The Debasement of Art Museums

The Frick Collection

The Frick Collection

Unfortunately, there are some museums that are sell outs. When museums decide to become more interested in the revenue than the collection, it is to be expected that the harmony of viewing art is ruined by questionable motives. I have been conscious of crowds and photo takers in art museums, but recently, I have been dissatisfied by the tepid nature of the blockbuster and the wanton expansion that art museums seem to be going through now (more on that later in the essay). But anyway, as is my ritual when in Boston, I went to one of those dens of the commercialized art museum, the Museum of Fine Arts. Inevitably, I always find my goal to see certain artworks diverted by a show or two. This time, it was the blockbuster Goya exhibit and the first retrospective on the work of Jamie Wyeth. I am not going to go into too much detail about these exhibits because there were still some works that I hadn’t seen at the MFA and really wanted to see. I was only able to gather impressions like one does in a department store; fleeting and stunned. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be amused by the exhibitions on hand.

It would be fair to say Jamie Wyeth has a problem. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but the odds are stacked against him nonetheless. It’s the problem of a family legacy. He is the grandson of artist and illustrator N.C. Wyeth of “Treasure Island” fame. His father, Andrew Wyeth, a divisive realist painter, produced paintings such as his best known work, “Christina’s World,” which were not entirely popular at a time when abstraction was gaining traction in the mainstream. This is the family legacy Jamie Wyeth is measured against. Most critics find it impossible to separate this connection and you can see why in the artworks. Jamie, a talented artist in his own right, still adheres to the principles long ago taught by N.C. Wyeth to his son Andrew: hard work that is applied not for the sake of “effect,” but remaining steadfast in the belief of the inseparable romantic and realist styles. Reading the letter makes it clear how unpopular the work of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth is with modern critics. N.C.’s artistic ideals were decidedly traditional, and so is the work of Andrew and Jamie Wyeth. Long after N.C. died, Jamie would go on to become an admirer and associate of Andy Warhol; an artist who personified everything modern about the artist and his means of expression.

In the retrospective on Wyeth, I was particularly struck by the two portraits of Warhol and Wyeth, both of which were done by each other. Set side by side, they’re quite telling in regards to not just their own styles, but the clash of aesthetics in a crazy Post-Modern art world. Wyeth’s portrait is microscopic in its observation, while Warhol’s is elegant Pop, or, you know, Warhol at his normally indifferent self.

Andy Warhol, "Jamie Wyeth," 1976.

Andy Warhol, “Jamie Wyeth,” 1976.

Jamie Wyeth, "Portrait of Andy Warhol," 1976.

Jamie Wyeth, “Portrait of Andy Warhol,” 1976.

Wyeth’s portrait is in keeping with the disciplined and self-conscious approach to painting traversed by his family (and essentially art before modernism). By examining Warhol in a turn more tenacious than one of Warhol’s own screen tests, Wyeth is able to competently convey the frailty of that commercial gadfly. His astute realism has even led him to believe that he sees the “portrait of Andy as a sort of portrait of New York” (and no, I don’t believe that for a second).

Warhol’s portrait though is typical of his listless output, where every work seems to be indistinguishable from the next. On the whole, he produced a body of work where the pop-isms are disgorged at the viewer at the speed of an unremarkable Hollywood script. Wyeth might as well be a face on a billboard. It’s a face that is madly rushed by, or processed in a matter of seconds like a photo on Instagram. The portrait is not even remotely suggestive. The contemplative pose is cliche. There’s nothing that distinguishes Wyeth from any other screen print by Warhol. It’s a very undiscriminating portrait.

Though, I quite liked Jamie Wyeth’s work at the exhibit. His works were not terribly good, but I did like his use of exaggerated scale in “Iris at Sea,” for instance. At one point I was baffled by an apparent self portrait of him with a pumpkin for a head. Quite what the purpose of the pumpkin is supposed to be, I don’t know. I should very much doubt I, or anyone, will ever know. Nevertheless, it’s one of the more wacky self-portraits you’ll see. But I do wonder, like so many other critics have, that his work is not very original, and hardly much different from his father’s in particular. For this reason, I find his art devoid of risk. This retrospective does make me wonder why the MFA decided to do a retrospective on Wyeth.

