Jeffrey Weiss on Frick Madison
THE ART MUSEUM is represented by many metaphors: the palace, the temple, and the mausoleum; the theme park and the shopping mall; the cabinet of curiosities and the chamber of dreams. Its purposes, largely those of preservation and display, seem precise enough to need no explanation, but the questions provoked by the museum are legion. What values guide the amassing of the museum’s contents, the artworks or artifacts that are assembled, cared for, and shown, and whom do those values represent? Since the museum, as an institution, belongs to history as much as the objects it contains, can its purpose be expected to possess a constancy over time? Such stability is, after all, generally denied those objects, subject as they are to multiple audiences and shifting points of view. If the museum’s identity is given to change—owing either to changing imperatives in the culture at large or to a change of purpose motivated from within the museum’s own walls—when must we say it ceases to be, for better or for worse, what it once was? How does the museum as a site influence what we think or feel about what we see inside? Even more basically, how does it influence the very act and purpose of seeing?
The reinstallation of the Frick Collection at the former Madison Avenue home of the Whitney Museum of American Art raises these questions in real time. The occasion for the move is the temporary closing, due to a planned expansion, of the Frick’s original—and ultimately permanent—dwelling place, the Frick mansion, a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. Construction is slated to take two years, during which the paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects have been relocated to the building designed for the Whitney by Marcel Breuer—now dubbed Frick Madison. (The collection has been on view at the Breuer building since mid-March.) The move is a thrillingly transgressive act, although that is not to say that it is a hostile one: It demonstrates a deep respect for the collection’s contents. The installation is arresting for its utter rejection of the mansion as visual and contextual frame. Given the glowing press Frick Madison has received so far, the audacity of the project is easy to overlook.
The Breuer building, located between Seventy-Fourth and Seventy-Fifth Streets, has become a kind of blue-chip kunsthalle in recent years. The building was the Whitney’s home from 1966, when construction was completed, to 2014, at which time it was vacated for a spacious new building by Renzo Piano in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Still owned by the Whitney, between 2016 and 2020 the Breuer building was leased to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, its four floors of gallery space hosting both temporary exhibitions and permanent-collection displays initiated by the Met’s department of modern and contemporary art. After four years of activity, the Met abandoned its occupancy (which was planned to last eight years), reportedly due to cost. The timing was fortuitous for the Frick. Even so, the Breuer building is hardly an obvious choice: Its appearance is anathema to the Beaux Arts character of the mansion, which was designed by Thomas Hastings during the early twentieth century as a residence for industrialist Henry Clay Frick and converted into a museum during the 1930s by John Russell Pope. Breuer’s design is a gravity-bound variant of the International Style, representing a postwar ethos that belongs to the movement later dubbed (first in Sweden, then in the United Kingdom) New Brutalism, which replaced the streamlined purity of glass and steel with earthier materials and heavy, unornamented forms. The building is an “inverted ziggurat” of granite and concrete, still visually and physically astonishing—and still as much an interloper on the Upper East Side as Frank Lloyd Wright’s building for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue, fifteen blocks north.
Though the reinstallation includes Renaissance bronzes, eighteenth-century portrait busts, Mughal carpets, enamels, and decorative porcelain from Europe and Asia, at the Breuer, the paintings are the inevitable focus of attention: works by Jan Van Eyck, Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, Hans Holbein, Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, El Greco, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, and James McNeill Whistler, among numerous others, many of exceptional quality and stature. By way of orientation, the first thing to say about the reinstallation of the paintings, conceived by curators Xavier F. Salomon and Aimee Ng, working with designer Stephen Saitas, is that it is organized by floor according to country or region: Northern Europe on the second floor, Italy and Spain on the third, and England and France on the fourth. Works belonging to a single historical period (or to contiguous ones) are shown together from room to room, but the overall rationale of the installation is that of place, not time. Since the Frick painting collection is not encyclopedic, the choice is uncontroversial: It is the most concise method of organization, as opposed to, say, a chronological or thematic one—neither of which, in any case, would have made for a division of the collection into three roughly equal parts. Nonetheless, the installation is a sharp break from the way the collection has been shown since 1935, in which the criteria are more decorative than art-historical, given the spaces of the residential interior.
Over and over, one turns a corner to be confronted by paintings so great yet so unadorned in their presentation that, for a moment, it is almost hard to believe they’re really there.
