After three years’ planning, the Frick Collection has just reopened in Marcel Breuer’s Brutalist 945 Madison Avenue, on lease from the Met while the historic East 70th Street mansion undergoes renovation. We talked to chief curator Xavier F. Salomon about this extraordinary marriage of Modernism and old masters.
Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator
Image courtesy of The Frick Collection; photo: Joe Coscia
You’ve had to move the Frick Collection out of its historic home for renovation. What does that involve?
Xavier Salomon: It’s both a renovation and an enhancement project, which will take a couple of years. While doing the renovation, we’re going to make some discreet new additions that will allow us to have a proper temporary-exhibition space, as well as a new lecture theater and offices. Our current offices will move out of the second floor of the mansion to make way for ten extra galleries where we can display a lot more of the collection. Our initial idea was to keep the house open and do the renovation and expansion in phases, but that proved impossible. Once it became clear we’d have to close, we started conversations with a number of New York museums to see if we might borrow space to display at least a small selection of highlights. It soon became apparent that the Met and the Whitney were keen to come to an agreement with us over the Breuer Building, which belongs to the Whitney and is on lease to the Met for eight years — we’re now subletting for the final three. All our offices and our entire collection, including storage, have moved to the Breuer Building. Everything is on a single site five blocks from home. It’s a pretty ideal situation under the circumstances.
What percentage of what’s usually on show at the mansion can you display at the Breuer?
X. S. That’s a good question, to which we don’t have a very precise answer. The collection counts around 1,500 objects, but that includes every sofa, carpet and saucer, not to mention the medals. The Breuer has more or less the same wall space as the Frick, so all the masterpieces and key works are on view, but there’s far less household furniture and fewer minor objects. The only great work of art that didn’t come over is Houdon’s Diana, which is too fragile to move.
You’re showing a house-museum collection in a building from a completely different era that wasn’t at all conceived for it. How did you approach this rather extraordinary piece of architecture?
X. S. The Breuer is one of those buildings that New Yorkers love to hate. Personally I think it’s a masterpiece, the only significant Brutalist building in Manhattan, but when it opened, in 1966, reactions were very mixed — the art and architecture world loved it, but the general public thought it was some sort of spaceship. Like the Centre Pompidou, it’s a building people react very strongly to. Indeed moving the Frick into the Breuer is rather like moving the Musée Jacquemart-André into the Pompidou, or London’s Wallace Collection into the Barbican. Breuer designed the building to show contemporary art — blank white walls, very open spaces. That works beautifully for contemporary art, but not so well with old masters. What we’ve tried to do is marry the architecture to the collection and vice versa. This is a great encounter between two very different masterpieces: the Frick Collection of old masters and a Modernist architectural landmark. We worked very closely with Annabelle Selldorf, our architect for the enhancement project, and Stephen Saitas, our display designer, on the rehang at the Breuer. Our first question was, “What do we want to highlight in the building?” We talked a lot about materials, and about features such as the beautiful big windows. We decided to make them focal points in the installation, and to avoid materials, colors or textures that were unsympathetic to Breuer’s vision. This is why we’ve painted the galleries in different shades of gray — white isn’t great for old masters, but gray works very well, so we’ve used four different shades. Our pedestals are in gray stucco to imitate concrete. And we’ve kept the original Breuer benches. Once those decisions had been taken, the next question was, “How do you display the collection so that people can see it in a different light.” We could have simply reconstructed the Frick’s rooms at the Breuer, but we felt that was a wasted opportunity.
Which existing museums did you look at when planning the new hang?
X. S. We looked at all sorts of things, including Lina Bo Bardi’s wonderful Museu de Arte de São Paulo, which though Brutalist is very different from the Breuer, two Louis Kahn buildings — the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven —, we traveled to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, a Brutalist structure by a trio of Portuguese architects, and I went to Besançon to look at the museum there, which has a Brutalist addition by Louis Miquel, a disciple of Le Corbusier’s. I think it’s fair to say that the two biggest inspirations were the Kimbell and the Gulbenkian, because of the relationship between the works of art and the architecture — features like the great room of carpets at the Gulbenkian, a space designed around these incredible objects, or the textures at the Kimbell, the play of light on the travertine. A big lesson from both was less is more: they don’t tightly pack the artworks, which are displayed with rhythm on the walls. So from the start we decided to keep it very minimal, the exact opposite of the Frick where everything is tightly juxtaposed in an overwhelming aesthetic experience.
How did you organize the collection in its new home?