In contrast to the Wyeth retrospective, I was unsettled by the Goya exhibit also at the MFA. To begin with, it was almost too comprehensive. The focus should have been narrowed, possibly to one period of his work or a certain theme at least. Of course, that wouldn’t be much of a retrospective, I guess. However, Goya’s career was unusual to say the least. He first started out in the Rococo style early on in his career. Soon, he was a court painter to Charles IV of Spain. His early portraits were charming and did not seem to carry much hint of his later works, which turned out to be deeply disturbing.

Francisco Goya, "The Parasol," 1777.

Francisco Goya, “The Parasol,” 1777.

Francisco Goya, "A heroic feat! With dead men!"

Francisco Goya, “A heroic feat! With dead men!”

See what I mean? Yet, there’s a reason for this change. Sometime in 1792 or 1793, a serious illness left Goya deaf. A decade later, he would witness the horrors inflicted by the Peninsular War in Spain. The print above details one of the many horrors that would be later collected in a series of aquatint prints, called, “The Disasters of War.”

Believe me, I was keenly aware of Goya’s work beforehand, but experiencing his whole career in one go is the aesthetic equivalent of choking. He underwent a seriously jarring transformation. It’s too much to handle in one exhibit really. I don’t think the all-you-can-eat approach taken by the blockbuster is quite suited to Goya’s body of work. Though, maybe it’s more a testament of his genius than my own worldly concerns.

After the depictions of dismembered bodies and pumpkin head self portraits, there were, I’m glad to say, some real positives. I have visited the MFA several times before, but somehow, I had missed some first-rate paintings along the way. One of these was Turner’s portentous “Slave Ship.” Its foreboding crimson sunset, with shackled bodies encircled by sea creatures, stands as both a powerful and horrifying vision of the slave trade. The art critic John Ruskin, the first owner of the painting, declared, “If I were reduced to rest Turner’s immortality upon any single work, I should choose this.” Mark Twain, that always sarcastic devil, did not seem to understand the painting going by his response. Fortunately for Mr. Twain, I do not have any aesthetic offenses to chastise him with. That would be unkind, especially since he’s dead. Neither would I want “to dig (him) up and beat (him) over the skull with (his) own shin-bone.” I really wouldn’t want to knowing he disliked the Old Masters and found copies superior.  Nevertheless, his response was typical of a painting that did not seek clarity with its frenetic brush strokes. There are no clearly defined lines, or figures in this fierce portrayal of a shocking subject.

J.M.W. Turner, "Slave Ship," 1840

J.M.W. Turner, “Slave Ship,” 1840

After my visit to the MFA last year, I started to become fascinated by the Expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka. In the European wing, there is a self-portrait of Kokoschka “as a Warrior.” At first glance, it’s rather ugly. But it’s supposed to be. His face can’t seem to detach from the horror of something. Today, it’s seems like a foreshadowing of World War I, a war in which he would be participating in within five years. Right nearby this self-portrait is another self-portrait of a kind, only this time he is shown alongside his lover. The work is “Two Nudes (Lovers).” The woman is Alma Mahler, then the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler. In this melancholy picture, the two lovers embrace in a transitory moment before departure, as suggested by the sorrowful faces. The positioning of Mahler’s left leg intensifies the inevitability of their fate. I have to say, seeing this painting, I can’t seem to quite express my reaction to it in words. But it touched me deeply. I could have stared at it for hours. Sadly, my time was limited.

Oskar Kokoschka, "Self-Portrait as a Warrior," 1909

Oskar Kokoschka, “Self-Portrait as a Warrior,” 1909

Oskar Kokoschka, "Two Nudes (Lovers)," 1913

Oskar Kokoschka, “Two Nudes (Lovers),” 1913

Regular readers may remember my review of the Frick’s exhibition of Dutch Golden Age paintings. Among them were Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Fabritius’s “Goldfinch,” and several Rembrandt’s, all of which were on loan from the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. In lieu of the smashing success of that exhibition, the Frick seems to want to jump on the blockbuster bandwagon. Instead of priding itself on being a place of serenity in which to view some truly great art, the Frick’s director and board of trustees would rather catapult that Gilded Age mansion into a stratosphere that is occupied by such heavy hitters like the neighboring Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art.  The administration is proposing nothing less than an expansion to their museum that would alter the tranquil experience and destroy a work of art in the process. I used to think that the Dutch Golden Age exhibition was a good thing. But now, it might be better seen as the turning point for when the Frick decided to betray its reputation and compromise its unique place in the art world.

