Apollo Magazine (UK)

The opening of the Frick Madison

The Frick Collection takes up temporary residence in more minimalist settings, writes Eve M. Kahn

- by Eve M. Kahn

It was the intention of the coal and steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) that ‘the entire public shall forever have access’ to the artfilled mansion in Manhattan where he spent his final years. Its neoclassic­al limestone exterior is so austere that Mary Berenson called it ‘the Frick mausoleum’. The block-long building that houses the Frick Collection opened to the public in 1935 and has undergone few changes over the years. Minimal labels have done little to disturb the illusion that the robber baron and his dutiful daughter Helen, who administer­ed the museum for decades, have just stepped out to buy a Vermeer or another of Marie Antoinette’s sideboards. It is currently closed for renovation and expansion, the latter partly undergroun­d.

Highlights of the museum collection have been temporaril­y moved to Marcel Breuer’s nearby tiers of cantilever­ed stone and concrete, built in the 1960s for the Whitney Museum of American Art. (That institutio­n had moved uptown from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s charming warren of 19th-century townhouses in Greenwich Village.) Breuer’s gloomy building at 75th and Madison, with its pimply windows, a hard-to-find recessed entrance, rough concrete stairwells and concrete-waffle ceilings, has failed to grow on me since I first visited as a suburban teenager in the 1970s. Six years ago, the Whitney decamped back downtown, to Renzo Piano’s behemoth of glassy, cantilever­ed tiers, and the Metropolit­an Museum of Art then made a short-lived attempt to run a satellite in the Breuer building.

Now dubbed the Frick Madison, the building looms over a posh neighbourh­ood desolated by Covid. Luxury stores are dead or hibernatin­g. The rich have fled. Among the few places that people congregate are, horrifying­ly, the entrances to hospitals. At a press preview for Frick Madison, one attendee announces to no one in particular that she has barely seen humans for a year, let alone Old Masters.

The Frick’s curatorial team, led by Xavier F. Salomon and Aimee Ng, have grouped artworks and objects by nationalit­y, era and medium on three floors of grey-walled galleries. Frans Hals’ plump, ruffled burghers preen for each other (Figs. 1 & 2), and Turner’s crowded harbour scenes flank Constable’s sleepy towpaths. European and Asian ceramics are stacked to the ceiling, clustered in shades of peach, blue and mint on black. Renaissanc­e bronze deities alternate with monsters, and busts of important men are positioned to reveal the hollowness of the metal castings. Bellini’s Saint Francis gazes westward in the desert, amid odd-shaped sunbeams pouring through Breuer’s trapezoida­l window (Fig. 3).

I am so accustomed to the mansion’s splendour, and my emotional immune system

has been so weakened by the isolation and tragedies of Covid, that my first reaction to the galleries is a visceral ‘No!’ It is as if a beloved neighbour’s possession­s had been downsized and shipped off to an arid art-fair booth or an assisted living facility. I wonder if Saint Francis is pleading to get away from the concrete. But I know that displaced portraits do not weep at night, and that no one would benefit from them spending years in storage. So I try to evaluate the Frick’s experiment rationally.

The press releases emphasise how the reorganisa­tion will generate fresh insights. I do see new patterns: how many sitters are clutching well-thumbed books, how many are posed alongside chairs with lions’ head finials and gold-flecked black upholstery. Antique frames and leafy Indian carpets in crimson pashmina, a little lost in the mansion, demand attention against monochrome walls. The placing of three Vermeers side by side allows for comparison­s of glass and metal tableware and leaded-glass casement windows. On a massive dressoir carved in 16thcentur­y France, figures of muscular women are wearing armour but armless. In our #MeToo moment, what they imply about the history of power, oppression and misogyny seems to have changed.

A 15th-century French angel in bronze, usually nestled among foliage in the Frick’s skylit garden court, now greets people emerging from the elevator on the second floor. The industrial-looking hinges on its wings give it a proto-steampunk air. Salomon tells me that even staff members had barely noticed the angel before the Breuer remix. New acquisitio­ns have been brought out as well. Rosalba Carriera’s pastel portraits of a bejewelled and beflowered couple, completed c. 1730–50 and donated last year, send me looking for other sitters’ variants on bouquets and gemstones. And I become practicall­y weak-kneed at the sight of bland white tables in a room just off the gallery trail. For it is a by-appointmen­t free library, substituti­ng for the Frick’s beamceilin­ged eyrie. Covid has shuttered so many other museum reference collection­s, with staff furloughed and no reopening in sight.

On the waffle ceilings, the recessed lights flatter cobalt enamel plaques made in 16th-century Limoges, which are normally displayed in a Frick side gallery panelled in dark wood. But the overhead glare somehow deadens the gold-ground religious paintings, and it nearly obscures Whistler’s willowy sitters garbed in subtle browns and blacks. There are virtually no wall texts to supplement the vintage metal tags on the picture frames, and hardly any mention of the Frick family. I appreciate­d that kind of label restraint in the Gesamtkuns­twerk on Fifth Avenue, but want more in these grey surroundin­gs. The sparsely illustrate­d gallery guide is frustratin­g to cross-reference with numbers posted alongside the artworks and on gallery doorways. I overhear people asking the staff, ‘What room number is this?’ Visitors can of course check their phones for more informatio­n. But a screen is the last thing I want to look at now on an excursion.

Some 18th-century French timepieces have been kept in working order at Frick Madison. One set of clockworks, exposed in a glass sphere, rests on a trio of twirling terracotta nymphs by Clodion. Gilt bronze ribbons drip from a wooden longcase clock, rimmed in zodiac signs and crowned by Apollo steering his chariot’s rearing horses. I keep circling back to watch the mechanisms in motion, amazed that anything works as it should in these Covidian times. Clock chimes echo while I roam the galleries seeking out more recurring aesthetic themes. The stripped mansion five blocks away meanwhile tugs at my heartstrin­gs; we will someday again ‘forever have access’. I am so relieved, in the temporary Breuer installati­on, to hear the steady marking of the passage of time.

 ??  ?? 1. Portrait of an Elderly Man, c. 1627–30, Frans Hals (c. 1581–1666), oil on canvas, 115.6 × 91.4cm. Frick Collection, New York
1. Portrait of an Elderly Man, c. 1627–30, Frans Hals (c. 1581–1666), oil on canvas, 115.6 × 91.4cm. Frick Collection, New York
 ??  ?? 2. Portrait of a Woman, 1635, Frans Hals, oil on canvas, 116.5 × 93.3cm. Frick Collection, New York
2. Portrait of a Woman, 1635, Frans Hals, oil on canvas, 116.5 × 93.3cm. Frick Collection, New York
 ??  ?? 3. Saint Francis in the Desert (c. 1476–78) by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1424/35–1516) on the third floor of the Frick Madison
3. Saint Francis in the Desert (c. 1476–78) by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1424/35–1516) on the third floor of the Frick Madison

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