James Lebron Stretched

Rick Granick

SPFG, Supreme Picture Framing God
Forum Donor
Resource Provider
Jun 30, 1999
Cincinnati, OH
This obit appeared in today's N.Y. Times:

March 31, 2005
James Lebron, a Wizard at Moving of Art, Dies at 76

James Lebron, a master art handler and installer who shepherded some of the most significant paintings of the late 20th century along the tortuous path from artist's studio to gallery wall, died on March 16 in West Islip, N.Y. He was 76 and lived in North Babylon, N.Y.

The cause was respiratory failure, said his nephew Steve Lebron.

Though Mr. Lebron was sometimes called a picture framer, the phrase cannot begin to describe what he actually did. Working quietly in Woodside, Queens, he was for decades a sought-after, if unheralded, support behind some of the masters of contemporary art, notably the Color Field painters of the postwar years.

As New York magazine reported in 1990, "Among the emergency numbers posted near the phone in Helen Frankenthaler's studio are FIRE, POLICE and JIM LEBRON."

Mr. Lebron's other clients included Frank Stella, Morris Louis and Jules Olitski; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and prominent collectors like S. I. Newhouse.

Equal parts engineer, expediter and conjurer, Mr. Lebron was renowned for his ability to pass very large paintings through very small spaces, developing techniques that allowed huge canvases to be rolled or even folded. He was also a skilled diplomat, reassuring a generation of artists and collectors that he could safely usher masterworks out of low studio doors, into narrow elevators, up stairs, through windows, onto airplanes and, ultimately, onto the walls of galleries, museums and private homes.

"He was the bridge between making art and having the world see it," Ms. Frankenthaler said in an interview this week.

Painters choose their art handlers with more care than the average person takes in choosing a brain surgeon. The journey from studio to gallery is fraught with peril, and this was especially true for the abstract paintings of the late 1950's and after. In those years canvases grew to staggering dimensions, sometimes 20 feet long and 10 feet high. Mounted on wooden stretchers, they were too tall to fit through most doorways. Unstretched, they were too fragile to roll up. How, then, to get them out of the studio?

For the Color Field painters, who often applied washes of paint directly to unprimed canvas, there was an additional risk.

"The paint is often very thin, which means that the canvas - and for the most part we're talking about cotton duck canvas - is very responsive to changes in temperature and humidity," Diane Upright, a Manhattan art dealer, explained in an interview. "In the summer months, when it's humid, the canvases are taut and beautiful. In the winter months, when the heat goes on and the humidity drops, the canvas can become slack."

To compensate, paintings are traditionally mounted on stretchers, wooden bars that can be expanded to tighten the canvas. In the past, most stretchers were adjusted with a wooden key at the back of the frame. But moving a painting could loosen the key, causing the canvas to buckle.

In the 1950's, at the request of a conservator at the Museum of Modern Art, Mr. Lebron developed an improved stretcher. The Lebron Stretcher incorporated Tite-Joint fasteners, used by cabinetmakers to create perfectly flush joints of great strength. For large canvases, Mr. Lebron built huge, segmented stretchers that allowed paintings to be folded.

James Joseph Lebron was born in Manhattan on Sept. 14, 1928, to parents who had come from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. He studied engineering for two years at the City College of New York and later went to work in the crating department of Seven Santini Brothers, a moving and storage company that handled artwork. There, he developed his stretcher system, building the stretchers at night in the basement of his Bronx apartment house before establishing his own business, Lebron Brothers, in Queens.

Mr. Lebron is survived by his wife, the former Helen Colon; a sister, Myrna Cardello of North Babylon; three brothers: Rudy and Tito, both of the Bronx, and Hector, of Boca Raton, Fla.; and many nieces and nephews.

In interviews this week, many artists recalled Mr. Lebron's complete unflappability as he maneuvered canvases approaching the size of a city bus.

"We'd lay out the problem and he'd say, 'It shall be done,' " Mr. Olitski said. "He could handle things, but very calmly. And I would appear calm, but my heart would be in my mouth."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Terry Hart cpf

SGF, Supreme Grumble Framer
Sep 23, 2003
Excelsior, MN
Thanks for posting that Rick.