Books · European Art

The Sleeve Should Be Illegal – A Unique New Book from the Frick

In celebration of the museum’s 85th anniversary, The Frick Collection and DelMonico Books/D.A.P. will soon publish The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick, a book of short essays responding to works in the Frick’s collection. I first got excited about it when I heard several excerpts read during the Frick’s virtual benefit gala in October. More recently, I was lucky enough to receive an early pdf copy in order to write this review. Spoiler alert: I really liked it!

This unique and refreshing volume is unlike almost anything else I’ve read before. Rather than the usual experts, contributors to The Sleeve Should Be Illegal are noted creative figures who are not necessarily in the visual arts. As somebody immersed in art history, I appreciate the opportunity to focus on how artworks make people feel, rather than on the facts and scholarship I usually read about. After all, it was my own reactions to artworks that got me into the field in the first place. Reading this book resembles doing something I’m far too introverted to try in real life – strike up a conversation with strangers at an art museum. It reminds me about art’s meaningful impact in people’s lives and also shows that everybody experiences it differently.

The book includes sixty-one essays by sixty-two contributors. (If you, like me, are unfamiliar with some of them, you can find short biographies in the back.) Their responses cover a multitude of artworks, though some choices are much more popular than others. It’s amazing how the same painting can inspire such wildly-different interpretations, but it’s equally wonderful to learn why somebody chose a more obscure piece. Some of my favorite entries include art writer David Masello’s imagined friendship with Bronzino’s Ludovico Capponi and poet Mark Doty’s imagined psychology behind the sparkling gaze of Van Dyck’s Marchesa Giovanna Cattaneo.

As is only fitting for a book dedicated to the joys of looking at art, The Sleeve Should Be Illegal has wonderful, high-quality images. A detail from the work being discussed accompanies each entry, while smaller images of each work in its entirety appear at the end of the book.

Throughout the volume, the diversity of styles, interpretations, and viewpoints matches the variety of contributors. Many people tell personal stories about their past experiences at the Frick, and these can be quite touching. Some reference other works of art, literature, and culture. Some are highly creative, even poetic, and use words beautifully. Others are straightforward, but not necessarily less enjoyable. It’s incredible to see what rich imaginative lives artworks can inspire! Not every entry resonated with me, but I don’t think that’s a problem. An enjoyable and illuminating read, I recommend savoring The Sleeve Should Be Illegal a little bit at a time.

The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick will be published on January 26, 2021. Pre-order a copy ($29.95) through the Frick’s online museum store.

Many thanks to the Frick Collection and DelMonico Books/D.A.P. for providing me with an advance pdf copy for review! And Happy Birthday to the Frick! My timing in publishing this review on the first day of its 85th anniversary festivities is a very happy coincidence indeed.

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