NEW YORK — The only issue to really ever confront visitors at New York’s Frick Collection is where to start: Fragonard or Rembrandt? Bellini or Holbein? Titian or Van Dyck? Velázquez, Goya, or Vermeer — my lord, how many Vermeers?
Unrepentantly opulent and languidly apolitical — depending, I suppose, on how you feel about union-busting robber baron industrialists, which Henry Clay Frick surely was — the Frick Collection has always been an island of unadulterated indulgence. This is not a place for hand-wringing on the contemporary implications of Eurocentric culture, very much the issue of our day. No, the Frick is now and always has been about pleasure, a fantasyland for old-master purists. How pure? For most of its 86-year existence — including right now — the Frick has barred entry to children under age 10. Imagine another American museum, in this era of art-as-education and mandates to expand and cultivate new audiences, getting away with that.
That much has never changed, though everything else has. Frick’s Upper East Side mansion, converted to a museum in 1935, is being renovated for the next two years, so the collection moved to the old home of the Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue. The building is everything the Frick manse is not: squat and boxy, imposing and unadorned. At home, the collection settled into Frick’s extravagant domesticity, with much of the household furniture still sitting on plush carpets amid dark, dark woods, with towering ceilings fitted with gilded moldings that look lifted from a palace. The paintings, at least to me, were left to compete with the gobsmacking decadence of the place. (”Good lord, someone lived here,” was a thought never far from my mind.)
It was always a vicarious guilty pleasure; as much as it shared with the public — and good on Frick for doing so — the museum was a monument to a man and his wealth as much as a home for the masterpieces that lined his walls. (He could have bequeathed his collection to the museum of his choosing, any of them more than happy to move heaven and earth to receive them. He didn’t, which I think says a lot.)
With the renovation (will the hunter green carpets finally go?), the Frick could have packed up and shut down. Instead, it took a two-year lease at the Marcel Breuer-designed Whitney. The building’s most recent tenant, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, embraced it as a contemporary annex in 2016 with an initial eight-year lease. But as the pandemic wore on, the Met decamped in 2020. (The short-lived Met Breuer’s last gasp, a gargantuan retrospective of the great German painter Gerhard Richter, fell victim to the first wave of COVID-fueled shutdowns last March, just eight days after opening.)
And so, into the museum-standard concrete shell slipped the Frick, opening early last month. Might we expect some friction from the decidedly old-guard Frick rubbing up against the new-world skin of Breuer’s bulky stack of concrete boxes? You’d think, but wait. The building opened in 1966, and the Whitney spent 48 years in its cold embrace before abandoning it in 2015 for airy downtown digs designed by Renzo Piano. Even to me, a fan of Brutalism, Breuer’s Whitney could feel like a death grip. The complex installation work and rigorous contemporary socio-political content of the many Whitney Biennials I saw there, amid its tomblike walls, often left me feeling depleted. (Or in the case of Paul McCarthy’s ghastly “Santa’s Chocolate Shop,” which I saw there in 1997, scarred for life.)
When the Met moved in, it re-inaugurated the space with “Mastry,” the spellbinding career retrospective of painter Kerry James Marshall. Something clicked: Paintings worked here. (I might have felt the same way had I made it to Richter’s show in the five minutes it was open.) So it was only a little surprising when I stepped off the Frick Madison’s fifth-floor elevators and felt immediately embraced. The Frick’s exquisite, particular collection shifted the building from oppressive to intimate — much more so than the actual Frick, where its patron’s home always left me powerfully distracted. (Really, someone lived here.)
This is Breuer’s building in its best iteration, as a clarifying device. Loosed of its gilded cage, the Frick Collection is now just that: a collection, liberated to shine. There are no labels or even titles, no words on walls anywhere. (A spectacular user-friendly app does all that work for you, with detailed floorplans and images and descriptions of each and every work, many accompanied by an audio guide voiced most often with velvety aplomb by chief curator Xavier Salomon.)
