Feature: Hints & Tips
The “Rules” and When to Break Them
by Sue Martin
Just as taste for art is individual and subjective, so is the arrangement of art on a wall. However, if you lack confidence in your own judgment when hammering nails into a nice clean wall, it may help to know the rules of thumb the experts use. I met with Jay Heuman, curator of exhibitions at the Salt Lake Art Center, and Ricky Hansing, director of Palmer's Gallery Fine Art, to find out the factors that guide their decisions about displaying art, both in the gallery setting and in the home.
A starting point for determining how high to place a painting is the rule of thumb used by museums and many galleries: 54-58 inches from the floor to the center of the painting. This height is based on the average height of viewers and the optimal alignment of their eyes with the piece of art. When I asked this question of the experts, Heuman immediately said "54 inches" and Hansing said "58 inches," which just goes to show that the "rule" is not a hard and fast rule at all but a matter on which qualified experts may disagree.
In the gallery setting sometimes the artists themselves are very particular about how high they want their art hung. If you are such an artist, be sure to discuss your hanging preferences with the gallery or museum displaying your work.
Furthermore, the optimal height may also depend on the size of the painting, the size of the room, and whether there is furniture below or near the painting. If the painting is in a home, the ideal height may also vary with the height of people who live with the art. If the residents are over six feet tall, the higher measurement may be better. Or, as Heuman suggests, if the art is displayed in a room where you are mostly sitting, you may want to hang it 52" from the floor.
When grouping two paintings, one above the other, Hansing suggests applying the height "rule" to the space between the two paintings. In other words, he marks the wall at 58 inches from the floor and hangs the paintings above and below the mark, leaving about 8-12 inches between the paintings.
Both experts agreed that hanging art too high is a common mistake in homes, but Hansing says that when he assists collectors hang paintings in their home he hangs the new pieces in a manner consistent with what is already in the home.
One nail or two? Nails or screws?
When I asked Heuman if he has any pet peeves about how others hang art, for example seeing something hung in a way that produces that fingernail-on-chalkboard kind of shiver up the spine, he confessed that he hates to see crooked art on walls. Crooked art happens when the painting is hung with wire suspended on one nail or picture hanger hook. To prevent the crooked eyesore, Heuman recommends hanging the art from two screws, carefully measured and placed in the wall to exactly match "D-rings" on the back of the painting frame, placed one third of the frame height down from the top. Of course, both screws in the wall must be exactly the same distance from the floor and checked with a bubble level to ensure the painting will be level.
Whether you use screws as Heuman recommends or regular picture hangers and wire, having two hangers, rather than one, is better for larger, heavier paintings, and will help prevent the painting from tilting the first time a door is slammed.
How far above furniture?
It seems reasonable that you might want to hang a painting higher than 54-58 inches if there is a sofa, table, or chest below the painting. Both experts agreed this is true, but both hesitated to give me a definite rule for how far above the furniture is best. "High enough that the painting is not bumped by someone sitting on the sofa," advises Hansing. "High enough to avoid contamination with hair products," suggests Heuman.
"But what if there are plants, or decorative objects on the table or chest?" I wonder. If the objects are tall enough to hide or detract from the painting, maybe the painting should go somewhere else, suggest the experts.
When pressed, Heuman finally advises that somewhere between four and 12 inches above the furniture would be about right.
To center or not?
Both experts recommend centering art horizontally on a wall or above a piece of furniture, but quickly admitted there may be legitimate exceptions when off-center works better.
How far from other paintings?
Heuman enjoys seeing lots of space around paintings. In the Salt Lake Art Center, exhibits frequently have as much as 48 inches between paintings, but if the artwork is smaller, or if they are related in subject, they may be grouped together with less spacing between.
The clear exception to big spaces around artwork is salon style exhibits, which, Heuman notes, is popular in some museums, particularly those displaying American art from the 19th-Century. The custom derives from those times when homes were small and art collections too large to hang in well-spaced fashion. The Renwick Gallery, housed in an elegant old building that was the first home of the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, DC has a Grand Salon, in which paintings from the museum's permanent collection are hung salon-style from close to the 40-foot high ceiling to near the floor. Heuman says the Art Gallery of Ontario also uses a salon style with art hanging from about four inches above the baseboard to about four inches from the crown molding. You'll also see this style of exhibition at Monet's Giverney estate near Paris.
In a home, Heuman notes that a salon style exhibit of your collection can be "the jigsaw puzzle that brings you comfort." While you could measure your wall, the paintings, and carefully map the arrangement before picking up hammer and nails (or screws), you might start with a central piece of art and arrange the other pieces around it in whatever way pleases your eye.
Hansing showed me an example of this almost free form approach to hanging on one wall of Palmer's Gallery where he has hung dozens of Justin Wheatley's small, square mixed media canvases in vertical rows with about an inch between paintings. Horizontally, the arrangement curves along the wall in an almost whale-like shape. It's a striking display that makes you want to get closer to see what's on each small canvas.
Protecting your art?
Whether you are collecting art for your own enjoyment or as an investment, you should understand the possible consequences of hanging paintings in places where they can be damaged by light, heat, or humidity. Direct sunlight, for example, can quickly take its toll on any painting, but especially watercolors framed without UV protection. Guard against fading pigments by using special glass in the frame or replace the windows in your home with UV protective glass.
