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Right frame of mind

A lot of time, angst and effort went into the first exhibition at the Getty's new drawings galleries. Think 'sycamore bark.'

July 02, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

The basic task seemed simple enough, especially at a place like the J. Paul Getty Museum. Match 40 drawings with appropriate mats and frames and hang them. Nothing particularly daunting in that. So curator Lee Hendrix, who arrived at the Getty in 1985 and has led the drawings department since 1998, took a sabbatical last summer, just as work began on "Defining Modernity: European Drawings, 1800-1900," the current exhibition that inaugurates the museum's new drawings galleries.

When she returned in September, though, she says she "was accosted by people saying, 'This is really complicated, and it's going to be disastrous if we don't mobilize in a big way. I realized that unless we made a concerted effort to think through every part of the project and really control the aesthetic experience that we wanted to produce, it was going to be a catastrophe. During the last few months there were probably, at any given moment, 10 people dealing with it."

In fact, "armies of people were involved," Hendrix says. "It was a team effort, and it took forever." Curators, mat makers, framers, color consultants, exhibition designers and technicians plied their trades. A storied consultant imparted the pivotal word: sycamore. The project took 18 months, all to create a setting that, at its most successful, would fade into the background.

Part of the fuss was because the show would launch a program that would treat drawings as independent works of art. That isn't a new idea, but it's an abrupt change at the Getty. The museum founded its drawings collection 26 years ago and acquired its first 19th century example, "Still Life With Blue Pot" by Paul Cezanne, in 1983. When the Getty Center opened in 1997, the cache of drawings was relatively small, and it was treated as a study collection. The drawings were mounted with standard cream-colored mats, without frames, and displayed in a cave-like gallery outfitted with glass cases.

But "Defining Modernity" would bring a selection from the collection, which has grown to about 700 pieces, onto the walls, if not into the light, exactly -- to protect the artwork, the light level would have to stay low.

Anxiety would not.

Complications

With its fat budget and technical resources, the Getty is famous for doing labor-intensive projects. A task like converting former photo exhibition spaces into drawings galleries and putting up a show from the collection, though, wouldn't appear to be one of them.

Complications began to arise, along with a certain Getty obsessiveness, when Hendrix and assistant curator Christine Giviskos, who organized the show, decided to inaugurate the galleries with 19th century material to celebrate the fastest-growing part of the drawings collection and complement the concurrent exhibition of Edouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere," a masterpiece of 19th century painting lent by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. It wasn't an easy place to start.

"Before the 19th century, frames conformed to periods and nationalities," Hendrix says. "Dutch 17th century frames are Dutch 17th century frames. The Impressionists abandoned the rules, so anything goes." Some artists preferred historic frames, but others went modern or shopped in junk stores, she says. "It's the first era when people married the image and the frame in an individual aesthetic. Drawings were framed, hung on walls and treated as works of art in and of themselves. We had to take a trial-and-error approach to understand the spirit of each drawing."

Matting and framing museum pieces is not as simple as it may look. Dressing up each of the Getty works in a style thought to be in keeping with the artist's preference and the character of the art required research, not to mention lots of looking and consultation.

Edgar Degas often designed simple machine-made frames with grooved surfaces, like the off-white period frame chosen for the Getty's 1879 drawing of an acrobat, "Miss Lala at the Fernando Circus." The energetic portrayal of a wildly popular performer hanging by her teeth needed a streamlined frame to emphasize the modernity of the subject, Hendrix says.

Cezanne's watercolor-over-graphite still life presented a different sort of challenge.

"We went to another extreme, and one you would never expect," Hendrix says. "We have paired the most modern of our 19th century drawings with a Louis XIV frame, the most historic, ornamented, carved, gilded, reactionary frame in the exhibition. The drawing is all about the dynamic interaction of the elements, a busy, floral Provencal tablecloth, draped and mounded over a table with a pitcher and pots and apples that seem about to tumble off the edge. We started out framing it in a very plain, modern gold frame, and it didn't help the art at all. So we had this inspiration. There is a wonderful synergy between this vividly carved and gilded, monumental frame and the muscular dynamism of the Cezanne."

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