Yet the overarching impact of the Breuer installation is one of pictorial rather than historical logic. The relocation from one setting to the other has made the paintings close to unfamiliar. For those long used to visiting the Frick Collection, the change is transformational. Three paintings by Vermeer, for example, are displayed on three adjacent walls, an arrangement that is discreetly formal but otherwise without ceremony. The effect is heart-stopping. This sensation derives not from the utmost rarity of the works (only thirty-four paintings by the artist are known to exist), something of which the visitor may even be unaware, but from a naked intensity of pictorial encounter. In particular, the storied qualities of the painting Mistress and Maid, ca. 1666–67—optical precision, consummate painterly control, and the suspended animation of the two figures, who pass a letter between them, spotlit against the impenetrable darkness of an unknowable space—now project with startling immediacy. The installation supports a salience, a hereness, that intensifies the ritualized intimacy of the depiction of gesture and glance.
At Frick Madison, there are many occasions such as this, in which one sees a familiar painting almost as if for the first time. Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell are installed side by side in a small three-walled space with two empty flanking walls: two sitters both ennobled and minutely observed. El Greco’s Purification of the Temple, ca. 1600, with its figure of Christ poised like a pivot within a centripetal paroxysm of violent force, is alone on a large wall; the small, strange painting holds the center of ambient visual space even from across the room. Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert, ca. 1476–78, on the third floor, hangs adjacent to one of Breuer’s trapezoidal windows (here covered with scrim). The image may represent the sacred “ecstasy” of Francis emerging from his cave to receive the stigmata of Christ. At the Breuer, natural light—rare in this building—softly fills the room. The shape of the window complements the backward-leaning posture of the saint; his face is turned upward toward the window, it would seem, as well as the painted sky. The placement could have been an exercise in kitsch, yet the painting benefits from both the solitude and the light, which transform its clarity of detail into an unearthly vision, a lucid sacralization of the natural world. At the Frick Collection, the work is displayed almost as if it were a decorative object. Here it is a painting—one of unnerving proficiency and stirring calm—first and last.
The list goes on. Over and over, one turns a corner to be confronted by paintings so great yet so unadorned in their presentation that, for a moment, it is almost hard to believe they’re really there: Ingres’s Comtesse d’Haussonville, 1845, a stupefying hybrid of artifice and observation; a large, late, commanding yet confessional self-portrait by Rembrandt, lit from deep within; Goya’s The Forge, ca. 1815–20, black, white, and gray but for flesh tones and a red-hot anvil—a painterly image of intense power. Perhaps the most startling display is the gallery that contains Fragonard’s Progress of Love, 1771–72, a sequence of four large paintings originally commissioned by the Comtesse du Barry, a celebrated courtesan, to commemorate her affair with Louis XV. At the Frick, this four-part mythology of Rococo-era courtship hangs in an imitation eighteenth-century salon—roughly the kind of ornamented and furnished interior for which it was painted, a room in a pavilion on the grounds of Du Barry’s chateau at Louveciennes, northwest of Paris. At the Breuer, the works are installed in a gallery that incorporates the large window at the front of the building, with its view—wildly incongruous for Fragonard—onto Madison Avenue. (In an adjacent space, a group of ornamental panels, including several not normally on view at the Frick, are also displayed.) The paintings are large, some ten feet high, and they comfortably fit only beneath the lofty ceilings of the fourth floor. Practical necessity was a gift: The works have been denied their decorative function. For some observers, the setting is detrimental to the paintings. In truth, their display at the Frick mansion was already inauthentic in its own way, a distant approximation of the type of room in which they were once shown. (Indeed, the paintings were rejected by Du Barry after the king’s death, of which they were, it seems, a painful reminder, and reinstalled by the artist himself years later at the home of his cousin in Grasse. Historical authenticity is always a moving target.) In any case, if the paintings now appear to be set adrift, then they have also acquired urgency; seeing them is a quickening, compulsive act. Fragonard’s gorgeously effulgent colorism (a rapturous correlate of sexual desire, otherwise deflected by the decorous, dancelike poses of the protagonists) is exposed. Above all, the installation is a luminous immersion, as if the space of the room were suffused by both actual and pictorial light.
At Frick Madison, there is, then, a rightness to the placement of paintings on a wall that is directly attributable to the wrongness of the Breuer building as a site. Installation, rarely given much attention in the critical press, is a surprisingly delicate practice. The way a work is positioned in relation to other works within the space of a room can deeply affect what we think and see. An installation can, for example, be spare or dense, each with separate consequences: The first kind often encourages a depth of encounter that the second kind can defeat, although an overabundance of space runs the risk of lofty pretense. A dense installation, in turn, can be tight and exciting, but it can also be just crowded and eclectic—a salesroom hang. Some works benefit from, even demand, empty space, while others draw energy from the proximity of their neighbors. Determining the height at which a painting is hung can be tricky, depending on the kind of painting and the dimensions of the room as well as the possible significance of its physical relation to the beholder. In other words, there are precepts and methods and habits of installation, but no strict rules.
