The Frick Collection at 75

The Frick Collection is celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. To commemorate opening its doors in 1935 the Collection is showing a few elevation sketches of the building’s transformation from the home of Henry Clay Frick into the museum we see today. The only other addition is a new orientation film, which “tells the story of Mr. Frick, his home, and his art collection.” Here we learn of this “man of the highest quality” and his remarkable journey from humble origins and a sickly childhood, a man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a millionaire at thirty, and one of the great industrialists of the gilded age. We hear of his success as a coke magnate (the raw material used to make steel), his partnership with Joseph Carnegie, his leadership of U.S. Steel and his building of this grand and historic Fifth Avenue mansion. We hear how his love of art led him on a “chase for the old masters,” and of how he “went shopping” at the Metropolitan for the highlights of J. P. Morgan’s collection after Morgan died. We hear how it “wasn’t enough to have a great collection of old master paintings so he began to buy great pieces of furniture and decorative art.” We learn how the press avidly covered his art collecting and purchases with as much panache as they covered his feats of industry. We learn that he stipulated the creation of this museum upon his wife’s death so “the entire public should forever have access.” We learn that much of the museum is how Frick left it, when he lived there, and, in addition to viewing his art we “can also inhale the Gilded Age, the sense of the aesthetic, the beautiful” contained in these rooms.

What we don’t hear is how Frick was once “the most hated man in America.” We don’t hear how he stood out among the ignoble plutocrats of his day for his violent assaults on organized labor. We don’t hear the story of the 1892 Homestead Strike wherein Frick, despite soaring profits, offered the skilled workers of the Amalgamated Association of Steel and Iron Workers a 22 percent wage decrease, then summarily locked them out of his factory by building high walls replete with guard towers, barbed wire, and high pressure cannons capable of shooting scalding liquid at every entrance. We don’t hear how when the workers struck and shut down the factory, Frick hired the notorious Pinkerton Detective agency to invade Homestead by river, shooting into the strikers and the supporting townspeople in order to clear the way for scab labor. We don’t hear of how the National Guard was summoned to break up the strike and eventually the union, which Frick steadfastly refused to negotiate with throughout.

We don’t hear that named Frick one of the “worst CEOs of all time.” We don’t hear how his construction of a dam to create a private lake for a fishing and hunting club, failed, due to poor maintenance and heavy rainfall, and caused the Johnstown flood of 1889 which killed over 2000 people and coincidentally knocked out his competitor’s factory (Cambria Iron and Steel) for a year and a half. Or of the legal battles Frick and his compatriots fought to insure they would not be held responsible and the conspiracy they hatched to keep the club’s existence a secret.

We don’t hear of how Frick’s relentless use of violence fractured his relationship with his partner Joseph Carnegie, a notorious robber baron in his own right. We don’t hear how his subsequent feud with Carnegie pushed him to build his mansion on Fifth Avenue “to make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack.” Or of how he moved his art collection to New York because he was worried that the soot from his own steel mills in Pittsburgh would damage his paintings.

The orientation film provides nothing beyond a clear vision of the way the Frick Collection wants to be seen. It’s ostensible subject, the works of art that Frick collected to share with the public, are given scant attention. There is no historical background on the work. We hear nothing about where these pieces are situated in the oeuvres of their respective creators, their influences or artistic heirs. We hear no insight on the importance of the work at all; or even why Frick chose what he did. If we want to know more about a piece than its title we must purchase a guidebook as an added cost to the already hefty admission fee. In truth, the only thing the film orients us toward is the life of Frick himself. This is a thinly veiled attempt to cast the institution as a historical museum, as one of the few mansions restored to show what life was like in the Gilded Age. Yet there is no information on everyday life at the turn of the century, no details on the workings of a house that once employed twenty-seven servants. This is not The Tenement Museum, where every object reveals a story about the activities and dreams of the people who once lived there. Had this information been available, I might have learned of the styles and daily habits common in the early twentieth century. Instead, the objects are left to float in their opulence, with no connection to the lives they furnished or acknowledgment of the vast discrepancy in income between their owners and those whose labor paid for them.

