Gray Eminence

Anne Higonnet on the Frick Madison

View of the Frick Madison featuring Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1476–78, with a trapezoidal window conceived by Marcel Breuer. Photo: Joe Coscia.

ON THE FACE OF IT, the reinstallation of selected works of art from the Frick Collection in the Breuer building at 875 Madison Avenue provides a refreshing change. After as much as a century in the same setting, masterpieces once embedded in a Gilded Age mansion are now out on their own. Hung on the plain walls of a concrete Brutalist icon, spaced apart from each other, paintings, sculptures, porcelains, two rugs, and some great eighteenth-century French furniture have temporarily jettisoned the ornate wood paneling, lavish curtain window treatments, and decorous fountain courtyard of what was once Henry Clay Frick’s private home. 

The installation in the mansion was never truly domestic. It was always a calculated effect of domesticity. Nor was it permanent. A few objects were occasionally swapped in and out of even the two most sacrosanct Frick spaces: the Fragonard Room and the Living Hall, where real-life antagonists Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell faced off in portraits by Holbein on either side of the hearth (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Frick style). Professional curators have been adding to the original collection steadily since the founder’s death. Nonetheless, the atmosphere at the Frick had always felt reassuringly familiar and steady to its denizens. The sort of person who loves the Frick (myself included) is the sort of person who likes repeat visits, who thinks of favorite art as old friends. 

Differences between the old Frick mansion and the new Frick Madison will feel most bracing to those museumgoers who identify with the words devotee and connoisseur. For them, the Frick Madison is a kind of test about a test: Which old friends measure up to standards of greatness when they are no longer supported by subordinate arts or by the aura of personal possession? Highest marks go to Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy, ca. 1476–78. In a stroke of installation genius, Bellini’s revelation of nature with a magically golden light hangs all by itself in a room accompanied only by a Breuer window. Thus paired, the window feels as though it were carved through thick stone by a slanting sunray. We and St. Francis are transfixed, as if at a spiritual dawn suddenly realizing the wonder in every vine leaf, every stone, every grazing donkey, every rabbit peeking out of a wall.

Lowest marks go to Fragonard’s Progress of Love, 1771–72. When the panels were parts of the organic whole that was the Fragonard Room, they appeared charming and witty, playing on the borders between nature and artifice, porcelain pink and embroidered rose, rococo mirrors and Fifth Avenue windows. In the austere Frick Madison, they look silly, and their companion Hollyhock panels, which the Frick says it was sad to have kept in storage, should have stayed in storage. With no labels on the walls to identify objects, just author and title on the gilt frames, this is a test you were supposed to be prepared for. 

It might be churlish to quibble with any tactic that keeps the Frick’s best art out in public view. The mansion is having service spaces tactfully added to its iconic galleries, a renovation that will take at least two years. All fans of the Met must feel gratitude and relief that it has been allowed to pull out gracefully from its insanely self-destructive lease of the Breuer building by the Frick’s move. The Met’s exhibitions there were important, but they could all have happened within the Fifth Avenue building and spared the Met a crippling extravagance that it must rue now that Covid-19 has inflicted unavoidable financial losses. 

And yet I could not help feeling that the installation in the Frick mansion was more honest. There, it was absolutely clear how Henry Clay Frick’s ruthless capitalist exploitation of labor, together with his devastatingly toxic industrial manufacturing, purchased transcendent beauty. In his mansion, we knew who pays for what, and who gives back to the public domain in exchange for public gratitude. 

View of construction of the Henry Clay Frick Residence, One East Seventieth Street, looking south from the northwest corner, October 2, 1913. Photo: the Frick Collection.

At the Frick Madison, the exquisite shades of gray on the walls and the organization of paintings into the traditional categories of painting history—“French School,” “Italian School,” “Dutch School”—felt like the opposite of neutral. Here, racial hierarchies are naturalized by hierarchies of media. The only art objects by non-European people belong to a category that art history disdainfully calls “decorative”: porcelains and rugs. In my two hours in the galleries, all but one of the people of color I saw were hired guards.

To me, the lesson of the Frick Madison is not so much that some modes of installation are more neutral than others, but rather that we can move works of art from any context to another if we want to. Many permanent museum collections might feel brand-new if their installation were changed as much as the Frick’s has just been, though perhaps the change could be taken in a more innovative direction. No matter how we install art, we are telling a story about it. This is no less true of masterpiece paintings than of the so-called decorative arts. The only question now is which stories we want to tell.

Intellectually, the most daring moves at the Frick Madison gesture toward an equality among media. A few rugs are framed and hung on walls. The placement of some porcelains on all-gray ledges above bureaus and tables hints discreetly at their intended original placement on furniture while (literally) elevating them and granting them visual autonomy. I doubt, however, whether merely drawing attention to inert usable objects will ever do them justice. The wit and self-referentiality that characterizes the best usable objects in all media are often revealed in the using of them, which is, of course, the cleverest part of the joke. 

Which brings us back to those Fragonard panels, which haven’t been allowed at the Frick Madison to do what they do best: pun on being panels ensconced in moldings that alternate with mirrors and windows in a room with views on a garden. We would appreciate many sorts of world-class objects much better if, rather than isolating them, we activated them. Anyone who believes that theatrical re-creations of use or wizardly digital simulacra do not belong in serious museum galleries might consider whether they just haven’t noticed the sleights of hand museums have always used.

By all means, go to the Frick Madison. Dream there of every work of art you’ve ever loved telling a new, bigger, better story about who we are.

Anne Higonnet is a professor of art history at Barnard College of Columbia University and the author of several books and many essays on art since 1650, on childhood, and on collecting.