What a strange and telling contrast between the two museums we visited yesterday! We went first to the Frick Collection, walking kitty-corner across Central Park to the Upper East Side and ending up, providentially, exactly one block south of that grand palace that Henry Clay Frick built for himself at a prime location on Fifth Avenue at the turn of the last century. Like many of the very wealthy of his era, he participated heartily in the "rape of Europe," using American money to buy a vast amount of the European patrimony--which Europe, be it said, was happy enough at the time to sell off in exchange of vast amounts of American dollars.
Ah, well. What an astounding collection Frick managed to put together, and to make available to the public as a museum following his death. It's a long time since we visited the collection, and were glad we had chosen to do so again this time. Today's wealthy collectors, if they chose to go for masterpiece art, have frankly slim picking compared to this treasure trove of some of the finest of works by some of the greatest European artists, from the Italian Renaissance through the late nineteenth century. The most recent work we spotted as an interesting bullfight scene by Manet, placed interestingly adjacent to a number of paintings by Goya. Nearby, exquisitely installed to best advantage, Velasquez's masterpiece portrait of King Philip IV of Spain, "The King at War.
The great period of English art--Constable, Reyolds, Turner--was well represented in the great gallery, built specifically to provide wall space for paintings of heroic scale. Wonderful, to stand in the presence of this extraordinary output of human skill and aspiration. But my personal favorites for the day was the pair of portraits by Hans Holbein of mortal enemies Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell...
...the latter instrumental in arranging for the former to lose his head at the hands of the Henry VIII, and only a short time later losing his own to that same murderous monarch. And two, almost twin, tall portraits of infinitely elegant ladies, done with the modest palette and decorative style made fashionable by the discovery of Japanese art in the Western World.
A feast of masterpieces, then. We left the Frick and walked over to Madison Avenue, stopping for lunch at a corner bistro before heading for the Whitney Museum of American art where we wanted to see the exhibition Paul Thek: Diver, A Retrospective. Thek's brief life and strange contribution to the history of contemporary art ended with AIDS in 1988. After a moment of great acclaim in the 1960s for stomach-churning, hyper-realistic sculptures of raw meat and viscera exhibited in plexiglass boxes--and uncomfortable with the acclaim--Thek left New York for Europe where he spent more than a decade working on complex, collaborative installation pieces that occupied entire gallery spaces. His many paintings were essentially throwaways, done on butcher paper or newsprint, often involving washy blue underwater scenes evoking the Thek's belief that the artist's job is to mine deep into the reality of the inner self. In this context, the meat pieces seem like self-portraits of a peculiarly agonized intensity.
The most moving part of the exhibition, at least for this observer, were the two spaces at the end showing work from the last year or two of the artist's life, when he knew that he was dying. At this time in his life, he seems to have accepted--embraced--the transience of his own flesh and to have wittingly produced work that refined the spirit of suffering and ephemerality that had also characterized his earlier work. Installed at knee height in the last gallery of the Whitney exhibition, as they had been in the last show of his life, a series of small blue paintings seem to adumbrate the artist's death with a serenity that is at once remarkable and deeply moving...
The overall impression of this artist's work reminds us that, for better or worse, we have largely abandoned the motion of the masterpiece. We are left, as in Thek's work, with "bits & pieces," fragments of perception, fragments of feeling, fragments of life, put together with that sense of the authoritarian absolute that justified the masterpiece.
An interesting day. By the time we left the Paul Thek show, we found ourselves in the first rain of our New York stay. Setting out to walk across the park for a movie on the West side, we must have lost our way because we walked full circle and ended up exactly where we had started on the Upper East Side. I had walked, by this time, as far as was pleasant or comfortable, but taxis are scarce in New York in the rain, so we gamely walked back across the park--this time taking care to ask for orientation at key intervals, and found our way to Central Park West. And eventually to the theater, where we enjoyed the luxury of comfortable seats to watch "The Social Network." Excellent movie, but no review here.
Home for a soup and cheese dinner, only to find that our host has no can opener. A bread and cheese dinner, then. With a glass of wine.