I did it because I didn't want to disappoint her," Wilner says. Astonishingly, he sold the mirrored frames almost before he hung them. That's when he started thinking of frames as sculpture, hanging them up one inside the other, sans Saint-Gaudens, without Whistler.

Now that he's gotten the world to recognize the art of the frame, Wilner has no intention of resting on his laurels, carved or otherwise. "My first duty is to public institutions; my second is to collectors. I will, at times, give, restore, or loan frames to needy institutions that don't have the money. I will also loan for any commercial venture like advertising or movie sets."

In addition to his published catalogue, Wilner travels around the country giving lectures, and he has just finished a videotape on period frames. He also has a guidebook on frames and a frame fairy tale for children in the works. He has to make a note to remind curators about their contributions to what he calls "the bible of American frames," a reference book that he says will be the "building block for all further research." And that's just what's on his mind at the moment; there's so much more to do.

"Now the challenge is to get institutions and collectors to conserve and restore frames properly," he says as he takes one more walk past the frames in the studio. "Lots of objects are getting damaged and destroyed. It's like the early days of painting conservation."

Wilner pauses in front of a fabulous ebonized frame. "I'm 36, and I figure I've got 30 to 40 good years of work ahead of me," he says. "My primary goal is to put frames back on all the important American pictures." Nancy A. Ruhling, a free-lance writer based in New York, specializes in articles on antiques and collectibles.

An American carved and gilded frame with quote, 'The frame is the soul of the painting.' - Thomas Cole

An American carved and gilded frame by Newcomb-Macklin Company, circa 1910.

A carved Pre-Raphaelite style English frame with quote: 'Without the proper frame, the artist loses 100 percent.' - Edouard Manet

A carved Pre-Raphaelite style English frame, with a natural oak finish, circa 1850.

A 19th-century carved and gilded Italian frame with quote: 'A good picture deserves a good frame, and a bad picture may sometimes preserve its place longer by having a handsome frame.' - Charles Wilson Peale

A 19th-century carved and gilded Italian frame.

A 19th-century Italian carved, gilded, and embonized panel with quote: 'The frame is reward for the artist.' - Edgar Degas

A 19th-century Italian carved, gilded, and embonized panel.

A Newcomb-Macklin Company frame with quote: 'A great painting is partly invisible until it is framed properly.' - Eli Wilner

A Newcomb-Macklin Company frame, early 20th century.