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DARING | Eli Wilner: Turning Framing Into an Art

DARING | Eli Wilner: Turning Framing Into an Art

Photo of Eli Wilner provided by Eli Wilner & Company

All photographs, unless otherwise indicated, were taken by and are the property of New York Makers

How many 9-year-olds have seen their work displayed alongside a Marc Chagall or a Modigliani?

It’s no wonder Eli Wilner thought he was destined for greatness (and he was, it just took a different form than he expected). 

Wilner, who was born in Israel in 1956, into a family that had suffered catastrophic loss during the Holocaust and was still reeling from the horrors of the war, moved to New York when he was 6. He spent a great deal of time with his great uncle, who was an avid art collector and expert framer. For his family, Eli was a prince, a jewel to be cherished after their great losses; one of the ways his great uncle (who did not have children himself) honored him, was by framing his drawings and paintings, and hanging them next to masterpieces.

From boyhood onward, he poured all of his energy into art. But the form it has taken has evolved considerably. Curious? Read on. 

New York Makers: How did you get your start in art?

Eli Wilner: I took private art lessons from childhood onward. I was convinced I was an incredible painter. I studied painting seriously in highschool, then enrolled at Brandeis, where I received a B.A. in art, and then Hunter, where I received a masters. I don’t think it was until I graduated that I realized how tough the New York scene was. I needed to make a living, and I began to doubt my talent. I knew I was good. But good enough? So I got a job at a framer, the Shepherd Gallery, so I could still be around art. That was 1978.

NYM: Was it a letdown, or did you enjoy it?

EW: Are you kidding? It was a revelation. I loved it! I began to see art completely differently. I started to understand what a profound impact a frame can have on a piece. If you take a bucolic scene of a sky, and a stream, with leaves falling and a cow, and frame it in 10 different colored frames, it will make the viewer react in 10 radically different ways. A black frame will make you focus on the black cow. A light colored frame will make the painting itself emerge. A subtly blue frame will have you focused on the sky.

NYM: How did your process evolve?

EW: I realized I wanted to open my own gallery so I could control every element. In 1983, I opened Eli Wilner & Company, and I decided to focus on American and European frames. I’ve worked with every major auction house and museum in the country.

Press play to watch Wilner on CBS Sunday Morning discussing building a frame for the iconic painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze for The Metropolitan Museum of Art

NYM: Indeed. Much of your framing work has been exhibited at the White House. I understand that you have served as a Bryant Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’ve been a member of the Director’s Circle of the Smithsonian American Art Museum since 1997, you’ve been an Art Forum member since 1993, and have served on the board of trustees for the New York Academy of Art since 1998. The Wall Street Journal refers to your work in the Met as “ubiquitous” and you framed Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, which sold at $106.5 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for a painting at auction. That’s an amazing run.

EW: I’ve had a wonderful career, and it has been an honor to work with these institutions. But some of my best moments have been with private collectors. One of my favorite on-the-job anecdotes is about a long-dead collector of Alphonse Muca. He lived in a penthouse on the Upper East Side, and the poster I had framed for him was 10 feet by 6 feet. This was in the 1980s when you could get away with more. It wouldn’t fit in the elevator, so I got special permission to ride up on top of the elevator with the piece. It was terrifying, exhilarating. I loved that it got there, and no one would ever have any way of knowing how it got there.

NYM: In other words, you enjoy a certain anonymity?  

EW: That’s my philosophy. I don’t want any part of Eli to be seen in the painting. I want the painting to sing. It’s about the painter and the client. Not once in 40 years have I been late on a deadline, and that’s a rarity in this business. It’s also one of the reasons I think my business has been so successful.

NYM: How do you decide how to make the painting sing?

EW: I research everything I can about the painter, what they wanted in their lifetime. I dive into their creative process. I know the time periods in which they were all creating, the practices and techniques of the framers then. I research it all, because I know how important it is for the painter to see their art on the wall, beautifully mounted.

Inside Wilner's Montauk studio. Photo provided by Eli Wilner & Company

NYM: Do you ever regret abandoning painting?

EW: Funny you should ask. For decades, every few years, I’d buy easels and canvases and begin painting, but then I’d lose my drive. Well, 14 years ago, my wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It turned my life inside out and upside down. In the past few years, I’ve just started to emerge from the darkness, and I’m painting again.

NYM: Will anyone be able to see them? And are you framing them?

EW: Yes to both. I live in Montauk, and I got offers to do exhibits in Manhattan. That’s the dream for most artists, but I wanted to exhibit here first. This is where I healed. This is where, at age 63, I was inspired, really inspired, for the first time since I was a child. And I have that same level of unwavering confidence. 

NYM: Where can we see your work?

EW: At LaMantia Gallery in Northport, Long Island. The show, titled “Montauk Moments,” opens October 25th, and it encompasses four themes: flowers, which represent life and death to me; sailboats in storms at sea which represent determination throughout the tumultuous journey of life; sunsets and dawns, which represent the surreal possibilities each new day brings, and abstracts, which are an expression of my full range of emotional, intellectual, and sexual energies.

Press play to preview Wilner's upcoming exhibition at LaMantia Gallery, "Montauk Moments"

The painter who sought to remove himself from the picture is stepping back into the frame. We can’t wait to see what it holds.

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