With travel restrictions easing and vaccine seeping into my genes, like a ginormous swallow coming back to San Juan Capistrano I recently returned to Manhattan.
For many decades, New York has been the center of the international art world, regardless of whether one is drawn to old, very old, modern, or very modern things. So, after more than a year away from a city that experienced quite a tumult during my absence, reconnecting with the Frick Collection and getting a sense of how both it and the city are doing was a welcome opportunity to appreciate the present and be hopeful for the future.
This pilgrimage entailed a visit to the Breuer Building, now serving as the temporary home of the Frick in its current incarnation as “Frick Madison.” Back in March 2020, when I last visited the city, the venue was known as the “Met Breuer.”
A few years earlier, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had leased the space for temporary exhibitions following the Whitney Museum of American Art absconding to a new location in Chelsea. I was in town for the opening of what was widely rumored to be the final show that Gerhard Richter, Germany’s most important living artist, would ever mount in the United States.
At the time, despite the portents of impending doom echoing like cannon reverberations across the Kiev of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard,” I had no idea this would be the last exhibition I’d see for months, or indeed my last visit to New York for more than a year. I ended up being one of the few people in the world who got to see a rather remarkable, opinion-altering if not entirely opinion-changing retrospective (great catalog, too).
Two days later, everything everywhere shut down. The exhibition never reopened, the review was never written, and Met Breuer came to a seemingly ignominious end.
Even as New York and much of the world descended into a nightmarish form of hibernation, however, plans were already afoot to make new use of the space. The Frick Collection, as readers may recall from previous exhibitions I’ve reviewed for this publication, is my favorite museum in New York, filled with choice gems of painting, sculpture, and decorative arts, all carefully selected and displayed in the magnificent former home of robber baron Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park.
After many years of trying, the museum finally secured permission to renovate and expand its premises and wanted to secure a temporary home where at least part of the collection could continue to be displayed to the public as construction proceeded. Since it could certainly provide the space, security, and environmental control systems needed to run a modern museum, the Met Breuer site seemed an almost ideal opportunity.
Conceptually, I had a hard time grasping how this could possibly work. Imagining the Frick’s sinuous Baroque bronzes and flirtatious Rococo canvases in an atmosphere eerily evocative of a Soviet interrogation facility seemed too foreign to the experience of what visiting the Frick Collection has always been: an oasis of calm set amidst frenetic activity.
The Breuer Building is one of the ugliest public structures in New York, which is saying something. While it’s always had its defenders — as any manifestation of bad taste set in exposed concrete inevitably does — such individuals are usually the aesthetic descendants of those who thought tearing down old Penn Station was a good idea. (To its credit, however, the recently opened Amtrak annex to the current Penn Station, known as Moynihan Train Hall, is a vast improvement over the Brutalist catacombs across Eighth Avenue, albeit in a Swiss airport terminal sort of way).
To my great surprise, in moving into the Breuer Building, the Frick manages to make something of a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It’s still an oppressive, charmless structure on the outside — a cross between a giant Tetris piece and a Jawa Sandcrawler, but without the fun aspects of either.
Inside, however, the coffered ceilings and plain gallery walls have been painted in deep charcoal and pale dove grays, reducing the overall visual impact of corroded cement, and looking much better atop the original, richly colored slate floors. This dignified color shift has a curious optical effect, in that it draws the eye to the silvery tones in the pictures and objects on display, something we don’t always perceive due to the eye-catching glitter of gilded frames or mounts.
Old favorites from the collection are interestingly easier to see when stripped of their normally luxurious surroundings. Diego Velázquez’s (1599-1660) portrait of King Felipe IV (1644) dressed in pink and silver, for example, hangs in majestic isolation on one wall of a long, stark gallery lined with Spanish masterpieces by El Greco, Goya, and Murillo.
In an alcove, Hans Holbein the Younger’s (c. 1497-1543) iconic, dueling images of Saint Thomas More (1527) and Thomas Cromwell (1532-33) still face each other in perpetual opposition, only now without a gigantic marble fireplace separating them as is the case in the Frick mansion.
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s (1780-1867) portrait of the Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845), tilting her head at the viewer with an intense, but slightly coquettish look, invites passing visitors to enter into a small, cubical room and sit down for a tête-à-tête.
This ability to sit down in relatively spacious surroundings without worrying about knocking something over looks to be a hit with the museum-going public. In a gallery hung with works by Rembrandt (1606-1669), I noticed a half-dozen elderly New Yorkers sitting on a bench in front of the master’s “Self-Portrait” (1658) and “The Polish Rider” (c. 1665), discussing and comparing the two. Giovanni Bellini’s famous “St. Francis in the Desert” (c. 1476-78) now occupies its own, darkly painted room, with a long bench and plenty of space in which to maneuver.
There’s a noteworthy, hushed tone as you enter this space, with visitors sitting in meditation and others standing back in reflection, giving it an almost chapel-like feel that is loosely appropriate to the painting. At the same time, it’s perhaps a bit too “Blade Runner” of an experience, thanks to a strangely shaped window that provides the only natural daylight. Fortunately, just like at the mansion, no photographs are allowed in this or indeed any of the galleries at Frick Madison, allowing at least some degree of sobriety to prevail.
Decorative items in the installation are typically grouped in multiples of similar types, rather than being spread out for display on individual pieces of furniture. Thus, two walls in one gallery are covered with examples of rare Chinese porcelains displayed on brackets, one climbing above another.
In another area just opposite a bank of elevators, Italian Renaissance marble busts of three young women seem to be waiting for whoever alights on their floor. While only a selection of objects from the collection is on display at Frick Madison, what is shown is a tantalizing preview of some of the beautiful things that we’ll be able to enjoy when the museum moves back into its newly renovated, significantly expanded home.
The Frick will be in its current digs for at least the next two years. One of the highlights of the ambitious but well-thought-out plans includes converting the upstairs bedrooms of the mansion, which were never previously accessible to visitors, into additional exhibition space for objects in the permanent collection.
An educational center and large auditorium for events (such as the excellent lectures featured on Frick’s YouTube channel) will be built as well. Overall ADA accessibility will be improved, and mechanical and other systems last updated in the 1930s will be replaced. By the time its stay on Madison Avenue comes to an end, the Frick Collection will have added tens of thousands of new or repurposed square feet to its exhibition, educational, and conservation spaces on Fifth Avenue.
For those of us who choose to venture back into Manhattan, a visit to Frick Madison shakes up the familiar in interesting, creatively conceived ways. At the same time, we’re never made to forget that these are indeed exceptionally rare and often striking works of art, made all the more invaluable because we haven’t been able to see them for so long.
While there’s no question that all of these beautiful things look much better in an equally beautiful building, preferably against backgrounds such as silk damask and walnut paneling, the present situation will more than do for the time being.
Frick Madison is now open, but advance ticketing is required; please visit The Frick Collection at http://frick.org for more details.