What is being presented at the Frick Collection is a revisionist biography of Henry Clay Frick. It is where we go to learn how the great man, this American noble, lived and gathered these objects. We are asked to bask in his reflected glory, in awe of the refinement of a “man of the highest taste.” In truth, Frick bought chiefly for names. So yes, there are impressive Rembrandts, a gorgeous El Greco, and a Vermeer. But none of these works have matured into the significant masterpieces one would expect from a “man of the highest taste.” He bought pictures he found pretty and of images of powerful men; men he would like to be compared with or with whom he might like to be friends. The art was an avenue to fame, and a way to cement his status. Tired of being second to Carnegie, embarrassed by his humble origins, we see a man desperate to prove his aristocratic legitimacy, displaying that all-too-American desire for the old European pedigrees of class, power and title. For all his wealth and influence, the American plutocrat has no noble lineage, no royal lines winding back through the centuries, his remains the clichéd ostentation of new money; the flaunting of power and opulence in a desperate grab for legitimacy and sophistication. Acquiring the Old Masters is a well-worn method of manufacturing the culture sanction that is the legacy of old Europe. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect testament to this process than The Collection; from the portraits of Thomas More and Cromwell, to Bronzino’s portrait of the renaissance noble Lodovico Capponi, down to the collection of English poets (Tennyson, Shakespeare, Shelley . . . ) displayed in complete and untouched collections filling the bookshelves of an entire room. None of this, in and of itself, is surprising

What is surprising is that, seventy-five years after its opening, and a mere two years after the heirs to Frick’s unrestrained greed nearly demolished the economy, the museum that bears his name is still possessed by his insecurity. Ensconced safely in the most expensive real estate in the richest city in the most powerful empire in history, the Frick Collection, by way of an insipid video tribute, still presents the same pitiable adolescent churlishness and hapless desire for approval evinced by the man himself. Decades later, Frick’s wealth remains as opulent as ever, but it has yet to afford him or his legacy the comfort and belonging common to the poorest worker awaiting his bullets in Homestead.

The tragedy of The Collection’s design, with its emphasis on Frick and his taste, is the obfuscation of the art itself. What separates art from ordinary objects is that it lives in the interaction between the work and the spectator. It persists long after its creator, continuing to speak to us, to interact. The art work is unique, and gains this uniqueness, as Benjamin points out, by virtue of the “here and now of the work of art.” But this uniqueness “bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” In short, the work is conditioned by its location, its context, its historicity. The insidiousness of the Frick is that Henry Clay inserts himself into the relationship between art and spectator. The gilded rooms frame the art in a veneration of capital and privilege. Our relationship to the work is qualified by the ongoing glorification of its former owner. We see the figures in these paintings as men like Frick. We see beauty as the property of wealth. The artwork is denigrated to an object whose value is limited to representing the triumph of exchange. The public does not get the full benefit of the art after all.

The ever-diminishing line between art and commodity is not a new problem; it pervades the history of western art since the renaissance. One thinks of the Medicis’ use of frescoes and other commissions for political gain. However, unlike the Medicis, Frick did not support the most adventurous artists of his day. He was not a patron of new and radical work. He simply bought what was already considered masterful, by artists long dead. All of our great institutions of art walk this line. The Metropolitan and the MoMA were founded and are funded by businessmen not unlike Frick, but at least they had the decency to build a legitimate museum in the public trust, and not a temple to themselves.

Indeed, The Frick Collection is less a museum of art than a mausoleum to the man. Instead of a ruthless industrialist who littered his road to riches with plebeian carcasses, Frick is reborn as an art lover and a philanthropist. By gathering the trappings of class and nobility, surrounding himself with beauty and art, he hastened to help us forget his crimes. We are supposed to be in awe of his taste, his exceptionalism, and to be humbly thankful to the great man for bestowing his culture and class to the unwashed public. The New York Times writes that The Frick Collection is “an oasis, a haven and a lighthouse . . . as noon draws near we catch ourselves wondering whether we shall be invited upstairs for a glass of dry sherry and a biscuit.” But the truth is that Frick would have never allowed us into his home, much less deigned to share a drink. We will never be allowed upstairs; a velvet rope prevents us, just as it prevents us from sitting in his chairs. It is literally over his dead body that we are allowed inside at all.

The Frick represents the legacy of America’s favorite fantasy: that the cupidity of the few somehow happens separately from the misery of the many, implying that this lifestyle is somehow available to all. That we are still told to revere these “great” men is all the more galling having just watched a new generation of Fricks make fortunes even without generating useful infrastructure or industry in the process. The names, companies, and industries may have changed, but the game remains the same. Even with all of the anger at Wall Street, Main Street still comes to the Frick, smiling, full of awe, and wishing that someday, they too could live like this. Maybe in another seventy-five years, we can all tour the homes and art collections of Lloyd Blankfein and Tony Hayward to better appreciate their dedication to the common good. Ideological in the most specific sense of the word, institutions like the Frick naturalize the divine right of wealth and the means used to obtain it. They allow us to tour the beauty of the home, to gaze on the riches amassed and continue in the pacifying delusion that the wealthy and connected are the caretakers of America, the essence of freedom, instead of those keeping the poor in poverty and the starving hungry. No effort at orientation can make this Collection, the crimes that created it, or its naked veneration of greed make sense.