Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Frick Breuer

I must admit I do not miss a great deal about New York.  In old age I do not need to be doing something every second of every day.  In Santa Fe we have a number of museums and some are excellent in their niche fields such as The Georgia O’Keeffe or the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, but you are not going to find any Old Masters or European art.  For our fix we need to go to the big city and New York is one of the best.

We advise anyone going to the Metropolitan Museum to plan before they go and just pick one or two departments to visit.  If you try to see it all you will find when you leave that you have retained little.

For me the best museum from which I can retain the most is a small institution and if there is context it makes it even easier.  One of the best of this kind of institution is The Frick Collection In New York.  It is such a fixture in the New York art scene that it is easy to forget that it is essentially the creation of one man, Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919). chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company.  Being in the steel business he lived in Pittsburgh but in 1905 moved to New York where he built the mansion that is now the museum for 5 million dollars.  This would be about $155,000,000 in today’s dollars.  As my father would have said, “For some people their entire fortune!

Though he started late, in his 40’s, Frick became a great collector in an era when masterpieces of European art were readily available. There have been a number of renovations to his mansion on Fifth and 70th street but now, 85 years after its opening to the public, the entire collection has been moved out for a major updating and expansion of the building.

Where is the collection moving to you ask? Just 5 blocks away to the former Whitney Museum built by the architect, Marcel Breuer.  It would make no sense to try to recreate the rooms of the Frick in this cold, cold Brutalist building.  Instead, the Director and curators  are using this opportunity to present the collection in a new light, grouping works according to chronology and Nationality.

Last week I had the privilege of speaking with Ian Wardropper, who is approaching his tenth year as Director of the Frick, as he was touring what will be the Frick’s quarters for the next two years. We have known Ian for close to 50 years, from the time he was a, intern and then a Fellow at the Metropolitan, to heading the Art Institute of Chicago’s then sprawling department that ranged from European Sculpture to Egyptian antiquities, before coming back to the Met as head of the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. 

The installation in the Breuer building may be a shock to those who know and love the traditional installation in the Frick Mansion but there are advantages. For once their three Rembrandt’s will be together as will all their Spanish pictures. They will have a space to put all the panels of their Fragonard series on view. There will be one room with about a dozen pieces from their wonderful collection of French 18th century furniture and a similar number of pieces of Sèvres.

They are doing another ceramic room where East meets West where you will be able to see Chinese porcelain next to Japanese porcelain next to Meissen and Sèvres. That will be interesting since the European tradition in porcelain is born from a desire to imitate the Chinese.

When you move a work of art in a museum or in your own home your perspective changes and you notice things you never noticed before.  For some time, the attribution of one of my Favorite Rembrandts, “The Polish Rider” was being questioned.  Now you will be able to make up your own mind when you see three great Rembrandts next to each other.  

I am sure there will be those who think this temporary Breuer installation is far better for understanding individual works and there will be those, like me, who won’t be able to wait until the art goes back to where it belongs in the Frick Mansion. Either way, having this changed perspective will add to our understanding of the collection.

I will leave you with this, -- Ian told me there were only between 1400 and 1500 works of art in the entire Frick Collection, while at the Met his department alone had 60,000 pieces. Quality counts far more than numbers.  When the Frick Breuer opens early in the New Year, I urge you to go and let me know what you think. I will be jealous until I can travel again and see it for myself!

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