The Frick Collection’s stay in the Modernist Breuer building on Madison Avenue has given visitors a chance to rediscover the museum’s Old Masters in a new light. It has also given curators the chance to try new things, including a surprise performance and installation with the French street artist JR and actor Timothée Chalamet. The museum’s programmatic experimentation continues this week with the pop-up display series Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, in which contemporary paintings will be hung alongside masterpieces by Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt.
“You’ve probably noticed the Breuer space is a little bit of a test kitchen, right?” says the curator Aimee Ng, who has co-organised the new series with the deputy director Xavier F. Salomon. “It allows more things to present themselves, and for us to try things in ways that just weren’t as obvious or easy to do in the mansion.”
“It might scare people who think of the Frick as a much more staid institution,” she says. While it may sound “a little bit romantic, all of the projects we do have to feel like they’re naturally coming out of the Frick in some way”, she adds.
This project came out of a very simple need to fill empty spaces on the wall as some key works are sent out on loan for major exhibitions, as well as to build conversations with “the enormous number of contemporary artists who have been coming to the Frick Madison and are being vocal about it”, Ng says. “Our udience suddenly got wider and broader.”
When Hans Holbein the Younger’s Sir Thomas Cromwell travels to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music goes on loan to Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister this autumn, Ng and Salomon decided that, rather than pull out a lesser known work from storage, they would invite artists who are “deeply invested in the Old Masters in their own practices” to create new paintings.
On Thursday, two of these works will be installed in the galleries. The Israeli-born, Brooklyn-based artist Doron Langberg’s Lover will take Thomas Cromwell’s place, facing off against Holbein’s Sir Thomas More, and Pakistan-born artist Salman Toor’s Museum Boys will hang alongside Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid and Officer and Laughing Girl. Both works will remain on view until January 2022, and will be followed by new paintings by the US-born Jenna Gribbon in February and the Nigerian-born Toyin Ojih Odutola in April.
As well as injecting a contemporary perspective into the Frick’s presentation, the aim of the Living Histories series is to show how relevant the historic collection can be for many artists and visitors. “Langberg really wanted to underline that these are objects that are not dead,” Ng says. “They’re living things that continue to create new conversations with him and others. And that struck me very deeply as somebody who works historically—sometimes at a contemporary gallery, I feel really out of place and very uncool. The idea that the things we take care of at the Frick have these resonances for people producing work right now is astounding to us.”
For Langberg, that resonance can be seen in his intimate and thoughtful depiction of a young man reading what could be a newspaper or a sheaf of official documents. When Lover is seen next to Thomas More, “what becomes very clear is this interest that both of both Holbein and Doron has in a description of reality, of the natural appearances of things, but in such completely different ways,” Ng says. “They both activate their canvases or panels so vibrantly but differently.”
Toor’s allegorical oil on panel painting Museum Boys, meanwhile, “is a painting for art historians”, the curator says, filled with references to other notable works, artists and cultures, such as Duchamp’s Fountain. “There’s this deeply layered approach,” Ng says. “Not everybody knows that Salman was a very traditionalist painter in his formative years and the style he has now builds on studying paintings like Vermeer’s.”
For the next two interventions, Gribbon will create a work that will take the place of Holbein’s Thomas More, which is traveling to the Morgan Library, and Ojih Odutola is making a work to fill in for Rembrandt’s Polish Rider, which normally hangs next to the artist’s self-portrait and his portrait of Nicolaes Ruts. “I’ve already seen a little bit of what she’s putting together and it’s heart-stopping,” Ng says.
“What has been so nice is not just getting to know four very different artists,” the curator says of working on the contemporary series. “I’m learning more about Holbein, Vermeer and Rembrandt just through conversations with them.”