Our first two weeks in Manhattan post-pandemic put me back in touch with great art. I had no computer and I failed to take notes, so the impressions that follow will be imprecise and subject to correction and emendation when we spend more time in New York in the fall.
The Frick Madison. The big news in our UES neighborhood is the temporary relocation of the Frick collection to the Whitney’s Breuer building on Madison at 75th Street. There you can not only see familiar masterpieces in a new setting, but singled out, and up close and personal. The Bellini has a room of its own, with light from the only window streaming in on St. Francis’s outstretched palms. Three Rembrandts get their own room, as do the four Whistlers. And best of all, the three Vermeers, in a small, intimate space. I went twice and look forward to going many more times. I’ve read recently about “slow-looking,” and artists or critics who spend hours with a single painting. You can’t really do that at the Frick on 70th St., with the crowds, the layout and the furniture, but the presentation at Frick Madison invites that kind of extended experience.
I spent the most time with Vermeer, and most of that with Officer and Laughing Girl (a needlessly terrible title). There is a mystery to all his paintings, which undoubtedly contributes to their appeal. If Vermeer had left diary entries explaining his intended meanings, there would not be so much left to interpret and debate. What is the man’s relationship to the woman? It doesn’t appear they know each other well, although their encounter is fairly intimate. His expression, read from behind, gives nothing away. The “laughing girl,” on the other hand, is bathed in light and is beautiful in an open, wholesome way. Her hands are also, if not welcoming, at least friendly. Whatever is going on, it is not sordid or anything we need to worry or be ashamed about. I don’t need to comment on the formal aspects of the painting itself–Vermeer is perfection–but I will note two details that came from this close contact. Through the far-left pane of the window you could make out the red tile roof of a neighboring house. And there are two tiny triangles of light–inside the officer’s elbow and above the girl’s wrist–that subtly correspond to the scales of the two figures and break up and enliven their masses.
Mistress and Maid, of course, is just as puzzling in its content although very different in style (while still counting as quintessential Vermeer). First, there is the plain brown background–no window, no map on the wall, hardly a chair. The biggest difference, which I’d never noticed before but which is glaringly evident when they are hung together, is the fuzzy focus of Mistress, which was, it is thought, painted ten years after Officer, which is sharp in every detail, nowhere moreso than the girl’s smiling face. The latter painting invites close inspection, while the former is better viewed from a distance, standing behind the bench in the cozy gallery. Girl Interrupted at Her Music, meanwhile, is not without interest but comes off a poor third in this company.
Seeing the Hals portraits together made me aware of how his style loosened as it matured, and seeing the two Hobbema landscapes in the same room made me wonder why Frick had bought them both. While more than a dozen works shown in the 1990 book of paintings from the Frick in my library are not on view, there is at least one painting on display I had never seen before: a study of a floppy, rural house by Salomon van Ruysdael that is charming and presaged my interest in Daniel Garber’s Old Benedict Place, which I had just seen at Questroyal and was considering for our collection. Speaking of which, I also spent time with Chardin’s Still Life with Plums, not least because his black bottle recalled a similar object in our Emil Carlsen.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I am always eager to visit the Met, but this time I especially wanted to see the “rehang” of their Old Masters collection, at the top of the grand staircase. What a contrast this was to the Frick–and not to the Met’s advantage. The Tiepolos in the antechamber hadn’t changed, but in the opening large gallery that sets the tone for the collection, the walls were full of forgettable 17th-century Italian Baroque paintings, nobody’s favorite period and one in which the Met’s collection is undistinguished, at best. Yes, there was a Caravaggio, but arguably the least interesting work in his oeuvre, a barely legible Denial of St. Peter. I once heard a curator identify Guido Reni as his all-time favorite artist, but the evidence for that is hard to see in the Met’s examples. Among other big names, I’ve never seen a Guercino that excited me and many of the other names I hardly recognized. Previously the long gallery was hung, at least as I remember it, with later, more accessible French paintings, notably David’s important Death of Socrates, the charming Adelaide Labille-Guiard Self-Portrait, and Duplessis’s portrait of Benjamin Franklin, among standouts that come to mind. Two routes to galleries behind lead from there, without any guidance, as there is no obvious direction to move from Italian Baroque.
