On ViewFrick Madison
March 18, 2021 – ongoing
There is the Bellini.
And then there is everything else.
That is ultimately the impression left by the translation of much of the collection of the Frick five blocks northeast to Frick Madison, where it occupies Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist, inverted partial-ziggurat of a building. The long-desired and long-overdue renovation and enhancement of the Frick museum and library campus has left the bulk of the collection in limbo, and it now sits in a holding pattern in the structure that was built for the Whitney Museum of American Art in the mid-1960s, and lately been host to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s contemporary collection and some memorable temporary exhibitions, including Gerhard Richter: Painting After All (2020), which closed along with the rest of the nation in March of 2020. For the Frick, this was a sensible solution to a tricky dilemma. Most museums, if undergoing a vast rebuilding, will send their masterpieces on a national or world tour in lieu of keeping them in storage, often a lucrative proposition. The Frick does not have that card up its sleeve, as a key stipulation in its bequest is that works purchased before Henry Clay Frick’s death in 1919 cannot be lent: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (c.1475–8), for example, purchased in 1915, has never left the building, except to undergo extensive technical examination uptown at the Metropolitan in 2010. Thus, the decision to keep the collection intact in a sense and simply shift it, en masse, to a temporary space. The distinctive interiors of the Breuer building have forced many decisions, most of them sharp, and the curators have wisely chosen not to do a wholesale rethink of the Frick’s holdings, rather doing what they could to display this wealth of masterpieces in a structure that is resistant to much historical art.
Displayed on four floors, the works are separated by region or media, and benefit from new juxtapositions. The Frick has updated and reissued the traditional small-format red lettering on crème paper catalogue that we all have old copies of—mine from 1990 is heavily annotated, as during grad school I had been tasked with finding fellow students from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University to work at the museum during corporate events as interpreters of the art. We were the first outsiders to be able to give tours within and took to our charge with gusto. Traditional though this 21st printing of the paper guide may seem, Frick Madison also offers a new Bloomberg Connects audio guide with smartphone text pages and informative and engaging recordings by the curators Xavier F. Salomon and Aimee Ng and director Ian Wardropper on most objects. No gallery texts, no didactic object labels. Very Frick. The walls are various shades of grey, a design choice Salomon instituted in the Metropolitan’s European Paintings galleries where he was formerly curator, but here in the absence of high ceilings and top lighting as at the Met, the pictures do not much “pop,” as curators like to say, especially on floors two and three. However, the grey walls do allow the splendid frames to shine forth, something less evident on the deeper colored fabric walls in the mansion.
The Bellini on the third floor is the flat-out highlight. It sits on the east wall of a room built around Breuer’s abstracted arrowhead of a window with its northern view out towards The Montclair, a sullen, glazed, white brick post-war residential building. Thus, unlike in its customary position on the south wall of the Frick’s Living Hall, guarded on its flanks by two Titian portraits and lit from the right by its Fifth Avenue side windows, here at Frick Madison magic properly happens. Per Renaissance painting going back to Masaccio, natural light from a calculatedly positioned window mingles with illusionistic painted light to wash, properly from the left side, over the ecstatic St. Francis on Mount La Verna. The picture is revealed in a new way. The immediacy of his reception of the stigmata—evident on both hands but not yet on his one visible foot—has never been clearer. The details sparkle. Apparently, Frick disliked the picture. Edward Fowles, who worked for Duveen Brothers art dealers, notes in his memoirs that Knoedler and Agnew’s sold it to Frick in May 1915 for 170,000 dollars but had to close the deal by threatening that J. Pierpont Morgan would buy it if Frick did not.1 Good move. Here is the greatest Italian Renaissance painting in the Americas. That has never been more evident than now.
If the oceanic greyness of the walls makes the galleries at times feel monotonous, the thing to do is get right up to the works. Details astound, elements often invisible in the more cluttered environment of the Frick mansion where paintings are often hung over furniture and close-looking is impossible: the electric bolts of gold that hem Jesus’s blue cloak as he gives the Devil his second technical foul and ejects him from all the kingdoms of the world in Duccio’s pristine predella panel from the back of the Maestà altarpiece in Siena (1308–11); the exquisite still life in Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music (ca. 1658–59), a picture seen here intimately and in perfect light and revealed to be one of his most absorbing works; the relief lettering on the left wing of Jean Barbet’s bronze angel from France (1475), its blocky type weighing down a downy form that, hinged to the elegant figure’s back, seems nonetheless to flutter in a breeze; the rabbit in the crumbling wall in the Bellini; the stirrup and right boot of Rembrandt’s Polish Rider (ca. 1655); and the play of light and shade in a new acquisition—a moody farmhouse by Salomon van Ruysdael. Go see. Before New York reverts even more to its pre-COVID state. Before crowds fill the galleries.
Particularly satisfying is the one room that feels thin in the display, the final gallery on the fourth floor. The dedicated museum-goer, having been buoyed by the thrilling experience of Fragonard’s four original panels of the Progress of Love (1771–72) against Breuer’s vast upper story western window and then passed through a side room that helpfully collects Fragonard’s comparatively acidic additions to the suite of works, done two decades later, enters the Impressionism room that closes the installation. The paucity of pictures—one each of Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir—is a fact of the holdings and a nod of the cap to the crucial acquisition decision Frick made to follow J. P. Morgan and not Albert C. Barnes. In a gambit overlooked by most writers on Frick Madison, Frick traded in many of the contemporary French and American pictures he had amassed over a decade in favor of turning to the Old Masters.2 For this, we are ever in his debt. In choosing Goya over Monet, he began the process of crafting every New Yorker’s favorite local museum (his daughter, Helen Clay Frick, continued building the collection after Frick’s death and importantly expanded its acquisition areas). But the Frick is unlike other house museums. Olana, Frederic Edwin Church’s Neo-Persian, handmade house and estate on that bluff in Hudson, New York, overlooking (now) the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, does not boast the collection that the Frick does—few places do. But that allows curators there to delve into the history of the artist, his family, the workings of the house, its servants, its construction, the development of the parklands, the donkeys he procured in Syria, his travels. The teleportation of the Frick Collection to Madison Avenue has allowed for an intense focus on the works, without the complicating aura of its Gilded Age robber baron of a founder. On its return to its normal setting, the institution will need to productively deal with how such an array came to be and the difficult story of this union-busting West Pennsylvanian and his acquisition of taste via exploitation of human capital. That is something to be welcomed, as the upper floors of the mansion/museum will be newly accessible, and a fuller sense of the house made visible. The pictures and statuettes and pots will slip back into their home, but the story will needfully be different.
In the end, one realizes that both the works and the viewer will long to be back in the distinctive and dramatic interior of Frick 70th. And, in a sense, that is the point.
- Edward Fowles, Memories of Duveen Brothers (London: Times Books, 1976) and Jason Edward Kaufman, “On Knoedler & Company’s 150th,” The Art Newspaper, December 1, 1996, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/archive/on-knoedler-and-company-150th-anniversary-we-remember-the-masterpieces-that-have-graced-their-walls
- Some of these pictures are in the collection of the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburgh. See Ross Finocchio, “’Frick buys a freak’: Dagnan-Bouveret and the development of the Frick Collection,” The Burlington Magazine (December 2013), pp. 827-831.