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Presentation Theory

A framer considers works of art as questions in need of answers.

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“My background was science, where everything has a linear explanation. I looked hard for a set of rules to govern framing,” Johnson says. “At the time I formulated my theories of historicity it was like a forgotten language.”

Historicity asks, in short: Which frames did an artist endorse? What is the historic context? Warhol liked chrome; others required gilt or carved wood or minimalist metal. Or, sometimes, no frame at all.

Johnson has made frames for painters Julien Binford and Theresa Pollak, and recently framed a Georgia O’Keefe painting for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He created framing for two Tibetan tankas, paintings on fiber, which will be shipped this month to the Los Angeles County Museum. He redid two 17th-century portraits in historically appropriate frames for Wilton House, and prepared some Helen Frankenthaler works for the Federal Reserve, a longtime client. “I can tell you what van Gogh liked in frames, Sargeant, Matisse, Whistler, the modern people,” he says. “I’m interested in how frames work and how well they represent the artist’s interests.”

This doesn’t mean historical rules can’t be broken, or that other framing theories of aesthetics or connoisseurship can’t be applied. “If a client wants a red leather mat on a painting and understands that his desire might change in a few years, that’s OK. Tastes go through big swings. Aesthetics do get called into play, but you have to put on blinders so you’re only looking at the right era,” he suggests. It’s important to Johnson that framing can stand a cultural test of time. “There is a picture retail world that wants you to reframe something every seven years,” he notes, “but I want to see clients 10 years later who are still enthusiastic about our doing it right. We need an ability to cast ahead.”

Johnson is a fine-art photographer, one who admits he can’t sell his work unframed “because I’d cringe if I didn’t like it.” His photographs have appeared in several juried art shows, unusual for a framer and helpful to his perspective on the business.

Exacting standards, an artist’s sensibility and a 30-year grounding in art and frame history allow Johnson to wear his intellect with assurance, but he’s quick to credit his colleagues with the workroom’s success. “The skill I would wish to be the best at is keeping a team together, because you can’t do this single-handedly — there are so many skills involved. That’s the invisible part of what I do.”

The array of work that comes into Johnson’s shop can be as straightforward as a child’s drawing or as consequential as a museum antiquity. “I look for the right answers for each project,” he concludes. “Sometimes it’s not an expensive answer and that’s an important distinction. I don’t overframe, and I also don’t like to underframe. I feel like my job is to make the facts stand up and to take all of my knowledge and experience and stand next to the person and see it through their eyes, to get on their wavelength. A conscientious framer does more than pull something out of a box.” HS

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