The succeeding galleries, which I traversed in no particular order, for there didn’t seem to be one, all shared a similar weakness: quantity over quality. Perhaps it was because I had recently visited the Frick Madison, where every painting was given room to breathe and highlights were highlit, but everything on the Met’s walls was accorded the same weight, which weighed everything down and challenged me to find anything that stood out. A lack of theatricality has been standard at the Met and almost every similar art museum for years, but I wonder if the new age of museum-going might not require a rethinking, as well as a rehang. If you’ve got a major Breugel or a rare Durer, why not call some attention to it? Since it’s apparently been decided that Art History will no longer be required, or expected, of visitors, why not help them discover what is important by singling out or emphasizing its display? And please don’t tell me that we can no longer hold that a Breugel or Durer is more important than a Sassoferrato or Pompeo Batoni! In short, I struggled to find paintings that thrilled or spoke to me; and when I did come across a familiar work I had appreciated in the past I found it diminished, rather than enhanced, by its surroundings. Oh, and once again, the Met’s biggest purchase of the century, the Duccio Madonna and Child, stood forlornly in the middle of a gallery, with no one to look at it the whole time I was near.
There was one exception to this situation, and it reinforced my inclination: David’s large portrait of the Lavoisiers was a standout, dominating the center of the main wall in the Jayne Wrightsman Gallery, flanked symmetrically by two majestic portraits by Baron Gerard of the Talleyrands. The presentation was dramatic and made you think, this is an important painting that I should really look at.
Overall, I’m afraid that my opinion of the Met’s Old Master collection has considerably gone down. Maybe I’m unfairly comparing it to the Frick, which deals only in great paintings, or the last museum we visited before quarantine, the National Gallery in London, which boasts a far higher percentage of masterpieces. By comparison, the Met’s is more akin to a study collection; if you’re not a scholar of a certain period you will soon find yourself bored in many of the new galleries. I would rather be exposed to fewer works of higher quality, with suggestions in the display of what is considered important.
Alice Neel. The crowds at the Met were not in the Old Master galleries; they were lined up, instead, to see the special exhibition of paintings by Alice Neel. When I first saw an Alice Neel portrait in New York in the early ’70s I decided I would like her, or more to the point someone like her, to paint my portrait: a work that made you think of the artist rather than the subject. (Of course, as I studied art history, I realized this would also let me opt for Rembrandt or Hals, Gainsborough or Lawrence, Freud or Bacon, among many others.) There were a number of Neels here that confirmed my early prejudice, mostly in one gallery called “Counter Culture”: dual portraits of Benny and Mary Ellen Andrews (1972), David Bourdon and Gregory Battcock (1970), Geoffrey Hendricks and Brian (1978) and an individual portrait of Richard Gibbs (1968) from a Minneapolis collection(!?). Also noteworthy were early studies of Black children and Cut Glass with Fruit, a still life that put her spin on Cezanne and Matisse. But there was so much more; and like so many Met shows, the goal seemed to be, how much can we amass and show, not how can we show the artist to their best advantage. After awhile, Neel’s transgressiveness became more off-putting than daring. Did I really want to see a lot of fat, naked people, even if they were self-portraits or famous (e.g., Andy Warhol)? Nor did her style wear well. One or two Neel portraits hung amid more traditional artworks can be invigorating. Too much and nothing but Neel got tiresome and yucky.
David Hockney. Hockney at the Morgan Library was another example of excess, even though its parameters were strictly limited: only drawings and prints, only portraits, and only five subjects. Hockney is so facile and prolific and protean that this large show, in both Morgan exhibition galleries, barely dented his oeuvre. The first impression you got, from drawings he did in art school, was what a natural talent he was as a draftsman and what a fertile and restless imagination he had. Some of his earliest drawings, especially of his mother, are breathtaking. Where do you go from there ? Which brought to mind a quote I saw at the Met by Henry James about a portrait John Singer Sargent painted at the age of 25: It offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.” Sargent, of course, hewed to his course, while Hockney, by contrast, never stopped experimenting with new styles, new media, moving through gridded photographs to drawings on an iPad. Just as I felt after visiting an exhibition of his painted portraits at the BMFA a few years ago, I found his work brilliant for the first 20 years, but successively less so as he restlessly and continually tried something new–much the way I feel about Frank Stella.
