Saturday, October 11, 2014

Hanging Around

Here's my routine for hanging a picture. First, with the frame under my arm, a nail in my mouth and a hammer in my hand, proceed to the open wall. I hold the picture up, squinting to see if it seems about in the right place. Stick a finger on the spot. Gingerly remove the frame, trying not to move my finger. Curse as I reach for the hammer that I placed just out of reach. Scratch the wall with the nail to save the spot. Grab the hammer. Look up to see if that I can't really tell where I I made the mark. Pound the nail in firmly, wincing as it goes through the wallboard into the void beyond. Gently pull it back out a bit, hoping that the angle is enough to support the weight since I didn't hit wood. Hang the picture and step back to admire it. Hopefully straight. Hopefully where I wanted it. Hopefully still hanging.

Your version might differ a bit, but it's probably not that dissimilar to mine. Contrast that procedure with the routine I watched of a curator and her team of two craftsmen from the Smithsonian. They were hanging a restored John Thomas Biggers oil painting that had been shipped to an exhibition in Atlanta. Each wearing white gloves, they carefully unpacked and unwrapped it, and gently laid the painting down on a clean covered pad. They checked the wall where it would be hung, determining where the wooden studs were that would best support the weight. Then they opened a many compartmented box, selecting a mounting bracket that exactly matched the frame. Out came a tape measure, and they proceeded to measure, calculate, measure again and calculate again until they were sure of their plan. They screwed a pair of brackets to the wall, matching others to the frame, and then carefully lifted the painting into place. They stepped back to look. It was straight. It was where they wanted it. And yes, it was still hanging.

I'd like to think that I, and indeed anyone, could learn from what they did. After all, they were skilled professionals entrusted with a valuable property, and gave it the care and respect it deserved. And who's to say that my poster from Ikea, or the photo I took of the kids, or the needlepoint backgammon board my mom made me don't deserve the same care and feeding? It's just that, well, they're them, and I'm me. Were I a pro entrusted with valuable artwork, I'd like to think I would up my game and do it the right way.

But not so fast. In a minor art wrestling match, a Picasso stage curtain, the largest in the US, has been hanging at the Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue in New York City since 1959. The owner of the building wanted to do some renovation to stabilize a rotting wall, the very wall on which the Picasso hung. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, which owned the painting, said it couldn't be moved without damage. Back and forth they went, a Big Apple tussle with money, power and prestige on the line, not to mention "only in New York" kinds of quotes like "if you move it, it'll crack like a potato chip."

The battle went this way and that, charges and counter charges flew, but the final verdict was that it had to travel. The Conservancy would take the painting, get it cleaned, and re-install it at the NY Historical Society. And so over a recent September weekend, a team of workmen slowly eased it off the wall and rolled it up. And what did they find holding up this priceless piece of one-of-a-kind art?  
Velcro and staples.

Yup, that's right. Someone had used a desk stapler on the edges of the canvas to match strips of Velcro to the sides to keep it in place. And along the top, hundreds of staples from a staple gun into two strips of wood supported the 19 by 20 foot work of art. As described in a news report, when they found out the method used, "Peg Breen, president of the conservancy, placed a hand delicately on her chest and walked into a different room."

In that light, I guess my method ain't so bad after all.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually gets a picture to hang straight. Usually. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: