Hilly Shar, father of current Lowy President Larry Shar, kneels while restoring the Old King Cole painting at the St. Regis Hotel, New York, New York.

The art of framing and restoration with Lowy

By Margie Fuchs

Often seen as a technical footnote in the artistic process, frames play a central role in the presentation and understanding of art. More than objects of function, frames are works of art in themselves; with artists and framers often collaborating on a frame before the artwork was even finished. Like many other traditional crafts, the art of framing was fundamentally altered by industrialization, with ornate creations bowing to the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting disappearance of framing guilds and workshops. Today, we are experiencing a modern-day Renaissance of craftsmanship, coupled with a wealth of cutting-edge conservation tools due to technological advances.

One of the leaders of this resurgence is the Julius Lowy Frame and Restoring Company, the oldest and largest fine art services firm in the country specializing in framing and the restoration of fine art. Founded in 1907 in New York City, this family-run firm offers an extensive collection of antique, modern and reproduction frames, as well as conservation services. For three generations, the Shar family – who merged the Shar-Sisto fine arts services firm with Lowy in 1956 – has combined old-world craftsmanship with technological advances to assist every corner of the art world. Following in the footsteps of his father Hilly Shar, Lowy President Larry Shar has brought the firm into the 21st century, expanding Lowy’s offerings. Shar’s son Brad guides the team as Lowy’s Vice President and General Manager. His daughter Tracy further supports the firm as Registrar and with customer relations. With the third generation of Shars at work, the Lowy legacy is set to continue for years to come.

Jonathan Boos has been collaborating with Lowy for over fifteen years to provide his clients with exceptional framing options and conservation advice. But how exactly do you go about restoring an artwork, not to mention selecting the perfect frame? To get an inside look at Lowy’s process, we took a tour of Lowy’s studio and followed along as the team worked on Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation (1926), a work Boos acquired for a client in May 2019.

1. The first step in Lowy's process: condition analysis

Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation before conservation work.
Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation (1926) before conservation work. Image courtesy of Lowy.
Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation under UV light. Image courtesy of Lowy.

The experts at Lowy’s conservation studio have preserved works of art from the Renaissance and Old Masters to Modern and Contemporary for over 110 years. Now located in Long Island City, the studio utilizes cutting-edge technology to restore and conserve art for generations to come. When a piece enters the studio, the conservation team, led by Larry Shar and Lauren Rich, conducts an initial visual assessment, recording any inconsistencies in texture, paint application and overall presentation. When Jonathan Boos acquired the major Hirsch painting Excavation, the gallery knew the first stop was Lowy. The sky appeared to have areas of unnecessary overpaint not consistent with the rest of the painting.

To confirm these suspicions, the Lowy team placed Excavation under a blacklight, which uses ultraviolet rays to reveal possible damage or paint applied on top of the original surface. The results were clear: part of the sky had small areas of unnecessary overpaint, probably done over twenty-five years ago by a prior restorer. “Historically, conservators have had trouble with skies,” Shar notes, “especially since restoration in the past was more cosmetic than scientific.”

2. Lowy's team establishes a plan for restoration

But how did the work look in the 1920s? In their research, the team at Lowy came across a clue in a 1926 study for Excavation in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. The pastel study, showing a beautiful, painterly sky with gradations of blue, revealed a closer approximation of the artist’s intentions. With this information, Lowy created a plan to analyze the chemical make-up of the superfluous overpaint. Using the proper solvents, the team delicately removed the small areas of overpaint to reveal the original surface of Excavation. Also, in their analysis of the work, the team observed that the picture had a wax lining. While a typical practice in the 20th century, lining a painting with wax can saturate the work’s paint layer and cause damage to the piece, including darkening the picture, over time. The Lowy team removed the work’s old wax lining, allowing the original surface to spring to life in color and depth. With the removal of the overpaint and wax lining, Excavation can now be seen as the masterwork that Hirsch originally painted in 1926.