Installation is mediation, but there are times when that role is hidden, even almost dispelled, by the seeming inevitability of things having landed in place. That quality prevails at Frick Madison, where paintings are installed with rare visual and logistical tact. It took me a while to realize that in many cases the curators have chosen to eliminate the use of object texts and even identifying labels—information that is available through a printed guide and, of course, an app, but is largely kept off the walls. To be sure, there are certain concessions to convention, such as retaining the antique frames. Further, walls throughout are painted in a variety of muted colors, which is common in museums of old-master painting. (Some of the small paintings also sit on flat panels that lie between the painting and the wall, lightly mitigating the expansiveness of empty space.) Wall colors were a judicious move: They eschew the harder, colder reflected light of the white wall, a modernist device that can compete with, even overwhelm, the subtleties of light, shadow, and hue at play in so much oil painting of the premodernist era. I could imagine having chosen white but, given the character of the building, the white wall might have tilted the scales of useful contrast too far. In every other way, the relation of work to space is generously open. The resulting, almost subliminal message is one of availability—of accessibility and absorption born of uncommonly exposed conditions of display.
ONE KEY TOPIC raised by the installation of the Frick collection in Breuer’s glorious bunker is that of container and contained: the relation between the museum as a vessel and its contents, the collection. For more than a century, public museums have been conceived as permanent homes, something the now-changing occupancy of the old Whitney disrupts. The Frick Collection is its own masterpiece in the history of private collecting and public display. Yet the current reinstallation reminds us that easel paintings since the Renaissance—unlike, say, murals or altarpieces produced for specific ecclesiastical sites—are, by nature and intention, mobile: They possess an early, or “original,” context, of course, but they are untethered to it, a factor that made Frick’s own collecting activity (led by celebrated dealer Joseph Duveen) possible. This mobility has a bearing on the paintings’ status as signifiers of wealth, privilege, cultivation, and power—even, as in the case of Frick, an enemy of workers’ unions, of fatally oppressive authoritarianism. As much as art-historical value, such circumstances routinely distinguish the life of collected art. But mobility also influences the works’ complex aesthetic identity within the history of painting practice. Paintings often find themselves occupying a variety of locations over time, so the conditions of installation and, therefore, of aesthetic encounter can take any number of forms. Inside the Frick mansion, the old-master paintings and other objects collected by Frick are inseparable from status and taste in the Gilded Age, yet nothing intrinsic to the art makes the Frick a uniquely proper home.
Writing on the topic of installation in 1982, the artist Donald Judd observed, “A bad location doesn’t ruin a good work but it tends to reduce understanding to information: you know it’s good but you can’t stand there long enough to find out why.” Judd’s sarcasm reflects his notorious impatience with most new museum architecture of his time, but the remark is important above all because it argues that the space of art influences the experience of it. Judd is not saying there is only one kind of acceptable space, although he did have preferences; rather, he is saying there are many bad ones—settings that regrettably detract from an open encounter with the art, a predisposition he brings from his own work to aesthetic experience in general. In fact, Judd loved the Frick Collection: Writing in 1962, he found the setting to be “more congenial . . . than would the bleak rooms of the usual museum,” and he understood that the painting collection—assembled at a time when “wealthy Americans chose to import the past”—was extraordinary. For Judd, not only is the collection uncommon in its quality and range (the Comtesse d’Haussonville is, he said, “one of the best paintings in New York”), but, like that of the Met, it has served as a vital resource for new art, by which he means work of the generation of Abstract Expressionist painting.
At Frick Madison, there is a rightness to the placement of paintings on a wall that is directly attributable to the wrongness of the Breuer building as a site.
Judd’s example can be taken in quite another way. The curators who installed Frick Madison have spoken, with reference to the process of conceiving and planning the installation, of a decisive visit they paid to the Chinati Foundation. Chinati is a decommissioned army base on the outskirts of Marfa, Texas, that Judd (in close collaboration, at first, with the Dia Foundation) acquired and, during the ’70s and ’80s, converted into a site for the permanent installation of his own work and that by other artists, including John Chamberlain and Dan Flavin. There, Judd transformed a group of old buildings—a series of one-room barracks and two vast artillery sheds along with an entire block of other buildings in town—into what he believed to be optimal interiors for art conceived to engage the actual space of a room. Judd’s conversion of the buildings at Chinati exemplifies his emphasis on structural clarity, an undisguised application of functional materials, and natural light.
