Reframing the Frick

Three Vermeer paintings, installed in Room 6 of the Frick Madison. Photo: Joe Coscia.

Clio and Diderot visit the Frick Madison. The official title of the temporary installation is “The Frick Reframed: The Frick Collection Presents Highlights Reconsidered at Frick Madison.” For the next two years, a “selection of highlights” from the Frick collection will be on view in the Breuer building, the former home of the Whitney Museum. Selldorf Architects–who is also working on the expansion and renovation of the Frick mansion–worked with the Frick’s curatorial team, and with the collection’s longtime exhibition designer, Stephen Saitas, to transform Marcel Breuer’s 1966 Brutalist interiors into galleries suitable for displaying the Frick’s holdings

What are your impressions of the Frick Collection’s temporary home in the Breuer building?

Diderot: I loved the stark contrast between the Old Master paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts and the austerity of the building.  The works really popped out and you could get close to them– that was almost impossible in their original installation.  In the Frick house, the works (especially things like small bronzes) were less noticeable and often blended together with all the other décor, but here, the focus was truly on the singular object.  It was visually clear and quite refreshing to see the collection in this new context.

Porcelains arranged in an artful display. Photo: Joe Coscia.

Clio: Other reviewers also commented on this aspect of the Frick’s installation at the Breuer–most notably, the decision to hang Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1476-78) on its own, set off in a small room. However, I found the new hang at the Breuer most arresting in the rooms dedicated to small objects, such as the small room of bronze sculptures (with a few medals thrown in for good measure), and the room dedicated to porcelains from Europe and Asia. In the mansion, most of these objects blended into the room, I was never truly able to appreciate them on their own.

Giovanni Bellini, St.Francis in the Desert, ca.1476–78. Oil on panel, 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 inches. The Frick Collection, New York, installed in Room 13 of Frick Madison. Photo: Joe Coscia.

The spare installation at the Breuer gave greater aesthetic power to some objects, but diminished others. 

Xavier Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, has been pretty upfront about the inspiration for this stark installation. In almost every interview, Salomon mentions that the curatorial team took a trip to Marfa.

Diderot: Here’s a quote from the recent New York Times review, where he talks about his Marfa experience: “They contemplated Judd’s metal boxes in the Texas scrub grass — and, by the poolside of Marfa’s Thunderbird Hotel, they started sketching. And erasing. ‘We were going to have four pictures in here, and Aimee was like, ‘No, let’s make it two. Let’s make it one!’’ Salomon says.”

They also visited other minimalist institutions, such as the Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, but Marfa remained the team’s main inspiration. “The [Frick] house is this overload of sensations: fabrics and wood and paintings and objects,” Salomon told the New York Times. “We really wanted that Marfa feeling: if you go into a room and you have one piece by Judd, in the same way you can have a huge wall with just one Velázquez. And it holds it, because it’s just so powerful.”

Minimalist aesthetics aside, what did you think about the organization, with each floor dedicated to a specific region?  

Diderot: I enjoyed the context and ability to compare things, and it made sense spatially, given the structure of the building.  From what I remember of the Frick house, some works were grouped together (for example, the Fragonard room), but objects from similar regions/schools were often spread out.  It also made it easier to locate specific things, if you were going to the collection with a specific object list in mind.

Clio: The organization at the Breuer makes it easier to think historically about the artworks. The works are grouped by geography as well as by chronology, so viewers get a sense of how objects relate to each other in both synchronic and diachronic ways. 

