Monday, April 1, 2013

The Frick Collection: Money, Faces, Now

I know I have been a big ball of blah de blah and doom and gloom regarding the art world of late, sorry about that.  This is all still on my mind and being affirmed by recent articles like Jerry Saltz’ Saltz on the Death of the Gallery Show in New York Magazine and Nicole Klagsburn’s closure of her gallery space and the reasons why she is doing so.  Even though things like the above makes one feel less like a lone crazy person on a sinking boat in one’s mind, it doesn’t give relief, it just compounds it all.  The only way to shake oneself into a better mental art space is to change and refresh one’s personal relationship to art, whatever and however that may be.  I have decided to try to do this, in a concerted actual way versus a thought only way.  The first step in this art rejuvenation regime, for me, is to actually see some art.  Contemporary art of late has been making me go gag-blah so I am taking baby steps to get myself realigned.  This past weekend I went to The Frick Collection and it is a place that makes you think things and puts contrast to what is happening now.  I was expecting it to be an all posi sort of art acclamation but surprisingly it made me think more about this whole art game and how important it is for contemporary art to actually exist and how things of the past and the things of today are inextricably linked.

The Frick Collection is in a grand home that houses the art collection of steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849 – 1919).  The house was built in 1913-14 and the collection was opened to public viewing in 1935.  The building is a capsule and is reverently attended to.  The first floor is open for viewing and they are a series of rooms that you could imagine being used for their original intended purposes.  A salon for the ladies, a salon for the men, a dining room, a grand hall, a library, an interior fountain and alcoves for retreat.  In these there is a preservationist display of architecture and interior design.  The opulence is at once vulgar and impressive and is specifically dated but you can see how these sort of interiors are still symbols of affluence in suburban reconstructions.  The rooms in themselves are stages and sets for the art that is on tables and walls.  The paintings are impressive.  They are displayed in a cluttered fashion but this serves the purposes of it being for the en masse.  Some of the paintings are the best in the world.  Goya, Velázquez, El Greco, Constable, Gainsborough, Rembrandt, van Eyck, Vermeer, Hals, Ingres, and so many more.  It is a textbook of some of the greatest painters that ever lived and it is astounding and overwhelming to see them all in one place.  Some of the paintings capture you more then others.  There is an eerie presence of the people that are painted or are standing in as someone else.  Their eyes seem to follow you and almost seem to be awaiting a reply to a conversation between you and them.  I will not go into specific works here and the whole viewing experience of the Frick is something that must be experienced first hand.

What was interesting in experiencing this for myself on this trip was how familiar and “now” it all felt.  The people, the faces, the clothing and the style is very much about a time but the essence of what is being rendered and the capturing of a time and a person felt so relative to today.  So much of art is about reflecting a time.  In these portraits this is done by who the artist is and the person being painted, who they are, their status, their class, and their significance.  Also thoughts of money come oozing out of these works.  Who paid for them, either the sitter themselves, their husbands, their lovers, a church, a patron; they all exist because someone paid for it to exist.  There are a few that are self motivated of course, most resonantly Rembrandt’s self portrait, but still even with this one thinks ‘money’ because the ability to buy such a work is mind boggling. 

Walking through the collection was annoyed by the glut of other visitors.  I know that that’s the point of this place but I most enjoy viewing art alone or nearly alone.  What was interesting about the crowds though were the remarks by many visitors that I think reflects a common response by those viewing this sort of art.  “Now, that’s really nice, that would go great above our couch, don’t you think so honey?” “Yes, we should get us one of those.”  Said a middle-aged couple about a Constable landscape.  Yes, mildly horrifying to overhear but also exactly natural and on point with how art is viewed by many, and in the end, these people were right on mark.  These works are in a home.  Just not theirs.  They are in the home of a very wealthy person who could purchase it and then put it above their couch. 

This is where most art goes.  Back then and today.  It goes into people’s homes, and in some steroidal ways into private collections that the public is given access to.  This is a generous thing for sure.  Really to see so much amazing art at one time is fantastic and inspiring, but seeing the affirmation of how wealth is the enabler of this access makes things very complicated.

This is when it becomes clear the ways in which art is viewed, shared, valued and preserved.  There have been various attempts to react to, respond to, and to thwart this, for instance take all of conceptual art or the early intentions of earth works, but even that, even those efforts were purchased, commissioned and reigned into the market.  This is not a bad thing.  It is just the thing.  It is the way it has been and always will be and seeing this at the Frick made it all seem leveled.  Like a wave of fact that washed over any vague ideas of revolt against these sort of structures. 

Let’s get back to the art a bit.  I was talking about the paintings, the portraits, and although this form is not being done so much today, it is very much a part of many things being made today.  The idea of a presentation, or a representation, is what comes to mind in the then-now connection.  The styles of the master paintings at the Frick are painterly and representational. They are staged moments and poses that are held to solidify a desired presentation.  This is being done today in the way images are being recontextualized in various medias and even through new forms of abstraction.  Many artists today are re-presenting cultural symbols, celebrity and consumer icons as a means to make a presentation of our time.  They are also stylizing it so that it become about value, about taste, and to reflect a style that is “now” even if referring to things from the past in both form and content.  There are perhaps more layers involved in the final works of today but in the end it is a capsule for an age and are cues of worth and showing a specific hand, even if no contact is made to the surface.

Many contemporary artists and contemporary viewers should take time to view works that are at the Frick and are like what is at the Frick as it reveals our constant desire to capture ourselves and to preserve even with the knowledge of oblivion.  The simplicity of the portraits, not in the ways made, but in the content presented, is also very challenging to see in contrast to today’s art.  There is so much to see in the singular and the directness of these faces and scenes depicted.  Many more questions were produced on returning the gaze of one of these portraits then in some of the most abstracted or disjuncted images that abound today.  Looking back onto something from the past has a whole other bag of connotations and psychology but the ability for some of these works to retain their pull hundreds of years after creation is something rare and should be sought out, and I believe, is still possible with the art being made now. 

Going to the Frick made me feel complicated things and it’s all a jumble in my mind still.  Money, power, preservation, class, access, necessity are doing solar plexus punches in my mind.  In the end though it makes it all seem beautiful and to be able to see some of the pieces that reside in such a rarified space makes one realize that as long as there are people, there will be art and yeah, they don’t make them like they used to but that’s not the point.  Things that are masterful are not limited to a certain time.  They can happen now or tomorrow and it’s not about how it gets there or who bought it but about knowing it when you see it.