The occasionally awkward confines of some galleries enforce close-looking. I felt almost too close to Fragonard’s very large “Progress of Love” series on the fourth floor, until I realized what a luxury it was. I felt surrounded, locked in its dewy, soft-focus embrace.
Small vignettes made for guided-but-not-prescriptive viewing: On the second floor, Hans Holbein’s “Sir Thomas More” portrait, from 1527, is a baffling work of illusive mastery, from its subject’s intensely stern expression to the dizzying glint of his silky garb. (The Frick published a recent book on its collection, “The Sleeve Should Be Illegal: & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick”; this is that sleeve.) It hangs alongside Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell — More’s nemesis in the court of King Henry VIII, and the man who brought about More’s execution at the King’s command. With its icy tones, the Cromwell portrait is cold to More’s red hot, a standoff of rivals in paint.
The building’s slate floors (on some levels) and concrete walls make it feel at times like a stone castle, which nicely suited a dazzling suite of works by Veronese and Bronzino on level three, each floating in their own distinct pool of light amid the cool gray surfaces. Nearby, a small anteroom with one of Breuer’s angular slashes of window let in a wash of daylight where Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert,” from the 1470s, hung all alone. It felt like communion at an altar, a high-Modern holy place, a conduit to the ages.
It was strange to see it here, after all this time. An indisputable masterwork — it’s neck and neck whether the Frick’s Bellini or Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” at the Gardner Museum, is the greatest Renaissance work on American soil, according to chief curators from both museums — “St. Francis” is a bellwether of the Early Renaissance in Italy, and a pivot-point to its 16th-century High period. It’s a standard; I’ve probably seen it in person a dozen times. Here, in this space, it felt like the first.
In that way, the Frick Madison is a bona fide stroke of genius. Whether it was a move of convenience — the Breuer bunker is a half-dozen blocks from home — or a visionary moment, I can’t say. But I haven’t experienced the uncomplicated pleasure of old-master paintings like this in a long time. Let us not forget Rembrandt — three works, anchored by a glimmering self-portrait of the artist in his final years. Or the triumvirate of Vermeers — about one-11th of the 34 known to exist on the planet — in a nook purpose-built for them.
But if I have to pick favorites — and with something so sumptuous, you do — it’s the gallery devoted to Spanish painting. In that long, low-lit space, the Breuer performs what is perhaps its best architectural act. All is gray and stone, muted and cold. Each of the works has broad expanses of wall, with several strides between them. They hold their ground beautifully. Francisco Goya’s “The Forge” from 1818, a rough and muscular painting of workers straining to coax form from molten metal, sets a mildly threatening tone. The painting is big, at a scale usually reserved for religious imagery, with the artist’s vigorous brushwork apparent. It sits alongside a pair of small Goya portraits, inscrutable and mysterious, as he often was.
Goya, quick to insert his views on the social and political inequities of 19th-century Spain, makes a provocative pair with Velázquez’s 1644 portrait of King Phillip IV of Spain, which hangs on a wall all its own, the unmistakable star of the show. It’s a portrait I hesitate to call heroic. The king seems weary, his face sallow; he posed for the piece in the midst of a battle with the French. It’s an impossibly nuanced gaze, the kind that haunts you for hours and days. It’s believed to have been the favorite of Frick himself. It’s not hard to see why. Here, it commands a room of his countrymen under low light. It feels sharp-focused. Nothing gets in the way. It’s the art, and you.
Jane Jacobs, in her iconic book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” advocated giving old buildings new lives. That way, she reasoned, we become neither prisoners of history nor victims of scorched earth policies like urban renewal. The Frick has strained at expansion in recent years, the old mansion now as big as its grounds — and its neighbors — will allow. (The renovation will modestly expand gallery space without increasing footprint.) Might the Frick Madison evolve into a test-drive for a longer-term solution — a new use for an old, maligned Breuer landmark that may finally have found its true calling? Seeing what I did, it should.
THE FRICK MADISON
945 Madison Ave., New York. 212-288-0700, frick.org/madison