The Frick’s New Digs: A Historic Collection Meets Breuer’s Whitney
On a fine sunny afternoon in late winter, two New York City horse-drawn carriage drivers (sans passengers) sidled along next to each other on Central Park’s East Drive. “In what used to be the Whitney, they’ve got The Frick Collection,” one driver excitedly told the other. “Spanish art, French, American, everything!”
An only-in-New-York moment, as I’d just attended a press preview of the space they were discussing. The Frick Madison, which opens to the public March 18, has been staging a generous slice of The Frick Collection for more than a year. This is a preplanned transition (which coincided with New York City’s Covid-19 lockdown) while the Frick’s Gilded Age mansion at 5th Avenue and 70th Street undergoes renovation. That will take a couple of years, at which point the remarkable art collected by coke and steel magnate Henry Clay Frick will return home.
Meanwhile, many of these historic pieces reside in a Brutalist building just a few blocks from the mansion, but aesthetically worlds apart. “Frick Madison is European art history distilled, and it’s a swaggering wager on the collection’s sufficiency and an audience’s attention span,” writes Jason Farago in a laudatory New York Times preview piece. “This new setting isn’t just unusual. It’s unprecedented, since the Frick, by long-standing tradition, has not lent pictures bequeathed by its founder to other institutions.”
This move continues New York’s cycle of musical museums: The Frick temporarily resides in the Marcel Breuer–designed building at 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, completed in 1966 to house the Whitney Museum of American Art, before it moved downtown; it most recently housed the Met Breuer, an outpost of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that fell victim to financial woes even before the pandemic hit the art world. The Breuer building—with its spacious rooms, choppy angles and gray walls—is a venue where art exists on its own merits.
In this unlikely, minimalist setting, the Frick’s masterworks have new room to breathe. On an uncrowded press day, I spent several minutes in contemplative solitude with one of the collection’s gems, Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (at top and below), absorbing the painting’s iridescent hues and rich details that have survived since the 15th century, now bathed in afternoon light from a trapezoidal window of Breuer’s building. It’s a meditative space that feels like a chapel.
I wanted to know more. But there’s no wall text here. While it commands its own room, this masterpiece—like all works on display—is unlabeled, save for a number. (This is consistent with the unmarked art presentation in Frick’s mansion.) For details, you have three choices: a printed 60-page guide to the collection available in the lobby; audio on the Frick’s website; or a deep guided tour on a smartphone app, Bloomberg Connects (which has collaborated with the Frick Collection, as well as several other museums and tourist destinations).
On my phone I called up the app, which provides text writeups as well as audio clips. For Bellini’s image the narrator is Xavier F. Salomon, the Frick’s Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator. “The divine presence is manifest through nature in this painting,” Salomon tells us, “through the mystical light descending from the top left corner of the composition.” Capisco!
(Full disclosure: My wife is the Frick’s associate director of digital. By osmosis, I’ve been observing and hearing about this transition, and its digital offerings, for well over a year. In the past I’ve visited the Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion countless times as a spouse, tourist, and partygoer, continually wowed by the place’s opulence as well as its trove of art, furniture, sculpture, ceramics, and ambience.)
As with other small-yet-grandiose viewing halls, such as New York’s Morgan Library and Museum, the Frick mansion has often been lauded for how its architectural splendor enhances the visitor experience. “Big museums array works by a historical logic that is cold to the eye until thawed by your attention,” writes Peter Schjeldahl in a recent valedictory essay in The New Yorker. “Everything at the Frick is toasty at first glance.”
While the Frick’s renovation project was long overdue, its concurrent expansion has drawn ire from some critics, including architect and urbanist John Massengale in a 2018 opinion piece on this website. (The earlier controversies, and resulting compromises, did serve to modify and scale back some expansion plans.) Now the Frick renovation is well under way, and the artwork has its new temporary stage.
The results are stunning. Away from the mansion’s visual smorgasbord, individual pieces shine in near solitude. The historical logic that Schjeldahl mentions highlights the collection’s cogent progression. Here, for once, we see eight large-scale wonders by Flemish portraitist Van Dyke in one room, not far from works by his mentor, Rembrandt. Another room spotlights work by Spanish masters, from Velázquez’s stately portraiture to Goya’s dark humanism.
Frick Madison is almost devoid of barriers and partitions, relying for security on a no-kids rule and highly attentive guards. This means you can get close enough to truly inspect an individual piece, such as El Greco’s small but captivating Purification of the Temple, whose 16×20-inch size seems to intensify its bold color palette, heightened drama, and trademark elongated figures.
Nearby, we see the collection’s three prized Vermeer paintings—modest in size but piercing in intensity—together in their own room, allowing for a close look at the cracked but luminous surfaces. In the app’s narration for Officer and a Laughing Girl, curator Aimee Ng explains that the depicted dialogue is a mystery: “Scholars have proposed a range of interpretations of the couple’s exchange, from delightful courtship to a transactional encounter between a prostitute and her client—both scenarios were common in Dutch genre painting in the 17th century.” The painting’s intimate setting invites scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the Frick’s sculpture, furniture, enamel pieces, clocks, rugs, and other artifacts are displayed separately, like dissected specimens removed from a body, to illuminating effect. In a gallery of French decorative arts, the centerpiece is a longcase regulator clock created by Balthazar Lieutaud in 1767 and labeled as “the most sumptuous French neoclassical longcase clock known.” It sits apart from furniture by Riesener commissioned for Marie Antoinette and porcelain from the Sevres, each piece on a shelf. This is not how Henry Clay Frick would place these prizes. Yet here, each piece is shown as its own splendid creation.
In the next room, on a much grander scale, we see a philosophical battle between landscape painters Turner and Constable. “Their stylistic choices were markedly distinct,” Ng explains, “with Turner’s dramatic depictions, often of foreign places, pitted against Constable’s landscape views drenched in nostalgia for the pre-industrial English countryside.” Here, the pioneering British titans face off in their corners, the precise realist vs. the roving romantic, in a pithy tutorial of competing world views.
If the relocated Frick was a permanent move, historians would weep and preservationists would howl. But it’s not. And the curators have taken it as a chance to try unprecedented things. Case in point: Fragonard’s Progress of Love series—which anchors one of the most renowned rooms at the mansion—gets re-examined at Frick Madison, with several large-scale panels pulled out of storage to be reunited with their brethren.
The spectacular series was created in two parts: In 1771–72 Fragonard painted four massive panels showing phases of a love affair between a young couple, on commission by Madame du Barry, mistress of King Louis XV. But she rejected the work in favor of another artist (Salomon tactfully calls du Barry “a capricious patron”). Fragonard stored the paintings for 20 years, then revived them for a house owned by his cousin—creating 10 more large works to accompany them—to seal his artistic legacy. At the Breuer, the entire collection is finally intact, with the four primary panels progressing in their intended order in their own gallery.
Now Fragonard’s climactic, 125×85-inch image of the two young lovers, reveling in the glow of their own love letters, basks in natural New York City light from a trapezoidal window. How heartbroken the artist must have been when his work was rejected. How inspired he was to continue the series. How sad that it was long separated from its full creative context. Until now.
All images courtesy The Frick Collection, New York.