Lowy solvent cleaning test on a corner of Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation
Lowy solvent cleaning test on a corner of Stefan Hirsch’s Excavation. Image courtesy of Lowy.

3. What about framing? A look at Lowy's innovative software

Lowy president Larry Shar examines one of the over 5,000 antique frames in Lowy’s collection.
Lowy President Larry Shar examines one of the antique frames in Lowy’s collection. Image courtesy of Margie Fuchs.
Lowy Vice President and General Manager Brad Shar pictured in Lowy’s showroom.
Lowy Vice President and General Manager Brad Shar pictured in Lowy’s showroom. Image courtesy of Lowy.

“There’s no one right way to frame a painting,” Lowy President Larry Shar says. “There are a variety of factors to consider: it’s about the context of where it will be hung, the taste of the collector or institution and how they would like to present the work as an expression of the artist.” With the largest collection of antique frames in the United States – currently 5,000 and counting – and the ability to craft reproductions of antique frames, the framing possibilities at Lowy seem endless. While clients used to visit the Lowy showroom to view frames for their works, the majority of framing consultations now take place online: Lowy’s proprietary Lowy Scan inventory management system maintains a digital catalogue of the firm’s collection, allowing the collection to be searched, sorted and shared with clients at the click of a mouse.

A Lowy framer polishes a reproduction frame. Image courtesy of Lowy.

While the Lowy Scan inventory system allows the team to see how a work will look in a variety of settings, the staff’s framing and historical expertise is essential to helping clients make informed decisions. Lisa Wyer, Vice President of Sales at Lowy, works closely with clients to accommodate individual needs and recommend framing and conservation treatments unique to each artwork. Having worked at Lowy for over 30 years, Wyer’s knowledge of the firm’s extensive inventory and aesthetic eye guides clients, including Jonathan Boos, through the entirety of Lowy’s process.

Lowy Vice President of Sales Lisa Wyer poses with a selection of frame ends in Lowy’s Manhattan showroom.
Lowy Vice President of Sales Lisa Wyer poses with a selection of frame ends in Lowy’s Manhattan showroom. Image courtesy of Lowy.

To show how Excavation would look in a variety of frames, the Lowy team created digital mockups and sent different options to the gallery. They presented everything from elaborate Spanish 16th century frames to understated modern examples to show just how much the shape, style, color and period of frames affect your perception of the painting. According to Shar, Excavation is “between a precisionist and a regionalist work. Some frames make it seem more precisionist and others make it seem more regionalist.” After consulting with the team at Lowy, Jonathan Boos and his client chose to frame Excavation in a modern dark silver leaf frame, highlighting the Precisionist intentions of the artist. This choice, the Lowy team noted, helps make the painting brighter and more dynamic.

Excavation prior to renovation work in its original frame.
Hirsch's Excavation prior to renovation work in its original frame. Image courtesy of Lowy.
Excavation after treatment and in selected Lowy frame.
Excavation after treatment and in selected Lowy frame. Images courtesy of Lowy.

The rise in contemporary art and technological advances continue to propel the framing industry into new and innovative spaces. Shar calls his team “picture doctors,” seeing their work as a combination of science and art history. In recent years, problem-solving has taken a new meaning at Lowy’s studio, as the unconventional materials in contemporary art surpass existing framing and conservation techniques. This change, Shar says, has brought his firm and other fine art services back to innovation and new processes, compelling Lowy to take a new look at a century’s old craft.

Lowy Senior Paintings Conservator Lauren Rich in-painting a modern artwork.
Lowy Senior Paintings Conservator Lauren Rich in-painting a modern artwork. Image courtesy of Lowy.
Cover image: Hilly Shar, father of current Lowy President Larry Shar, kneels while restoring the Old King Cole painting at the St. Regis Hotel, New York, New York, ca. 1955. Image courtesy of Lowy.