Judd felt he was creating spaces that best suited the art. Moreover, many of the works at Chinati were made by the artist and his chosen contemporaries for the buildings in which they are now shown. But Judd’s highest ambition for Chinati was not just permanence; it was also to construct a model or ideal, a point of reference: “Somewhere,” he wrote, “a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.” Chinati was produced in direct opposition to the idea that art “is something portable that can be bought.” Rather, Judd claimed, “the best art and architecture of the past is that which remains where it was painted, placed, or built.” The Frick Madison project is, in this regard, anathema to Judd’s claim: With the arrival of paintings from the Frick, Breuer’s building is filled with works that are “portable” and can—or once could—“be bought”; imported from the European past, they are, in the Henry Jamesian sense, spoils. Yet Judd’s chief premise about installation, the one to which the curators at Frick Madison appeal, is concise but deep: Generosity of space can privilege the object’s own intrinsic visual and material terms.
In his landmark three-part essay “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,” published in these pages in 1976, Brian O’Doherty offers a critical diagnosis of the rise of the late-modernist gallery, the design of which, he argues, is ideological in its very presumption of “neutrality,” a quality that supports the aesthetic conceit of a transcendental art. If we take O’Doherty’s lesson to heart, the slippages represented by the changing tenancy of the Breuer building are worth our attention. No claims for the clarity of viewing conditions at the Breuer imply that the building is a neutral vessel. Its form is just as historically specific as that of the Frick mansion, and it comes with its own set of cultural associations. New Brutalism was mostly applied to postwar public institutions and large housing developments, to which it brought a structural emphasis on biaxial symmetry (which is legible both inside and out), an undisguised—thereby brut, or “raw”—use of building materials, and an exposed deployment of functional elements. Polemically speaking, it exemplifies a categorical rejection of postwar architectural pastiche, a move inherited from its early modernist forebears but now brought to a point of blunt candor that many found to be ugly at the time. The Breuer building is a sculpturally refined example of this aesthetic, but it shares Brutalism’s rejection of the pseudohistorical. Each floor is open in plan, within which temporary walls are constructed according to the needs of a given show or installation. There is little in the way of natural light; with dark bluestone floors and ceiling coffers in the form of a concrete grid, the galleries possess material warmth. The interior is stripped of distraction but stops short of the weightless insubstantiality of the white cube. The building belongs to an era of museum culture that stands well apart from our own. A place of absorption, it was designed not to accommodate large amounts of foot traffic, in this age of exploding visitation and collapsing attention span, but to solicit slowed looking.
Concerning the multiple temporalities of artworks and museums, Brutalism’s resistance to historical pastiche is a useful cue. Art may be grounded in its period and place of origin, but in the hands of its historians and critics and stewards, it is subject to many fates. Even the origin of a work can be historically impure, with respect to the numerous waves of revivalism that fill the history of art—the many neoclassicisms, for example, that inhabit the timeline since antiquity. And in general, the historical character of the art museum is itself unfixed. Consider Chinati, the Whitney, and the Frick: All three were once, by either default or design, institutions for which buildings possessed a specific structural and symbolic function, but their individual identities are inconsistent. The Frick now seems old and august, but it was created to rival the opulence of aristocratic residences in Europe—the Italian palazzo, the French hôtel particulier, and the English manor house; it was invented as a modern imitation of other, far older types. The Breuer was conceived for the Whitney’s permanent collection just as the scale relation of new American art to the space of display experienced a dramatic and defining shift; even when it was new, then, the building was already behind the times. Chinati was intended to represent priorities that are solely, even transcendently, aesthetic, but, as manifested by way of Judd’s art-and-space ideal, that ethos, like any other, is grounded in a particular period of historical time. With all three of those models in play, the curators at Frick Madison, working from both practical necessity and inspired rule-breaking, have engineered a discrete upheaval, exploiting the inevitably unstable identity of each. The consequences are both cautionary and generative. Their efforts remind us, perhaps inadvertently, that institutional values are always close to becoming rhetorical conceits, even clichés, a useful lesson for a time when both art and the art museum are restlessly examined for “information” (to paraphrase Judd) and interrogated for the biases they contain. Yet we are also being told that buildings, and perhaps even institutions, can be reinvented. How striking that this lesson is put forward in the service of looking not through or past painting but directly at it.
Jeffrey Weiss is a curator and critic living in Brooklyn, New York.