The new headquarters of the Frick Collection is a challenge that invites you to contemplate with different eyes a centenary set. In the usual relationship established between the viewer and the work, he introduces a third element: space. The 400 pieces that the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919) treasured for decades have moved only five blocks, but they have taken a colossal leap in time: from the neoclassical mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York, his permanent headquarters —Closed for a reform that will last two years—, to the minimalist building of a Bauhaus disciple, the Hungarian Marcel Breuer, exponent of architectural brutalism, a movement of the last century that is characterized by emphasizing the expressive nature of the materials used. A giant leap from the golds, mirrors and marbles of the past, to a palette of grays that surrenders to concrete.
The Breuer building, completed in 1966 as the headquarters of the Whitney Museum and later (temporary, also) appendix of the Metropolitan, lets it breathe in the diverse Frick collection, made up of superb paintings, but also bibelots, Chinese, decorative arts, Indian rugs or various sculptures. The opulent Fifth Avenue mansion seemed the perfect fit for the miscellany, reflecting the eclectic taste of the industrial gentry of the late 19th century in America and the period of expansion known as the Golden Age, but the new home of the Frick Madison —By the name of the avenue where it is found— formulates a radical change of register.
Because, far from limiting itself to housing the pieces, like so many other museums, it encourages the interaction between them and the space: a gray area, made of plastered cement and almost blind, except for a few trapezoidal windows that operate as frames. Against a muted background, the magenta of the portrait of Saint Jerome del Greco seems to summon the cardinals that Francis Bacon painted four centuries later, while the gallantry of Fragonard and his Love progress (1771-1772) flutters as if the elusive New York spring had definitely entered the room where it is exhibited —a VIP, with a window to the street.
With the move to the Madison Avenue building, the Frick collection has gained space, in every way. In comfort – painters like Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Vermeer have a room each – but also in margins, something vital when capacity is limited to 25% due to the pandemic. Despite the abundant influx of public – the museum has just opened its doors – there is enough distance to wander through its rooms. Xavier F. Salomon, deputy director of the museum, and Peter Jay Sharp, chief curator, explain that “the building has been a great influence for the new exhibition, it is a perfect marriage between the architecture of Marcel Breuer and the Frick collection. The current selection, ”they add,“ focuses on the highlights of the collection. Almost 300 works are shown, and this is a selection of what is usually exhibited in the house ”, that is, the permanent headquarters, the home of the tycoon.
Although the move had been planned long before the pandemic, the slowdown in daily life and mobility restrictions resulted in some inconvenience. “The pandemic has certainly complicated the process, but we are very happy with the end result and, despite some additional challenges, we have achieved what we planned and on schedule,” continue Solomon and Jay Sharp. The renovation of the original mansion was approved by the New York City Council’s architectural landmarks commission in 2018.
Throughout three floors, arranged chronologically and by region, the works unfold as a succinct review of the history of universal art. There is overrepresentation of periods and schools like the Dutch one, both portraitists and landscape painters; or of the great British portraitists of the second half of the 18th century. Constable and Turner, rivals in life, are condemned to understand each other in the room where three of their majestic landscapes hang. The Spanish representation is reduced: nine canvases by El Greco, Goya, Murillo and Velázquez. From the Goya chamber painter to the pictorial testament of Forge, a single wall is enough to summarize the modernity of his legacy. The presence of Impressionist painters is even more scarce, barely half a dozen works, while the clothing of the figures of James McNeill Whistler, with their own room, allows us to presage the clothes in which Klimt dressed his paintings.
The architectural sobriety of the Breuer building allows the aforementioned Fragonard series to show off in all its splendor – commissioned by King Louis XV for his last mistress, Madame du Barry, and rejected with disdain for her – thanks to the large window that presides over the room . A second work in the collection also stands out for the impact of natural light (which allows the metamorphosis of the painting according to the hours of the day): the San Francisco in the desert by Giovanni Bellini, the only piece in a room with another colossal window. Painted in the late 1470s for a remote church on the Venetian lagoon, the painting, also known as Saint Francis in ecstasy, receives the light from the outside as a mana that eases the transition of the saint.
Fragonard and Bellini are shown as the crown jewels of the new Frick Madison thanks to the natural light that floods them, but it is also a visual spectacle to contemplate the symbiosis of space and the tiniest piece. As Ian Wardropper, director of the institution, has pointed out, “the new location has inspired new perspectives.” A spatial renaissance for venerable works that, thanks to a simple move, seem to have also returned from time.