”Thomas Cromwell” and “Sir Thomas More,” both by Hans Holbein, in situ in the Frick Mansion. The Living Hall, Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb

However, since the Frick collection is also based on Henry Clay Frick’s own private collection, it would have been interesting to learn more about why Frick chose to collect these works, and what drew him to particular regions or artists. Strangely, I never felt compelled to ask these questions at the Mansion. Maybe the domestic setting lulled me into a false sense of intimacy with Henry Clay Frick? At the mansion, there were moments where visitors came face to face with Frick’s original choices, left intact, as Ian Wardropper, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director of The Frick Collection, noted, because they represent such “perfect impression[s] of his taste.” Take, for example, the Holbein portraits of Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. Frick hung them in his study, facing each other across a mantelpiece. Two enemies, caught forever in an eternal tete-a-tete. It’s a brilliant installation, and a wonderful insider joke. We feel as though we’ve caught a glimpse of Frick’s interiority. Even though the Frick moved paintings and objects around, displaying some of them in quite a different way than Frick himself (as you can see in these photographs of the mansion taken in 1927, when the mansion was still a residence), there is something about the mansion-as-museum that makes the installation feel inevitable. The mansion nourishes the fiction that everything came as an ensemble, perfect and jewel-like and ambered. Come for the art, the mansion-museum said, but also come for a crumb of Frick, the man.

What are your thoughts on the installation of the works and their accompanying information?

Clio: Well, at the entrance they gave us these beautiful little booklets… The docents said we could either use an app on our phones, or look at the booklet. Once we got upstairs and saw the installation, we realized why the docents were pushing us to at least take the booklet. The installations are spare! Some objects have labels, most do not. Visitors are supposed to learn about the artworks either by paging through the booklet, or punching an object number into the app. You download the app onto your phone. In this time of Covid, there are no handsets for use. This meant that app downloads–and usage–were kind of at the mercy of one’s cell reception. And if you didn’t have a cell phone… the booklet is your only option. The booklets are beautifully printed, on heavy cream paper stock. The information in the booklet is spare, like the installation. 

Diderot: I downloaded the app (sponsored by Bloomberg, by the way) and for the tech-savvy, it was pretty straightforward.  You typed in the corresponding number and you could play the audio guide or read a transcription.  The app also has works grouped together by location or category, and each entry (for the most part) gave tombstone information.

But of course, this information is only available if you go through the work of hunting things down.  I understand that the Frick traditionally eschewed labels in the house, but why not in this new gallery space?  Labels with tombstone information would make it easier for viewers to look things up or at least know who the artist is, and a small label really would not from the desired “minimalist aesthetic.” I honestly don’t know if a casual viewer would bother using the booklet, which has very little useful information about individual works, or the app. And sometimes, there weren’t individual labels listed on the walls for certain decorative arts objects, i.e. the porcelains, although if you browse through the app, you can find them. 

One good thing about the app is that it’s very expansive.  In addition to looking up the works, you can access other features such as online themed galleries (such as “pets,” “jewelry,” and “clouds”) and programming, such as the Frick’s Cocktails with a Curator series.  You could also virtually visit the different rooms in the original Frick house through the app and see the list of major artworks that were exhibited there. 

Sometimes the app was a little buggy to navigate– probably because you need adequate reception in a concrete building…. The app was user friendly for me, but I think for viewers like my parents, this would have been problematic. 

Screenshots of the Frick app

What are your thoughts on the Frick’s mission and how it relates to the way that the Frick address the public?

Diderot: I think the desire to minimize information made going through the new installation an aesthetic experience, rather than an educational one.  I admit that this was visually stunning, but ultimately, it is somewhat elitist.  It assumes that you already know enough about Old Masters to enjoy them and that type of knowledge comes with privilege– access to other cultural institutions and education that promotes the arts, which not a lot of people are fortunate to have.  That extra step– to flip through the booklet (which isn’t very helpful to begin with!) or to use the Bloomberg app– just adds more hurdles to accessibility.  This practice of limiting labels was used in the mansion– where the collection was kept together as part of the house/living space of the Fricks. In that case, there was a historical aspect to avoiding labels, and I guess it could be argued that they would detract from the experience.  But the Frick Madison is a totally different space: it is a gallery, not a house. To eschew labels there for the sake of this “Marfa-inspired” minimalist aesthetic, rather than educating the public, seems shallow.  

Anyway, one point of the Frick’s mission statement is “to provide access, understanding, and enjoyment of the Collection to the public through special exhibitions, publications, education, research, and public programs of the highest caliber.”  I’m not sure if they really succeed with this, even at the most basic level of presenting their permanent collections.  For goodness’ sake, at least give the name of the artists, region, and dates!