For me, the Frick’s plan to expand is tantamount to The Courtauld or the Wallace Collection deciding to broaden as well. Just as we cannot imagine a downsized Louvre, I cannot imagine an enlarged Frick. It simply doesn’t have to happen. But of course, as a member of the public, all this is a moot point as the director of the collection, Ian Wardropper, said of the negative public reaction so far:

What I find frustrating sometimes, is people seem to brush right by the needs of the museum.

The proposed expansion would add a new wing and rework existing space. These new spaces would accommodate a 220 seat auditorium, an education center, additional space for their offices and conservation labs, and a gift shop and cafe, among others. I wouldn’t be surprised if they throw in a restaurant for good measure. In the end, there would be a total gain of 42,000 square feet. Only 3,600 square feet would be dedicated to art.

I seriously doubt the Frick needs a bigger gift shop, let alone a cafe. It’s not like there aren’t a plethora of options on or near Fifth Avenue. And as former Frick director, Everrett Fahy, has noted, there is no need for much more conservation lab space when paintings at the Frick would probably be sent to a specialist anyway. These conservation labs, as well as the office space, could even be located offsite. I don’t think the staff’s comfort should trump the collection. I also don’t understand how the proposed education center should be an absolute necessity. In the end, the Frick is deciding whether it wants to be a blockbuster museum that is continually vying for visitors or a house museum. Clearly, for the time being, the Frick has chosen the former.

The trouble is, in the process of this rampant expansion, the Frick would be leveling a garden devised by noted landscape architect, Russel Page. In the announcement by the Frick, it was shrugged off as “a small garden… which has never been accessible to the public.” For a garden that has been compared to “viewing a masterwork of landscape painting,” that is a shame. Page originally envisioned it as being a garden to be viewed “from the street or through the arched windows of the Reception Hall – like an Impressionist painting.” It was not meant to be moved about in, or for simply decoration. However, this hasn’t stopped the Frick from holding garden parties there in all its opulence.

To add further insult to injury, there is a rooftop garden being planned that would overlook Central Park. I find that idea quite intriguing. It would seem like a perfect spot for the restaurant or cafe…

Above all, the Page garden is basically being treated as an insignificant ornament. The idea that the garden is expendable, solely because Central Park is nearby and that the Frick has another garden (albeit inferior, in my view), completely ignores the intentions of the architect. It’s also insensitive of people to suggest that landscapes can be eradicated by any passing whim. Just because the garden is not a Vermeer or Rembrandt, does not mean it should be treated with indifference. And, the fact is, according to a 1977 press release from the Frick, the garden was meant to be permanent. Furthermore, Russel Page was hoping this garden would preserve his legacy for future generations. It would be an act of dignity and respect for the artist if the garden were to be preserved.

What greatly frustrates me with this whole fiasco is the idea that the more people that visit the Frick is essentially, a good thing that should not be criticized. This thinking, which is simultaneously utilitarian and elitist, is paradoxical. It implies that since museums have become a source of populism, major changes should be made for those that might only be visiting a museum once. Using crowds and attendance numbers as a barometer of success makes me think that, under current and even past administration, plans for expansion have always been in mind, and that the Dutch Golden Age exhibit was the foreshadowing of the announcement on expanding. It reminds me of when the Barnes Collection went on a worldwide tour before its collection was removed to Philadelphia (despite being clearly stated in a will that it should never be moved). By doing that tour, the $25 billion collection was more prominently put on the map, and thence supported the argument of removal to a more accessible venue at Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Again, the same rationale is essentially being repeated at not only the Frick, but with Maurice Sendak’s proposed house museum. This line of thinking also has little consideration for the surround. Earlier this year, I saw the newly renovated Clark. The renovation works because the expansion was tailored in such a way to fit the idyllic setting. For the Frick, the original intent of being a house museum was well held by previous, tasteful additions, but just because serious expansion is feasible now, does not mean its will should be exerted.

If expansion is going to happen, it should be much more refined than this current plan that is being presented. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but is not Ian Wardropper just basically Malcolm Rodgers (the director of the MFA) and is not the board of trustees more concerned with having their obituaries sound swell? I’m probably jaded and skeptical about this whole issue, but when art becomes big business, I can’t help but think that serving the purpose of the collection is taking the backseat these days. This, to me, is the single most infuriating degradation of one too many art museums.


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