The Frick Madison

Edification value
Entertainment value
Should you go?
Time spent 210 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Bellini’s wonderful St. Francis in the Desert now has a room to itself, angled to one of the Breuer’s weird, skewed windows such that the light hits it exactly the way the light in the painting works. It’s like Bellini knew back in the 1470s that someday this room would exist, or like Breuer knew someday this painting would be in this spot. It gave me chills. Also, St. Francis in the Desert has one of the best oblivious donkeys in all of art.

Have you ever had a dear old friend, tell you that they planned to change up their entire look? Style, hair, clothes, the way they present themselves…the whole shebang. Have you ever worried that, even though you know they’ll be the same person underneath the superficial changes, you might like them… less? Maybe tried to talk them out of it? “You’re awesome just as you are! Don’t go changing!”

This has never happened to me with a person, but it’s very much how I reacted when the Frick Collection announced that while Stately Frick Manor is closed for a major renovation and expansion, Mr. Frick’s art would be on view in Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist building, originally home to the Whitney and lately venue for the Met’s experimental, defunct Met Breuer effort.

There’s no overstating the magnitude of the change, the cognitive shock of Henry Clay Frick’s lovely, genteel, incredibly tasteful collection of masterpieces recontextualized out of the home that’s been its home for over a century, and re-installed in one of the least friendly buildings in New York City. 

I feel like I should hate it. To be brutal(ist)ly honest, I wanted to hate it.

I loved it.

Possibly this is because it was my first art museum visit in 4 months. Maybe I was just starved for art…maybe you could’ve showed me anything and I would’ve gone into raptures. But I don’t think so.

Space: The Final Frontier

The clearest benefit of the move to the Breuer building is a ton of square footage to play with. I wonder if the Frick curators toyed with the idea of keeping everything more or less “where it was” — recreating the mansion’s rooms in the Breuer space. Like what they did with the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. That would have been a terrible idea. Probably.

Instead, for the first time ever, the Frick collection is arranged chronologically and thematically. That sort of pedagogy is out of fashion in museums and seems very retro, but it makes tons of sense, and it feels new, because we’ve never been able to see this art this way before.

For example, the Vermeers are in one place, creating arguably the best single roomful of art in New York City (prove me wrong!). Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More now glare eye to eye, no fireplace or stern St. Jerome separating them. I never realized how many Van Dycks the Frick Collection had til I saw them all in one place.

The extra space also creates more breathing room between pieces. As a result, there’s less sensory overload, and so more ability to focus. Works that were second-tier Frick treasures get attention, and the Frick’s best pieces get showcased in ways the mansion doesn’t allow.

What’s more, things that were perviously part of the scenery — the porcelains, the bronzes, the carpets — now get spotlights, literally, thrown on them. The porcelain room is a particular delight, and its very contemporary design made me stop and pay attention to those pieces in a way I never have before.

The other remarkable change is you can get closer to some pieces now, and the heights and sight lines are different. It’s a literal shift of perspective. To wit, I’ve never been a fan of the froufrou Fragonard room with its insipid cherubs. It’s still definitely not my fave, but seeing its panels anew on Madison, rearranged, I realized that at least some of those cherubs are violent. And therefore a little edgy.

What’s Stayed The Same

In terms of things that haven’t changed, the Frick has retained its no-photos policy. While I deeply respect that, this is an utterly photogenic, super-Instagrammable experience. Visitors will be tempted!

Also, The Frick’s retained its no-wall-text philosophy. You can pick up a free guide, or download a reasonably good Bloomberg-sponsored app, but if you want, it can be just you and the art. I admire that.

A Whole New World

The best art makes you see the world in a new way, and the best museums make you see art in a new way. However, for a place like the Frick, there are few opportunities (outside of their jewel-box special exhibitions) to let people see the collection anew. That’s okay when you’re as perfect as the Frick. But perfection breeds inertia, and a resistance to innovate. It takes some doing to overcome that.

I’m surprised at how pithy my original, 2017 Frick review is. But it says what it needed to say: Everyone needs to go to the Frick. And I wish it would never change.

The Frick Madison forces me to rethink part of that conclusion. Everyone definitely needs to go to the Frick Madison, most especially people who know and love the original. And I stand happily corrected about the “never change” part. I can’t wait to go back.

For Reference:

Address 945 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Website https://www.frick.org/
Cost  General Admission:  $22. Advance tickets required
Other Relevant Links
  • Details on the Frick building project are here.