The Frick, New York’s plushest museum, undergoes an unexpectedly audacious transmutation

The Frick, New York’s plushest museum, undergoes an unexpectedly audacious transmutation

As the long-lasting museum expands, the Frick Assortment has to maneuver out for 2 years — right into a sublet 5 blocks away, the place it’s discovering the extra trendy luxurious of clean partitions and empty rooms.

Yesterday’s robber barons lived like princes; as we speak, they’d relatively be monks.

When union-crushing coke and metal magnate Henry Clay Frick left Pittsburgh for New York in 1905, he constructed himself a beaux-arts city home the width of a metropolis block, encased in marble and mahogany, trimmed with velvet and gold. The museum it now homes on Fifth Avenue is increasing: The home’s upstairs residing quarters will open to the general public, and there shall be an addition designed by Annabelle Selldorf, the New York architect of understated rigour. However to organize, the Frick Assortment has to maneuver out for 2 years — and in a sublet 5 blocks north, it’s discovering the extra trendy luxurious of clean partitions and empty rooms.

“After discovering Nothingness, I’ve discovered Magnificence,” Mallarmé wrote. And so it’s at Frick Madison: an unexpectedly audacious transmutation of the town’s plushest museum inside Marcel Breuer’s residence for the Whitney Museum of American Artwork. Just lately occupied by the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, the Brutalist constructing at 945 Madison Ave. reopens 18 March as an previous masters gallery, with 104 of the Frick’s work, plus marbles and bronzes and vases and clocks.

The backdrop is grey, the lighting sober. No limitations. No protecting glass. No descriptive texts. (And no selfies, both — as on the mom ship, at Frick Madison pictures is banned too.) New York’s most majestic Bellini, most lavish Rembrandt, most sharply reduce Ingres have been unencumbered, made unusual. Frick Madison is European artwork historical past distilled, and it’s a swaggering wager on the gathering’s sufficiency and an viewers’s consideration span. You may examine up through print, app or video, however your primordial job right here is to look, look, look.

“We’re doing the alternative of what the home does,” Xavier Salomon, the Frick’s deputy director and chief curator, tells me throughout one in all three visits I made this winter to the reinstallation. For the subsequent two years, these artworks seem not as parts of a residence. Slightly, they’re reordered by geography and medium. Dutch and Flemish portray get the second flooring, which culminates with all eight of the Frick’s Van Dycks and a comfortable room for its three Vermeers. The third flooring is the province of Italy and Spain, but additionally Mughal carpets and Chinese language porcelain.

Flooring 4 is Britain and France, the place Breuer’s huge trapezoidal window illuminates the 4 panels of Fragonard’s blithe “Progress of Love,” a Rococo fête of countryside hooking up. The gallery is a modernist showstopper, though not with out historic grounding; Madame du Barry, Louis XV’s mistress, commissioned the panels for a pleasure palace whose window was positioned in roughly the identical location. “That window at Louveciennes seemed out onto the Seine,” Salomon mentioned. “Now you look out to the Apple Retailer throughout Madison Avenue …”

This new setting isn’t simply uncommon. It’s unprecedented, because the Frick, by long-standing custom, has not lent photos bequeathed by its founder to different establishments. Frick Madison is subsequently the primary, and possibly solely, time that many of those artworks will ever be on view exterior the splendid confines of 1 E. seventieth St.

I’d solely ever seen Holbein’s flinty portraits of the 2 Thomases, Extra and Cromwell (the “Wolf Corridor” rivals), on both aspect of Frick’s hearth; right here, they face off in their very own gallery. Within the mansion, the museum’s bigger photos by Van Dyck or Velázquez hold above wainscoting; Ingres’ razor-edged portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville is protected by a desk of marble and gilt bronze. On the Breuer they’ve been introduced right down to eye stage. You may virtually stroll into them. (Therefore one other adverse rule: no kids underneath 10.)

Frick Madison started, like so many good New York tales, with a fortunate break on a rental. “I went round all the main museums, form of cup in hand, searching for some house,” mentioned Ian Wardropper, the Frick’s director since 2011. “Richard Armstrong supplied me the Guggenheim, which might have been fascinating, however it was just for 4 months.”

He contacted his previous colleagues on the Metropolitan, which had leased the Breuer constructing from the Whitney till 2023. “All people knew the Met was having monetary troubles, and having troubles working all these exhibitions. So I assumed, perhaps, they’d give me a flooring,” Wardropper mentioned. “However, in a short time, we received into negotiations for the entire thing. And that modified the entire ballgame. As a result of abruptly, it was not simply a chance to point out just a few works, however to actually rethink the gathering for a few years.”

When the deal got here by, Salomon mentioned, “I felt completely relieved that the gathering may very well be on view. And completely terrified: What the hell am I going to do with this house?” (We had been speaking by our masks within the half-complete Italian galleries. The Frick staggered its crews in case of an infection, and typically curators supervised the set up through FaceTime.) However the Frick already had a associate in Selldorf, who knew the gathering intimately after years planning the museum’s fourth try at growth and renovation.

