Why You Should Hang Art on a Wall

Some of you may know that I am a writer, not an artist. But this is about art, and about walls, so I thought I might have something to say about it. The blog’s title comes from a recent work by the artist Yiannis Tsarouchis.

Of course no one thinks of a blank wall as art — that’s why we hang pictures on them. But why do we hang pictures on walls? The usual answer is that it’s to display the art so that everyone can see it. But if all you want is for everyone to be able to see it, you could just as well display it on a table or the floor or anywhere else, and save yourself the trouble of hanging it.

The real reason people put stuff on walls is not just so others can see them; it’s so others can see them more effectively than if they were on a table or the floor. Wall-hanging makes art more dramatic and easier to look at — makes it into something you can take in at a glance and enjoy in detail all at once.

“You can’t hang art on a wall,” you might think. “It has to be framed.” If a work of art doesn’t have a frame, it isn’t really a work of art. At least, not in the same way that a painting is a work of art.

That’s what I thought too, until I started looking into the history of framing. Today we think of framing as an integral part of hanging art on the wall; back when most pictures were made, though, they weren’t usually framed. Instead they were hung directly on the wall with nails or hooks. Or sometimes (less commonly) hinged onto the wall with some kind of clasp.

What happened to change that? And why did we start to frame our paintings?

It is a rule of thumb in art that paintings hung on a wall begin to look like paintings hung on a wall after about two minutes, and continue to look like paintings hung on a wall for as long as they are visible to the viewer.

Conventional wisdom has it that painting should be hung on walls, because otherwise it looks like something you get at Home Depot. But I’m not sure that this is true.

I tried the experiment of hanging some of my own work on the floor and looking at it from above. What I saw was something that looked like sculpture, and which left an indelible impression in my memory.

In fact, if you have any kind of art at all, this is what you should do with it. Hang it on the floor and spend some time looking at it from above. The reason is that we’re accustomed to looking at things on shelves or tables, and our eye has learned to make sense of perspective under those conditions. When you hang things up high on the wall, objects look smaller than they really are, distances seem shorter than they really are, and there’s no scale by which to judge depth and distance. So when you stand back from art hung on the wall, your brain gets confused; it’s trying

I’ve been trying to convince people for years that the best way to display art is on a wall.

Good art is a disruptive technology, and as with all disruptive technologies, it’s best when used in combination with other disruptive technologies.

In the past I’ve written about painting and drawing. But what makes a piece of art worth hanging on a wall? Is it the subject matter? The composition? Aesthetic appeal?

In my opinion, none of these things is the most important. What makes a piece of art worth hanging on a wall is that it is interesting looking at.

Art should be like good conversation. It should be something you look forward to seeing, and having to leave interrupts your train of thought. That’s not true of all paintings; sometimes you might want to just glance at something, or stop and really examine it. But that’s true of more paintings than you might think at first.

What makes something interesting looking at? It could be shape, or line, or texture, or color, or composition — or any combination of these things. Sometimes one thing will stand out; sometimes all together. Sometimes the point of interest is obvious; sometimes not until you’ve looked for a while and had an “oh!” moment when you suddenly get it.

You can’t tell in advance whether anything will be interesting looking at until you’ve seen it. But once you see something that is interesting looking at, chances are you’ll keep coming back to look again — which means it should

The piece I made is a moebius strip folded into the form of a dodecahedron. It was designed to be hung on a wall in an exhibition of mathematical art at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA.

In 1670, the mathematician and astronomer Jean-François Ménestrier published a book in which he asserted that there are only two ways of orienting a painting on a wall: with the frame facing in or out. The artist should choose one or the other, but not try to do both at once.

Taken literally, this is obviously silly. But Ménestrier was arguing against an established practice that artists had followed for centuries. In paintings from ancient Greece and Rome through the Renaissance, artists often included images of people looking at paintings. (In fact, this is still common; look at any portrait of an art collector.)

Many of these works of art were hanging on walls with their frames turned inward, toward the room. So when you looked at them, you saw a painting within a painting. Ménestrier argued that this was nonsensical because it would mean having a painting on top of itself, with its own frame.

It took until the 20th century for Ménestrier’s argument to be proved wrong by an experiment. In 1908, an American artist named John Fulton made two copies of a work called “Roadside Spring,” one with its frame turned inward and one with its frame turned outward.”

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