October 10, 2004

Peripheral Vision


In nearly every Hollywood office, even the ones in New York, the art on the walls is the same: movie posters dominate the decor. Other than the advertisements for the films that the company has made, the displayed posters are meant to establish the credentials of the office dwellers. The choice of poster -- a cool foreign film, the foreign version of a cool American film, a vintage cool film, the foreign version of a vintage cool film -- is mounted on the wall as an indicator of taste: oh, yes, I am, by association, cool. I have the Italian poster for ''Breakfast at Tiffany's'' above my desk. Any questions? I am the sort of person who has the poster for ''The Naked Spur,'' an Anthony Mann western, over my couch. Do you understand me? I define myself by Sergio Leone and ''The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.'' And so on. Posters, in Hollywood, are shorthand for personality: they are decor as common denominator.If only the choice of posters were actually indicative of character. Sometimes, of course, it is: Martin Scorsese is a devotee of the Italian Neo-Realist posters that hang in his office, and Quentin Tarantino is umbilically connected to the 1970's pulp-film posters that decorate his workplace. Generally, I have developed a rule for discerning a genuine link between poster and person, and that is the frame. If the frame surrounding the poster looks generic, then, generally, the sentiment is, too. If the frame has been considered, the art enclosed may provide clues to personality.

I developed this theory in Pedro Almodovar's office in Madrid. He spends hours on his frames, carefully matching images to moldings. Almodovar likes to photograph the posters of his movies in their natural habitat -- on the sides of buildings, bus shelters, subway walls -- and he frames those photos. Given the saturated hues of his films, it is not surprising that Almodovar favors unorthodox colors for his frames -- red or gold or a deep bright blue. Above his desk is a poster of ''All About Eve,'' which inspired his 1999 movie, ''All About My Mother.'' The image is framed in an ornately carved gold wood that recasts the poster. Suddenly, ''All About Eve'' seems both decadent and mysterious. The overall effect -- poster and frame -- is perfectly Pedro: traditional and twisted.

Almodovar's constant quest for the perfect frame was reassuring, as it mirrored an obsession of my own. For the last five years, ever since buying a Cubist still life of flowers and fruit in shades of yellow, I have been hunting for paintings at the flea market. Although some of my discovered art collection -- mostly oils from the 50's and 60's -- is very beautiful, the key to the timelessness of these paintings is the frames. The frames freshen, define, enhance and reinvigorate the art. Without the frames, which I replace or refurbish, the context of my paintings would be lost.

Unlike Almodovar, I do not search through moldings. Instead, I turn to Keith Knight, who runs his own framing company, Knight Works, in New Jersey. Knight, who travels to Manhattan twice a week to make pickups and deliveries, began his career as a photographer. To make money, he went to work, in 1975, at the Witkin Gallery in Manhattan, where he began framing the work of photographers like Joel Meyerowitz, Neil Slavin and W. Eugene Smith. Soon, he was working on his own. ''One of my first big projects,'' Knight recalled, ''was Robert Mapplethorpe's portfolio of black men. You know, photos of business suits and penises.''

Knight, who customarily dresses in long shorts and has a perpetual boyishness, went on to frame the work of, among others, Adam Fuss, Andre Kertesz, Bruce Weber, Joel Sternfeld and the team of David McDermott and Peter McGough. ''For them, we worked up 19th-century frames,'' he said of the duo. ''We ebonized them and added gold leaf. We used handblown glass with visible bubbles. The frames were integral to McDermott and McGough's art -- they were like a scientific experiment that worked.'' For another work by Mapplethorpe, Knight used a color-core Formica that was based on a frame developed by the painter Brice Marden. ''We glued the Formica to a wooden frame. The frame then looks as if it's floating on the wall.''

While framing Andy Warhol's last show, Knight met Fred Hughes, who was then the executor of the Warhol estate. A famous aesthete with far-flung tastes, Hughes, who died in 2001, lived in an eclectically decorated town house on the Upper East Side. ''He was our most interesting client,'' Knight said. ''Most people will want to follow, but not Fred. He wanted to be big and bold. We did everything for him: we used period frames for his Edward Curtis American Indian photographs, and then we used a modern frame for a Kudos candy wrapper. It takes a lot of work to figure out the right frame. It's like restoring a car or a house -- you have to give it some thought. Like Italian cooking, framing is very simple, but the combinations are infinite and need to be exact.''

Looking at a rectangular piece of art, Knight will see a square; he has chosen a white frame when I was sure that black would be better, and he has always been right. ''First thing you want to do,'' Knight says, ''is do no harm. Aesthetically and physically, you want to protect the work of art. I always go to trade shows and see all the horrible mat colors out there. We only use archival mat board, and I can't imagine anyone using anything else.''

Knight, who has framed Steven Spielberg's family photos and the art collections of the likes of the music impresario L.A. Reid and the makeup whiz Francois Nars, is a traditionalist. ''There are 10 different species of wood, but an infinite number of finishes,'' he explained. His frames, which he builds from scratch and then stains, modernize everything: they magically reinforce and clarify the beauty of the art. And, yes, he's also done some movie posters. ''My specialty is a frame that you don't comment on,'' Knight said. ''But that doesn't mean you don't notice it. A great frame will give the art resonance. A feeling, a mood. And that's what you'll remember.''