After the Hockney show, I went upstairs to an exhibition of drawings from the collection of Richard Gray and his wife, many of which have been given or promised to the Art Institute of Chicago. The purported premise of the show was the conversation among drawings from different artists and eras, and the claim was made that the Grays didn’t collect “names,” but sought out works that appealed to them. As far as I could judge, however, this was a collection of works by famous artists over the centuries, most of which had no particular relationship to each other. That didn’t mean they weren’t interesting, and there was a sensational Venice scene by Canaletto that was the best thing I saw all day.
Epic Abstraction. In its modern galleries, the Met had created a temporary exhibition largely drawn from its permanent collection that ran, per its title, from Pollock to Herrera, featuring large-scale abstract works–many familiar but with selections from non-white-male artists mixed in. Autumn Rhythm (1950) by Jackson Pollock and Equilibrium (2012) by Carmen Herrera were worthy bookends, and there were many highlights in between. The three Rothkos were surprisingly uninteresting, but Clyfford Still seems to never have had a bad day. Robert Mangold, Lee Krasner and Frank Stella captured my fancy, while Joan Mitchell’s La Vie en Rose (1979) was both overpowering and beautiful, the biggest piece in the show while using the fewest colors (not counting the black works of Franz Kline, Louise Nevelson and Herrera–but black isn’t a color, is it?). A four-panel piece that measures over 22′ wide and 9′ high, it is a musical composition of lavender slashes, with pink and grey filler here and there. (It’s hard to write about from memory alone, as “rights restrictions” prevent the Met from reproducing more than a thumbnail digital image.) My favorite, though, as it often is, was a work from Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, (Number 30). I spent five minutes in front of it in the uncrowded gallery, admiring the overall image, then every detail that was revealed by close looking. I promised myself to return with notebook some day, and see how poorly I could describe, in words, the magic that Diebenkorn created in paint. Two large vertical rectangles dominate the field. At left is a cool blue with calm surface, like the sky or sea on a calm day. To the right is a rich green, painted more roughly, perhaps resembling the landscape. But look how he has joined the two–but again, alas, “rights restrictions” prevent a download.
Christie’s. Our first Sunday we went down to Rockefeller Center to preview Christie’s American Art spring auction, largely because there was a Sanford Gifford of Lake Sunapee that looked spectacular online. Entering the gallery we came across a charming Peto still life, small enough to fill the gap in my bookcase at home where I have been displaying an undistinguished view of a farm along the Hudson by an anonymous 19th-century painter. With an estimate of $12-18,000, I suddenly wondered if I could actually own a John Frederick Peto, who is considered to be in a league above the artists in our collection. The Gifford was as lovely in person, and I thought its estimate, $300-500,000, was low; but there wasn’t much else that grabbed me. On our way home we stopped at Bonham’s, but found nothing there. I hadn’t seen anything at Sotheby’s, either, that merited a trip to York Avenue. I watched all three auctions online–a fun spectator sport–and had a phone line to bid on the Peto, although I had been warned that the estimate was “conservative” and there was “a lot of interest.” Indeed, the bidding quickly zoomed past my self-imposed limit and ended well above the high estimate, at $50,000. The Gifford also went above its high estimate but for a quite reasonable $530,000 (plus buyer’s premium). It turned out that we needn’t have gone to Christie’s to see it, for the winning bidder was Lou Salerno of Questroyal Gallery, which I regularly visit. And in consolation for losing the Peto, the next week at Questroyal I bought a landscape by George Henry Smillie, one of my Bronxville artists, that will take its place in my gallery’s bookcase. The Gifford price, though, made me realize what Mia might have to pay to add a “knockout” work to its collection of American art.