Breuer’s gridded ceiling dictates a lot of the stream. “The concrete ceiling creates a form of module that you just need to respect,” Selldorf mentioned. “It’s such a powerful constructing. It’s not like you may argue it away.” Together with the Frick’s long-standing designer, Stephen Saitas, she contrived a sequence of partitions (usually left clean) noticeably thicker than these the Whitney or Met used, and paint jobs in a slim band of slate to gunmetal. “White,” Salomon tells me, “is the kiss of dying for previous masters.”

The fusty Frick, gone minimal? It could shock you, however this place has the youngest curatorial crew of any main museum in New York, led by Salomon, 42, and Aimee Ng, 39. Final 12 months, they achieved sudden digital fame for “Cocktails with a Curator,” an on-the-fly pandemic YouTube sequence that pairs work with libations, and which turned appointment viewing at Friday martini hour. Greater than 1 million viewers have tuned in to look at Salomon unpack the historical past of Velázquez’s royal commissions (whereas consuming sherry), or to listen to Ng analyse gender depictions in 18th-century English portraiture (whereas consuming Pimm’s).

The cocktail hour, Ng mentioned, has “reworked what we do in writing, with footnotes, into one thing that’s rather more accessible.” They now get stopped on the street by Renaissance artwork followers, though the alcoholic accompaniment might have loosened the tongues of their most devoted watchers.

“I imply, it’s overwhelmingly constructive,” Salomon mentioned. “However you all the time get the remark of ‘I don’t just like the sweater you’re sporting as we speak….’”

Ng: “Or, ‘You contact your hair an excessive amount of. You need to smile much less.’”

Salomon: “I received, ‘You need to smile extra!’”

For the Breuer mission they traveled to examine two different museums of older artwork in equally spartan digs: the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, a Brutalist construction in Lisbon, and the Kimbell Artwork Museum in Fort Price, Texas, a pavilion of concrete designed by Louis Kahn. They had been joined in Texas by their companions within the Breuer mission, Charlotte Vignon and David Pullins, who’ve each since left the Frick for brand new positions. (Two new younger hires from Europe, Giulio Dalvit and Marie-Laure Buku Pongo, have participated from afar.)

The imaginative and prescient correctly began to crystallise someplace alongside Interstate 20 in West Texas, en route from the Kimbell to Donald Judd’s Chinati Basis within the tiny city of Marfa.

“We had been caught in a automobile collectively for eight hours,” Ng remembers. “And we went by each iteration, even when we had been going to dismiss it out of hand. What if we did it by date of acquisition? How can we deal with this assortment in a very particular manner?”

“We even mentioned placing damask in every single place and recreating a few of the rooms, in a form of Barnes manner,” Salomon provides, referring to the Barnes Assortment’s nuts-and-bolts duplication of its founder’s suburban Philadelphia home. “However that lasted about three seconds …”

One other state of affairs — exhibiting new artwork with previous — additionally didn’t final lengthy. “This isn’t a up to date constructing,” Salomon mentioned. “It’s a constructing from the ’60s. It’s a historic constructing, of a special language than the beaux-arts home we work in often — however we didn’t really feel any stress that, as a result of we’re right here, we needed to do up to date.”

They contemplated Judd’s steel containers within the Texas scrub grass — and, by the poolside of Marfa’s Thunderbird Resort, they began sketching. And erasing. “We had been going to have 4 photos in right here, and Aimee was like, ‘No, let’s make it two. Let’s make it one!’” Salomon mentioned.

“The home is that this overload of sensations: materials and wooden and work and objects. We actually needed that Marfa feeling: should you go right into a room and you’ve got one piece by Judd, in the identical manner you may have an enormous wall with only one Velázquez. And it holds it, as a result of it’s simply so highly effective.

“One trustee stored asking me, ‘So, the materials are going to be precisely the identical as the home, proper? There are going to be good colours on the partitions?’ And I needed to say, um, no …”

Their minimalism actually doesn’t sideline extra pugnacious gazes on the previous. Within the new, intimate Vermeer gallery, Ng remembers the blowback she received for her cocktail chat about his “Officer and Laughing Lady.” (She was consuming Dutch jenever.) She had zeroed in on the beaver-pelt hat worn by the Dutchman within the image’s foreground — a luxurious imported from the younger colonies of North America, and an undevised emblem of the violence and illness that got here with European contact. “Indigenous communities received horribly slammed by that. A horrible, tragic time. I received so many notes from individuals: ‘I’ve by no means seen this portray like this earlier than.’ And the quantity of crap I received: You’re politicising Vermeer!

“Individuals take into consideration previous masters as escapism, as fairly previous issues,” Salomon mentioned.

And but the previous 12 months, remoted from artwork, reaffirmed their conviction that evaluation could be delivered in lots of codecs. What’s scarcer, and dearer, is time and house to see. “In the event that they need to learn extra, they will. We provide infinite programming,” Ng mentioned. “The reward we’re attempting to present individuals is the flexibility to look.”

Jason Farago c.2021 The New York Instances Firm

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