love having the work here,” says Eli Wilner brightly, drawing out the “o-v-e.” That
tangy anticipation given way to the dulcet taste of being at the right place and
time, it is our gracious host opening the door to something extraordinary. Come
in, come in, I’ve been expecting you. A premier authority, educator and dealer
in European and American antique frames, Mr. Wilner frequently receives clients
accompanied by the paintings they adore in his New York studio. What they seek
is an expert opinion. And yet, in these private appointments with the proprietor
of Eli Wilner & Company, a short distance from Sotheby’s, there is a tendency
to luxuriate for hours in the historical, instinctual and cultural revelations—which
makes Mr. Wilner’s fascinating métier the art of enhancing art.
“I see frames as sculpture,” he says with affinity, “They are no different to me.”
It is this sort of reverence that compelled him to seek out exceptional antique
frames over two decades ago, and has since revived the category from a dimly
lit, cobwebbed lapse to a prominent, thrilling (and admittedly pricey) position
within the decorative arts. In considering the essentiality of a frame, something
constructed with a formal and definite purpose, it is surprising to learn that frames
in this country remained in celebrated stations until just after World War II.
At one time, the craft of creating elegant surrounds was a highly regarded
pursuit. The words of Édouard Manet, “Without a proper frame, the painting loses
100 percent,” are a melodious affirmation for the frame enthusiast. There were the
charming works of Charles Prendergast, the refined frames of James Abbott McNeill
Whistler, a London-based artist who worked with gold leaf and reeded molding,
and the inimitable creations of architect Stanford White whose frames are among
the most rare Mr. Wilner informs us. Starred in our feverish note-taking session, is
one of several interesting illustrations from our instructor: a frame displayed in a
Florentine church may have taken more time to create than the actual work it
highlights. Given all this, it is exhilarating to have even a small peek into the alluring
parlor of this art form. A captivating subject, particularly for curators, to whom Mr.
Wilner notes, do not often have formal training in this arena.