Frick-ing awesome: Going to the upside down

The Frick Collection is at a temporary location somewhere on Madison Ave.

Not bad for a temporary location!

The whole ‘temporary’ thing had me set my expectations low, so I should start by acknowledging just how far off that assessment was. The exhibition is spectacular from top to bottom, although it’s meant to be experienced bottom to top. I did experience it as the curators meant: Yes, I am a heathen, but some things are sacrosanct – curation is one.

Still though, I have a small resistance in this re-telling. It will be an upside-down one. There, up is last; down is first; so I am trying to return to how I think things should be: down last and up first. Mostly because I think up had the most to offer. Maybe there is a little revolution here, maybe! The top and last is freshest in my memory, so maybe it makes sense that I start with that. The top is, also, to me, very appropriately the exhibition’s crowning glory. Let me tell you why!

For context: the Frick Collection is renown for its distinguished Old Master paintings, European sculptures, and decorative arts. The collection boasts an impressive array of works stretching from the Renaissance to the late 20th century: it offers visitors a unique journey through the annals of art history. There’s, however, the welcome awareness of its blind spots masterfully cast in the sprawling galleries dedicated to a contemporary Black voice on the 4th floor where my journey ended and this tale begins: by the side of Barkley L. Hendricks.

Lady Mama (1969) – Barkley L. Hendricks

His work is framed as a conscious addition contextualized by the history the first two floors hold. It is an addition, an extension. He does Black portraiture in distinctly European styles. But by starting here, I am trying to think of him and his work by himself, without the context I am given here. Is there value in looking at Hendricks alone? Is this art without the stark White foundations below? For me the question arises: is it a copy, or something more? 

4th Floor: Barkley L. Hendricks – A Revolution in Renaissance

The fourth floor of the Frick Collection is a testament to the long-ignored grandeur, style and humanity of Blackness, with a gallery dedicated to Hendricks taking centre stage. It is quite the struggle to describe the feeling standing at the centre of this room: this isn’t just about placing Black figures within the context of European art; it’s about challenging and redefining narrative. How well is this done? Virtually everyone in the room is white. I don’t know why that is important, but I notice it. There are Black docents everywhere, but I think I’m meant not to see them. They stand in dark corners and step up when I quite predictably try to snap a photo (the Frick Collection, it turns out, doesn’t like that – all photography, not just flash photography, is forbidden here). Hendricks’ work is undoubtedly a statement. But what is it saying? Is the crux of the matter an emphasis on the fact that Black individuals have always been a part of the fabric of history, even if they’ve been sidelined or erased?

Barkley HendricksSteve, 1976.

I am drawn to this conclusion because it is hard to conceive much else looking at Black life styled in Medician form. But what does that do for Black life now? There must be more than this. What about this overwhelming comfort I feel standing above galleries full of Rembrandts, flawless Bronzinos (that I will say more about), breathtaking Bellinis: what about this moment is revolution? It is in my heart, but my heart is not even enough to be a speck in the galaxy. There must be more!

On this floor, there is a standout piece: “Miss T”. The curator whispers in my ear a tale about its being a byproduct of an encounter at the Uffizi, where Hendricks learnt to play with the illusion of a body within a painting. I think it was inspired by Moroni.

Miss T, Barkley L. Hendricks, 1969

There is another captivating piece –“Lagos Ladies”–exuding beauty and confidence.

Barkley L. Hendricks – Lagos Ladies (Gbemi, Bisi, Niki, Christy)
1978 Oil, acrylic, and magna on cotton canvas
Private collection © Barkley L. Hendricks Courtesy of the Estate of Barkley L. Hendricks and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Hendricks’ art, it is said, is not about imitation; it’s about carving out a distinct space and style. Even though his works are labelled as “contemporary” in some circles, it’s essential to remember the particular moment they were created in. 50 years ago, deep in the era of civil rights struggles. Hendricks was a prophet in the dark, obscure during his time. But here he was highlighting the beauty, grandeur, and style of Black people at a time when that was… a question? The discussion, as far as I know, was about whether Black people were people, and not what kind of people they were. It was about what might be owed, rather than what was owed. To me, all that makes this quite the sight to witness. I have no conclusions: this I have to think about much much more.

3rd Floor: European Artistry with a Pinch of Reality

Descending to the third floor (which I ascended from), the collection showcases early Italian paintings, Spanish works, and bronzes, among many other things. “The Forge” stands out, not for the pleasantness much of Frick’s collection is known for, but for its harsh realism.

The Forge. Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (Spanish, 1746–1828)
Copyright © 1998-2021 The Frick Collection. All Rights Reserved.

It portrays working-class subjects in mega-size, a stark departure from the usual religious themes usually represented at such scale. (Sidenote: The contrast of SCALE between paintings is an important subplot which I cannot begin to convey – one must see it!) The energy of the workers, all in concert, paints a vivid picture of the, then modern, reality of Europe. I’m surprised just as anyone that Frick , an obscenely wealthy man, found this worth holding on to. But I know nothing of rich men and their psyche. The curator explained it, but it sounded like a fetish with the working men who produced him – one that I wasn’t anywhere near ready to process. 

Then the Bronzino: Lodovico Capponi.

Agnolo Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano)
Florence 1503–1572 Florence
Lodovico Capponi, 1550–55

This artwork is a visual masterpiece – flawless in all respects. A porcelain face, prominent codpiece, and luxurious clothing with all the moment’s excesses… The subject, a Medici I think, holds a medal with an obscured inscription: sorte (Latin for fate or fortune). I learn that Bronzino was a poet as much as he was a painter. My curiosity is piqued: the tale, apparently, is that Bronzino is cheekily referencing his subject’s, and maybe too our own, ability (or lack of) to view and know one’s fate. I was stuck here for quite a time taking this in.

The floor also houses Bellini’s depiction of St. Francis, emphasizing nature. Divine and encompassing.

St. Francis in the Desert
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1424/35–1516)
Date:ca. 1475–80

Yet there is a strange dance:  the animals are oblivious to his vision, yet there is an emphasis by the curator on the communion with which he existed with nature and animals. Strange.

2nd Floor: The Richness of Amsterdam and Beyond

The second floor transported me to the world of Rembrandt, early Netherlandish art, the Dutch, and  Van Dyk. The theme here seems to revolve around Amsterdam’s opulence, but there is a familiar feeling. The city folk value paintings of the countryside and nature, things they miss in the core of the city. Living in New York, I understand that feeling in a way I can only describe as spiritual. Nature is a gift in the city, and I see why one would commission such a thing.

Village among Trees
Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638–1709)

There are paintings that naughtily present the glint of the sun on leaves in ways you will never see in the city. Country roads winding to places you don’t quite want to go to, but feel like you should.

Hercules is somewhere here missing his club. We are all missing something too, Hercules. You are not special!

1st Floor: Lobby

They take your bags here. And your water bottles. I knew I would want a sip of water after some of this but alas! You can breathe close to Rembrandt. But how dare you sip water before him?!

And here it ends where it started. I pick up my bag from the coat check. Off to god knows where!