What could be so hard about hanging paintings on a wall? More than you think! A huge amount of meticulous work went into installing each and every piece in Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective—all 163 of them. I took some time with Nick Barron, Departmental Specialist in Contemporary Art and 29-year veteran of the museum, to talk about the intricacies of hanging this exhibition, as well as what it’s like to get up close and personal with the masterpieces of our time. And who knows, you might pick up some pointers for your home!
Katie: When you are getting ready for an exhibition of this size, when and how do the works start arriving at the museum?
Nick: You know, meetings begin way before the art is set to arrive to talk about the procedure—when the art is coming, how many trucks are arriving, what’s on each truck. They try to arrange the schedule so that certain works come first or come around the same time so the curator can start working once the art is unloaded, unpacked, and conditioned. You often can’t get going until all the players in a certain gallery have arrived.
I know that [curator] James Rondeau works with a three-dimensional model to lay out exhibitions. But did the model just provide a general idea of where things were going to go or did you see a lot of changes once the art was actually in the space?
The model was very close to what the show actually looks like. But of course, once you get in a room and you put the art there—once you see the art in person—it has a life and energy of its own, which you can’t always tell in the model. And sometimes it carries over to a whole other room, because when you move something in a doorway, you can then see it in the next gallery. Sometimes it’s visible two or three rooms away, so it’s an evolving process.
When did you begin installing this exhibition?
We had three weeks, 16 working days. And actually, three weeks is really tight. People think that three weeks is a lot of time, but it’s not because you have to take into consideration unloading trucks and moving crates and then moving the art and laying it out. And you haven’t even started hanging yet. So when you have a show of over 160 works, it’s not like you can go quickly through. It went right down to the wire.
And there are always obstacles that we aren’t aware of that need to be fixed. Once we had one of the sculptures here, we saw that the pedestal we built was too low. So another one had to be built right away. Then you have to wait for the paint to dry, so that kind of stops that room. Issues like that generally come up along the way.
What was the first work installed in the exhibition?
Actually the first two works we installed were these two works that we’re standing in front of [see one example above].
Yes. Since they’re so long (ed. note: 20 feet), we used two electric lifts with a large platform in between, so there was a solid base that the works could rest on. We didn’t want to lift them that high just holding them because the works could torque, which would obviously be really, really bad. We stayed on the lift with the paintings the whole way up.
Like the entablatures, quite a few of the paintings in this exhibition are very large. How did you go about installing them? How many people did it take?
Sometimes the larger paintings are lighter and not as bad as you think. And then sometimes the smaller paintings are actually much harder because of the weight and the thickness of the frame. You can’t grab it well. Then you have to decide if you need equipment to lift it up. Sometimes we use an electric lift with a base on it where we can lift the picture to the height necessary instead of people actually trying. But most of the large ones need 4 people for hanging and measuring.
What sort of tools to you use to ensure that everything is level?
Levels, mostly. But often paintings aren’t exactly square or rectangular because of the stretchers, so it might read as level on one side, but another side shows that it’s higher on the right. You have to go to your eye eventually, but sometimes two or three people will all see it differently. One person will look at it and say it’s a little high on the right and another person will look at it and say no, it’s a little high on the left.
There are some works in here that I’ve battled for a long time. Every time I walk past that room, I feel like it doesn’t look right and I’ll check it with the level and it’s like no, it’s level. But eventually by the end of it, I have to change it because every time I came, I said that doesn’t look right and that’s what the visitors see. Even though the level said it’s correct, you don’t see it that way. And so I asked other people in the department and they all agreed, yeah, it looks a little high on the left. So we lowered it and it looks fine now, even though it’s not technically level.
How do you know exactly how high to hang something?
The curator will designate a hanging height. And different curators will hang at different heights. In a space like this with such a high ceiling, if you hang the picture low, you see all the space above it. In the European galleries, though, with a lower ceiling, they hang a little lower. Another reason to hang a little higher is that is a lot of these pictures are very large. So if you hang the smaller pictures at a lower center height and then you have a bigger one that climbs the wall really high, the one that’s lower can feel awkward. So the curator picks the center line and almost every picture in the show will hang on that center line. In the Lichtenstein exhibition, it’s 64 inches. So every picture in here is centered on a 64-inch height except for the very, very large paintings or paintings like the Entablatures, which have been positioned up high for other reasons. The larger ones are hung 20 inches off the floor to stay away from the baseboard.
What were some of the most difficult works to install in this exhibition?
The Entablatures were very hard, both because of the height involved as well as their length and the difficulty associated with unpacking them. We had to ensure there was minimal risk of them twisting or bending at any point. And then once you’re dealing with height, it’s always a little bit nerve wracking, but you just make sure you handle everything with great respect and care. These aren’t just some objects. They’re great, great works of art. And if anything ever happened, I don’t know how you would deal with that.
How do you hang pieces if there’s one on top of the other, like in the Landscapes gallery?
Of course, you never hang above another picture. If you had to, you would take the bottom one off, hang the top one, and then hang the bottom one again. Sometimes we’ll even remove pictures off to the side if we need extra room around a painting. Or if we’re creating any vibration in the wall. In fact, we didn’t use any nails in the show. We tried to use all screws and predrilled the holes.
And are they all centered on the walls?
No. It’s funny—usually if you see a painting adjacent to a corner, it looks like it’s centered, but typically it will be a couple inches out of the corner.
What does “out of the corner” mean?
Well, normally you might have a painting on the wall and 20 inches on either side. But if there’s a corner, we’ll take it out a few inches and have 21 or 22 inches on that side and 18 on the other. But you have the illusion that the work is centered.
As an artist it must be exciting for you to come in such close contact with these pieces.
Oh, it’s unbelievable. Unfortunately, Roy Lichtenstein is no longer alive, but here at the museum I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the greatest artists alive—like Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly—and some of the artists that I think will become the greatest artists alive. Even if they’re not at that status yet, it’s still so great to meet these people and see them interact with their work. That, as an artist, is one of the greatest pleasures of working in the field of contemporary art.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Well, one of the things I really love that I don’t know if a lot of people think about is the sculpture at the front of the show. Placing that was one of the moments when James worked really closely with us. He walked all around the balcony as we moved it around. It’s just one example of James not easing up until he got that sculpture placed exactly where it should be. I love that the brushstroke is pointing you towards the show. See how perfect it looks to have the shape silhouetted against that column? There was really nowhere else that you could get that. Everywhere else the words [on the title wall] ate it up or the dark wall ate it up.
It draws you in.
It tells you that you’re in the right place. A lot of people don’t notice that stuff, but it’s what I love about working with James or working with artists. You see how they think and how they make these decisions. It helps me as an artist actually.