Mastering the Art of Hanging Art, Artistically

How to Hang Art

When huge sums are spent to buy a home, one wants to make sure the artwork complements rather than overwhelms the environment and there are a few great ways to make sure your home and your art collection are in harmony. You can hire an art consultant to select art and install it for you, but if you do that, your house is going to look like many other peoples’ houses. Artworks are not room accessories, like throw pillows. The more personal your collection is, the more fun it will be for others to look at it, and the more pleasure you’ll derive from living with it.

Large Works

Art needs room to breathe, and the first cardinal rule of displaying it is: Do. Not. Overhang. Every wall in the house doesn’t have to have something on it. This is particularly true of large paintings, which need loads of breathing room around them and are best hung low. The late, great curator Walter Hopps once said that large paintings should be installed so they “hit you in the tits”; this means that the center of the painting should be at approximately the same level as your solar plexus. You shouldn’t be required to crane your neck and look up at a large painting; you should feel as though you could enter it, as if it’s a doorway rather than a high window.

Hanging an artwork next to a window with a spectacular view is not a good idea, and displaying it on walls with complex surfaces such as brick or wood is also not optimum. For some reason, the eye likes to see things horizontally centered on the wall. Perhaps the mind is always searching for order, but this feels right.

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Salon Style

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, including the “do not overhang” rule. The late mall magnate Alfred Taubman’s daughter-in-law, the late Julie Taubman, for instance, had a maximalist aesthetic, and there was great wit in the way she displayed art. She really made the more-is-more approach work, and many of the rooms in her homes in Detroit, Mich., and Rancho Mirage, Calif., were hung “salon style,” in carefully laid out grids from floorboards to ceiling, often on top of flamboyant wallpaper. So, if you have a go-for-broke notion about how you want to show and share the things you’ve collected, then full speed ahead!

Small works are often best displayed in clustered groups hung salon style, using vertical stacking. This can be particularly effective in displaying photographs that are approximately the same size and dimension; a row of such artworks, evenly spaced and marching down a wall is boring. Place the pieces you want to cluster on the floor in front of the wall you plan to hang them on, and fiddle with them until you come up with an arrangement that pleases you. This part is should be fun. The actual hanging part can be a fair amount of effort.

Mixed Media

An L.A. collector who prefers to remain anonymous has a far-flung collection that includes everything from hair jewelry (Google it!) to scrimshaw to medical specimens. And, while you don’t customarily see vitrines in private homes, they somehow make sense in her house. There’s no point in collecting something that will be put in a box and stuck in a closet, and how else can she display her treasures? The point is, you have to figure out what works for the things you have and love to look at. Things don’t have to match, either. In another collector’s home, religious reliquaries sit near drawings by the late and legendary L.A. artist Mike Kelley; art converses with what’s around it, and each of these works is strengthened by the proximity of the other.

Light and Protection

Always factor in the light conditions of the wall where you plan to hang something. Most artworks will suffer damage over time if subjected to full morning or afternoon sun, and drawings and watercolors are particularly vulnerable in this regard. A key source of protection is the glass that covers the artwork, and museum or conservation glass with a high capacity for filtering UV rays, is essential. Artworks that are not under glass should be dusted, and never, let me say that again, never cleaned with a cleanser or solvent of any kind. Serious collectors might also want to devote an hour to ponder, and/or some dough, to hiring a professional to consider the humidity levels, the lurking threats of water damage and the reality of splashing kitchen grease.

Art and Architecture

The architecture of the house you live in dictates to some degree how the art you own can be displayed. If your art collection is important to you, think about the house you’re going to put it in before you buy the house. The clean, minimalist lines of mid-century modern design provide the most hospitable environment for modern and post-modernist art. (Every rule exists to be broken, though, and it’s worth noting that the legendary Eames house in Los Angeles, has almost nothing on the walls.)

Spanish Colonial Revival, an international movement that flourished in California and Florida from 1915 through 1931, is trickier. Elaborate wrought iron window treatments, colorful tile work, and stained-glass windows are artworks in themselves, and shouldn’t be asked to compete with artworks hung mere inches away. Spanish Colonial architecture often features softly curving interior walls, too, and it’s difficult to hang art on curving walls. Also challenging for collectors is the American Craftsman style, which is so meticulously detailed and finished that throwing art into the mix feels like gilding the lily. These houses cry out for nothing more than a Tiffany lamp and some Stickley furniture, and post-modern styles like conceptualism and minimalism vibrate badly in them. It just looks weird. In summary, consider the architecture, consider the light protection, and don’t overhang unless everything and the kitchen sink style is what floats your boat.

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