Paintings from Fragonard’s “Progress of Love,” lit from the side by one of the Breuer’s distinctive trapezoidal windows. Minimal and uncluttered by labels. Photo: Joe Coscia.

Clio: The installation at the Breuer is undeniably beautiful. Most critics rave over the experience, praising the drama of the presentation, the lighting–in many cases far superior to the lighting in the mansion, the jewelbox presentation of the artworks. But one could spend an afternoon immersed in beauty, and yet come away with very little understanding of why it all exists. I also ended up looking up the Frick’s mission. I wanted to know, what is it all for? What is the purpose of all this spending–not just the money that went into making the collection, but the continued outlay. The Frick is spending something like $160 million dollars on renovations and expansions to the historic mansion on E. 70th Street. Once the expansion is complete, the Frick anticipates raising the already-expensive admissions fee of $22 by an “undetermined amount.” 

I am certain that the revamped and enlarged Frick will also be a beautiful experience. But as I look over the Frick’s mission statement, and consider what constitutes that beautiful experience, I am less certain that I understand the reasoning behind it all. 

Diderot: I would definitely love to see what the Frick looks like after its renovation and expansion!  But an increase in its admissions would make the institution even more inaccessible to the general public. This, and their no children under 10 and no photography policies make me think that there is some implicit gatekeeping involved.  As I’ve mentioned, it’s a privilege to have access to cultural institutions– to exclude those who can’t afford childcare for an afternoon is problematic. This institution assumes you have the means to find a babysitter (in addition to paying for admission) if you want to visit.  Shouldn’t museums like the Frick welcome young children, at least those who are old enough to engage with the art?  As their primary audience and donors literally dying off, fostering a love of the arts in the younger generations seems to be a smart move for arts institutions.  Many museums have special family education initiatives geared to their youngest visitors– that wouldn’t be difficult to implement. For example, the content from the “themed galleries” on the app could easily be developed into programming for children under 10.

The no photography rule also makes me think that they are trying to keep out a certain type of museum visitor: the casual tourist who, for better or for worse, shows up to make an IG or Tik Tok post of them in front of a famous work of art.  Ironically, most museums encourage their visitors to take photographs because this ends up being free publicity, especially over social media.  

Overall, some of the Frick’s policies smack of gatekeeping and elitism that is problematic for the world of Old Masters.  Ironically, they are still continuing these in spite of the current push for DEI initiatives and training at cultural institutions…

Clio: Many of these problems–gatekeeping, elitism–are endemic to the art and museum world in general. 

Diderot: Tell me about it!  It seems like all this DEI stuff is mostly lipservice too, unfortunately.  Museums can’t truly diversify and promote equality until we restructure the economic model for the arts, so that they no longer are supported primarily through private philanthropy and exploit a highly educated labor force.  But honestly, it doesn’t seem like many museum heads are actually interested in changing these elitist dynamics, at least at Old Masters institutions.  All of it is performative.  But this is getting off track…

Clio: I think the past year hit museums hard, in so many ways, and this time–where we come out of the pandemic–might be an opportune time to think deeply about the museum as an institution. The Frick Madison is supposed to be an opportunity to reframe the Frick. It certainly gave us a fresh look at the collection. I’d grown comfortable with the ‘old’ Frick, the normal Frick, where the Holbeins were always in their allotted spaces, facing across the fireplace, and the Fragonards sat in their little room of gilded furniture and glossy porcelains. In a funny way, I’d forgotten the strength of that collection. The Breuer installation made me ask real, deep questions about works of art that I thought I knew well. It also pushed me to ask hard questions about the collection and the museum. I don’t think I’m the only one asking those questions. They seem to be part of our zeitgeist. After a blistering pandemic year that laid bare fractures in our society, we’re rethinking everything, considering how our institutions stand in relationship to wealth inequality and systemic racism, to the structures of our society. So yes, reframe the Frick, but do more than make it pretty. Take the chance to make the reframing matter. Make it important. 

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