X. S. The question we asked ourselves was, “How can we tell the story of the collection?” There were a number of options. We could have hung it according to acquisition history, or divided it into themes like landscape, portraiture and the decorative arts. But what seemed most appropriate, and which had never been done before, was to organize the collection by school and chronology. No one has ever seen all the northern pictures together, all the French pictures together, all the British works next to each other. The next question was, “Now we have these groups of artworks, how do we marry them to the building?” The Breuer has three floors of galleries, but they’re not all the same. The second and third floors have lower ceilings, while the fourth floor is double height. So that already imposes a division on what goes where. Furthermore, the second story has a wooden floor, while the third and fourth levels have stone flooring. So that was the beginning of the idea that the second floor would house northern art — Germany, Flanders, Holland — because the wooden floor has a more northern feel, it’s warmer, it works better for those paintings, but also the ceiling is lower and most of our northern paintings are smaller. On the third floor you’ll find our Italian and Spanish holdings, while on the fourth floor, which is the most monumental, you’ll find British and French works, which are the largest. And then we thought, “We have two windows to play with: a smaller one on the third floor and the giant iconic Breuer window on the fourth floor. What do we put near those windows?” Our immediate feeling was that the most important works of art should go there. On the third floor, a chapel has been built around the window, a squarish room that displays the most important picture in the collection, Bellini’s Saint Francis. A gray room, a Breuer bench, the Breuer window, the Bellini, and nothing else.
Except it is New York outside!
X. S. Exactly. Saint Francis is looking out of the window towards New York, and the light comes through in the same direction as in the picture. The result is extraordinary — it’s like it was designed for that space. I’m just as excited about the fourth-floor window, where I knew I wanted to display the Fragonard Room. But there was a problem, since the original room has two windows and here we have just one. It then occurred to me that this situation would allow us to do something very interesting with respect to the history of Fragonard Room, which in fact comprises two completely different phases of the artist’s work. The first four canvases, known as The Progress of Love, were painted for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame du Barry, to decorate the pavilion built for her by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux at Louveciennes in 1771. But she ended up rejecting them. Twenty years later, Fragonard sold the pictures to his cousin in Grasse, at which time he painted ten new canvases to accompany the original four in their much larger new setting. When you see them at the Frick, they’re all together, and people forget that there’s a 20-year time span here. So we’ve deconstructed the Fragonard Room: the Grasse paintings are in a room by themselves, as are the Louveciennes panels, displayed in the same order as they were in 1771. But instead of Ledoux’s window looking out over the Seine, you have Breuer’s window looking onto Madison Avenue. The paintings hang on gray walls by themselves: you have the four panels, the big window, a Breuer bench, and that’s it. The light is incredible — the whole thing looks unbelievable. It makes you see these pictures in a totally different way.
What about the rest of the collection?
X. S. We thought very hard about the minimalist approach. Whenever we started planning a room, we’d think, “Okay, ten paintings fit in here, but could it be five? Could it be three?” We have rooms that contain only two or three paintings, and there are two that contain just a single object — the Bellini room, and the very first space you enter, on the second floor, where you are greeted by Jean Barbet’s great 15th-century bronze sculpture of an angel, all alone. So certain things are given a lot of space, allowing you to see them very differently. Then there are new juxtapositions you’ve never seen before. All three of our Rembrandts are together in a room by themselves, as are all three of our Vermeers — just one on each wall. We have a room with all eight of our Van Dycks, and another with all of our Whistler portraits.
How did you deal with the decorative arts?
X. S. We’ve grouped them into thematic galleries. We have two very important 17th-century Indian carpets that are no longer shown at the Frick for conservation reasons — they used to be on the floor, but now they need to go in vitrines, and we don’t have space. They’re as important as a Rembrandt or a Vermeer, and we’re showing them here in a room by themselves. Then we have a room full of porcelain, where we’ve mixed up Asian and European pieces to draw attention to the links between them. Most of our Asian porcelain was made for a Western market, and of course European porcelain imitates Asian production, so there’s an interesting dialogue. We’ve displayed it in simple modern shelving, very clean and gray, but the pieces are organized by color. So there’s a wall of pink porcelain, a wall of blue and white, a wall of green and black, which is the way porcelain was displayed in Europe in the 18th century. Then we have a room of bronzes: they used to be rather invisible, since people focused on the paintings and ignored the sculptures underneath them, so having a room full of them brings out just how great the bronze collection at the Frick actually is. There’s also a room of clocks and Limoges enamels, another area in which the collection is extremely strong.
For you, which objects have particularly come to the fore in this new hang?
X. S. My favorite room is the small furniture display on the fourth floor, which contains just four pieces. What I wanted to do was to show furniture like you display artworks. Furniture is often ignored as mere backdrop, but I think people should be looking at it like they look at a painting or a sculpture. This room has a commode and a secretaire made for Marie-Antoinette, our great Gouthière table in blue marble and ormolu, and a French regulator clock, also in ormolu. The influence here was Donald Judd at Marfa, the idea of looking at a single three-dimensional object in a big empty space by itself — a great commode by Riesener is as important as a painting by Fragonard. Though the Breuer display is sparse — the opposite of the Frick mansion —, we’ve preserved an important aspect of the original spirit in that you’re looking at things in a very direct and immediate way. By taking things out of their context, people notice them better. On seeing the new galleries, long-serving colleagues were saying things like, “Was this on view?”, “Was this in storage?”, “I’ve never seen this” — but everything had been on view. Which proves that this rehang is doing exactly what it’s meant to do. We’ve deconstructed the house and really shaken things up!