Heuman also advises against hanging art directly under or above heating vents as the heat can damage the art. Bathrooms and kitchens are also trouble spots for hanging art since they tend to be more humid. Works on paper can develop mold and oils on canvas may sag and droop. Acrylics are a little more tolerant of humid settings.
Some collectors may have art treasures that they don't display at all. Heuman, for example, has a hand-made artist book in his own collection that he keeps wrapped up and put away. "Art like this is meant to be enjoyed in an intimate way," he says. "Taking it out, unwrapping it, and spending time with it is like a private guilty pleasure."
Exhibition Review: Salt Lake
The Later Works of William Utermohlen
by Sheryl Gillilan
Portraits from the Mind: The Later Works of William Utermohlen 1995-2000
, at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts
, is a haunting visual depiction of a talented artist's descent into the hell of Alzheimer's disease. The exhibit, selectively curated from galleries in Paris and Chicago, is on display through January 11, 2009 and should not be missed.
First diagnosed by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906, the eponymous condition is a devastating disease that affects millions of people worldwide. The personality and behavioral changes in someone with Alzheimer's are disturbingly well known to their families and caregivers, but rarely do we get a chance to view the progression of the disease through the eyes of a person experiencing its ravaging effects.
Utermohlen's works are located in a small room on the ground floor of the museum, offering the viewer an intimate space in which to contemplate the images. Starting to the left and moving around the room clockwise, I was first struck by the insightfulness of two self portraits and the vivacity of a large painting entitled "Snow," all of which were created prior to Utermohlen's diagnosis. "Snow" 1991 is a riot of color with Matisse overtones and a skewed overhead perspective of five adults enjoying wine and coffee around a table. Interestingly, Utermohlen places himself outside the conversational circle, sitting on a couch cuddling his cat. Critics have speculated that this is one of the first indications Utermohlen subconsciously realized he was distancing himself from friends and family because something was wrong with him, but it is hard to know if this analysis is the result of 20/20 hindsight.
If the interpretation of "Snow" remains speculative, it is clearly evident that Utermohlen's mental condition deteriorated quickly after 1995 and, more distressingly, that he knew he was losing his faculties. As I moved around the room, I could see an erratic but steady erosion of technique and composition in addition to a portrayal of deep personal angst and disorientation.
In "Broken Figure" 1996, |1|
Utermohlen renders himself in pencil as a contorted rag doll figure, reminiscent of the brainless Scarecrow's attempts to stand up in the Wizard of Oz after being released from his pole. "Double Self-Portrait" 1996 |2|
is an even more intense representation of his body's betrayal. The artist focuses on his skull, the root of his disease, and the eyes staring back at the viewer are angry and piercing. Utermohlen has also drawn himself twice in this portrait as an old man with sagging cheeks and a heavy chin, though a photograph depicted in the exhibit catalog taken in 2003 shows him to be much more youthful. In poignant contrast, however, the later photograph reveals a pair of vacant eyes.
A further erosion of self is evidenced in two images created in 1996, "Mask (Black Marks)" |3|
and "Mask (Clown)."|4|
The former has only a white oval for a head, light-colored shapes with two black vertical lines for eyes, and red dots for a mouth. "Mask (Clown)" has a red gash for a mouth with heavy red paint dripping around the eyes and a head that is cut off at the top. Utermohlen's wife, Patricia, believed that he was expressing his emotional anguish in the most direct possible manner in that "Mask (Black Marks)" is a primitive death’s head.
A particularly unsettling painting in the exhibit is "Self-Portrait (With Saw)" 1997. |0|
The image was created shortly after Utermohlen learned that the only definitive way to diagnose Alzheimer's is through post mortem examination of the brain. His painting reveals a face that is gaunt, stark and stunned; if the head were to suddenly open its mouth and flail its hands around its face, it would resemble the ghostly figure in Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
The later self-portraits in the exhibit represent a man who is quickly losing his ability to function. "Erased Self-Portrait" 1999 |5|
is the last in which Utermohlen was able to use oil paints, and is aptly named. The image contains a half painted and half smeared oval shape with two shadowy circles high on the forehead for eyes; Utermohlen is literally self-effaced.
The penultimate image is "Head I" 2000 |6|
a depiction in scribbled pencil of a primitive head, a large crack running through the skull, and two black, disproportioned cavities for eyes. In the final image, there is only a smeared shape of a head.
It was while contemplating the exhibit later that I had a small epiphany about the importance of eyes in Utermohlen's self-portraits. Harkening back to my college days as a psychology major, I remember learning that infant brains are hardwired to be interested in faces as the basis of social development, and that even a toddler's drawing of the human face will include eyes (usually circles placed high on the forehead), though the image may be missing a nose or mouth. In a visual reversal of human social awareness, I therefore found it very poignant that Utermohlen's self-portraits contained eyes almost until the very end, even though they diminished to misplaced dots. The fact that his final self-portrait had no eyes at all is a heartbreaking representation of a man who could no longer see himself due to the damage of Alzheimer's.
William Utermohlen died in 2007, seven years after his last self-portrait. He was 74 years old.