On the afternoon of March 4th, I became one of the very first people to experience Frick Madison, the Frick Collection’s new installation in the Whitney Museum’s former home at 945 Madison Avenue. The Frick will inhabit the Marcel Breuer-designed Brutalist structure for about two years while its iconic Fifth-Avenue space gets a renovation and expansion.
Ever since announcing its plans to inhabit the Breuer building, the Frick has promised that the temporary move will provide a different perspective on its storied collection. Nobody familiar with both the Frick mansion’s refined domestic atmosphere and the Breuer building’s stark minimalism could ever question that the two experiences would be radically different, but in what ways? I couldn’t even begin to guess what the result would be.
The Frick Madison Experience
I arrived slightly skeptical as to whether all this talk of new discoveries and altered perspectives would actually pan out, but I left convinced beyond all anticipation. Frick Madison quite literally shines new light on familiar and beloved works of art. This seemingly-unlikely combination of historical art and avant-garde architecture actually shows both to great advantage. The Frick’s isn’t a collection you visit to feel surprised; you return to commune with the expected and familiar. But at Frick Madison, you some of both.
Unlike the arrangement on Fifth Avenue, Frick Madison displays artworks according to time and place. The second floor holds northern European paintings, most notably the Rembrandts and Vermeers. The third floor includes Italian and Spanish paintings, as well as galleries dedicated to bronze sculpture, porcelain, and Indian carpets. The fourth floor shows French and British artworks, undoubtedly the collection’s strongest features. This grouping of like objects – by geography, era, genre, and individual artist – is standard at most other museums, but it’s almost surprising here. The often-overlooked bronzes and porcelains, in particular, definitely benefit from this treatment. I’m not sure if I really learned anything new by seeing all the English portraits or French Impressionists together, except to notice that the collection is abundant in the former and scant in the latter. However, the simple act of shaking up the usual arrangement encouraged and even forced me to look anew.
It was fun to see familiar faces in this unexpected setting, a bit like running into friends while out of town. Some favorites, like Titian’s Pietro Aretino, come as a surprise at the turn of a corner. Others, such as Rembrandt’s Self Portrait and Ingres’s Countess d’Haussonville, command sight lines that make them visible from far away. I was happy to see the Barbet Angel, a medieval bronze sculpture usually overlooked in the Garden Court, get a place of honor after being featured in an early episode of the Frick’s hit YouTube series Cocktails with a Curator. Bellini’s always-beloved St. Francis in the Desert, meanwhile, merits its very own gallery.
When I say that the Breuer building sets the Frick in a new light, I mean that quite literally. The building’s iconic trapezoidal windows let in abundant natural light far beyond what the Frick mansion gets on even the sunniest days. The galleries’ light grey walls and spacious proportions contribute to the brightness as well. In many cases, I truly felt like I was seeing these artworks for the first time because they were just so much more visible. Different paintings stand out this way. I’m usually a great devotee of Rembrandt’s Self Portrait and The Polish Rider, two dramatic paintings that look spectacular on Fifth Avenue. Here, however, Rembrandt’s lighter and more cheerful portrait Nicolaes Ruts completely stole my attention instead. All over, personalities shine out from the portraits like they never did before.
The galleries in the Breuer building are wide and tall, giving plenty of room for the collection to spread out. Every artwork, from large to small, gets its own generous space and completely dominates it. Rather than dwarfing the works, these larger galleries make them seem lager, too. In front of almost every painting, I found myself thinking “I had no idea this was so big!” Even the small and medium-sized works gain grandeur in this context.
Almost all of the usual Frick favorites appear here. The only absence I noticed was the Boucher paintings of children practicing the liberal arts. (They are some of my favorites, and I quite missed them.) But there are also some inclusions you might not recognize, such as two delightful pastel portraits by Rosalba Carriera and a pair of sumptuous Indian carpets that have long been in storage. The former are exciting new additions to the museum’s slim holdings in works by female artists. In several other cases, I couldn’t be sure if a work hadn’t been displayed on Fifth Avenue, or I had simply overlooked it in that environment.
Overall, the exhibition design is simple and straightforward. The Frick Collection has always been a very easy museum to enjoy, with a natural flow and manageable amount to take in. Frick Madison retains those qualities but is otherwise completely different. Without the trappings of a Gilded Age domestic interior, the focus is firmly on the artwork. Frick Madison won’t put you in the contemplative mood we’ve come to expect on Fifth Avenue, but it arguably presents a better atmosphere to appreciate the artwork. I imagine that it might feel more approachable to some people, too. I enjoy the Frick mansion’s tranquility and refinement, but I really like the more art-centric Frick Madison experience, too.
Just as the Breuer building flatters the Frick Collection, the Frick Collection also flatters the Breuer building. Elegant, old-fashioned artworks soften this Brutalist structure. As the Whitney, the Breuer building often seemed harsh and unfriendly to me; as the Frick Madison, it feels sophisticated and welcoming. It reminds me of the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, two similarly-modern museum buildings that live in harmony with their historical contents. Beyond the three levels of galleries, the Breuer building’s ground floor is a spacious lobby and gift shop, while the lower level contains an over-priced but tasty coffee shop with a lovely sunken courtyard for seating.
Frick Madison opens to the public on March 18, 2021. It is located at 945 Madison Avenue (75th St. and Madison Ave.) in New York City. Presently, the museum plans to be open from Thursday through Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm by advanced ticket. You can purchase tickets, find out about all the health and safety measures, and more on the Frick Collection’s website.