At the Frick Madison, as it’s been styled, the collection comes directly to the fore; both revealing its richesse and its oversights. (Focused on the tastes of one very rich steel-and-coke man, the collection is, all things considered, pretty narrow in scope.) Moving through the galleries, with their staid gray backdrops and minimal identifying details—like on 70th Street, there are no wall texts here, so you’d do well to use the Frick’s audio guide on the Bloomberg Connects app—one can’t help but see the works differently. Ignore, if you can, the “dings” from the elevator, and you just may find yourself absorbed by a piece that once rather faded into the damask. There’s no jostling for space in this building, or competing for attention with a molding or a Renaissance-era couch. The breathing room abounds, serving up an altogether different kind of splendor.
While working on the building, Breuer told the Whitney’s leadership that a Manhattan museum “should transform the vitality of the street into the sincerity and profundity of art,” and indeed, he managed to create a sense of lightness and brightness to revitalizing effect. There are, in the old Frick as here, certain obvious highlights: Fragonard’s The Progress of Love panels in full, glorious flower; Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, bathed in the light of one of Marcel Breuer’s famous trapezoidal windows; Rembrandt’s magisterial self-portrait. But quite suddenly, I could hardly tear myself away from Titian’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap; I was dazzled by the red-ringed eyes of the mourners in Gerard David’s The Deposition, and by Hans Holbein’s crazy velvet sleeve in Sir Thomas More; I loved the funny, little faces (and the ducks!) in Turner’s The Harbor of Dieppe: Changement de Domicile, and the curl of Julia, Lady Peel’s hair in a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. And goodness, where had Chardin’s Still Life with Plums, so tidy and splendid, been hiding? And the 17th-century Indian carpets? I’d seen—even studied!—so many of these artworks before, but never quite like this.
Stretching over two consecutive weekends, the Member Preview days seemed to me an important test of the Frick Madison experiment; those people had some stake in the place—however small—and would likely share my strong feelings. Well, one remark I overheard seemed as useful (and telling) a summarizing thought as any: “Are you as impressed as I am?”
The Frick Madison opens to the public on March 18. See here for tickets and other visiting information.