The installation at Frick Madison has prompted new ways of looking at the Frick’s paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts—works predominantly made in Europe from the thirteenth through nineteenth centuries. Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters is the latest addition in a broader program in the past decade that has celebrated a range of voices and perspectives through digital productions, installations, publications, and collaborations.
At various times during the next year, four New York–based artists will engage with Old Master paintings in the permanent collection, each presenting a single new work on the second floor, where paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Holbein are displayed. These “pop-up” presentations, each running for a limited number of months, will initiate fresh conversations with the institution’s traditional figurative holdings, with particular emphasis on issues of gender and queer identity typically excluded from narratives of early modern European art.
The series began on Thursday, September 30, 2021 presenting one painting each by Doron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985) and Salman Toor (b. Lahore, Pakistan, 1983) framed amidst those in the Frick’s Northern European galleries. Both works will be on view at Frick Madison into January 2022. Langberg will present a painting, Lover, in conversation with Hans Holbein the Younger’s iconic portrait of Sir Thomas More, whose usual counterpart at the Frick, Holbein’s Sir Thomas Cromwell, will be temporarily on view in the fall exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. At the same time, Toor’s painting Museum Boys will be shown alongside Mistress and Maid and Officer and Laughing Girl by Johannes Vermeer. It temporarily takes the place of Vermeer’s Girl Interrupted at Her Music, which is on loan this fall to the special exhibition Johannes Vermeer: On Reflection at the Dresden Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
The critically acclaimed installation has offered the public an unprecedented experience of the permanent collection, in a very different setting. Beginning last fall, the Frick’s curatorial team added an evolving project in the second-floor Northern European galleries that welcomes the perspectives of four living artists, each of whom presents a single new work in conversation with iconic paintings from the Frick’s holdings. The four contemporary works—on view at different times—bring to each respective gallery a fresh means of considering the museum’s Old Masters, prompting explorations of gender and queer identity that are typically excluded from narratives of early modern European art.
This spring and summer, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters continues with a work by Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985). On view to the public from March 31, 2022, Ojih Odutola’s The Listener will be presented alongside Rembrandt’s early portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (1631) and the iconic late Self-Portrait (1658). The third featured painting from the project, What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same by Jenna Gribbon (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1978), installed in February, remains on view through May 22 next to Hans Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. This well-received series began last September with presentations by Salman Toor (b. Lahore, Pakistan, 1983) and Doron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985), whose paintings were displayed alongside masterpieces by Vermeer and Holbein, respectively.
Living Histories is jointly organized by Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, and Aimee Ng, Curator. It is the most recent project in a series of collaborations with contemporary artists. These initiatives include installations at the Frick mansion by Arlene Shechet and Edmund de Waal and related publications and lectures.
To commemorate the project, the Frick and Rizzoli will co-publish a related book in the fall of 2023. It features essays, interviews with the four artists, and contributions by Salomon, Ng, and Hanya Yanagihara, author and editor best known for her novel A Little Life; Jonathan Anderson, fashion designer and art collector; Jessica Bell Brown, Associate Curator of Contemporary Art, Baltimore Museum of Art; Christopher Y. Lew, Director, Horizon Art Foundation (formerly Nancy and Fred Poses Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art); Legacy Russell, Executive Director and Chief Curator, The Kitchen; Russell Tovey, Englishactor and art collector; and Stephen Truax, Director, Cheim & Read (partial list).
Comments Xavier F. Salomon, “Each artist collaborating on Living Histories has brought to the project contemporary perspectives on Frick works, resulting in a celebration of the past and present that reveals the power of creating conversations across histories, geographies, and cultures. Like myself and so many of the Frick’s staff, none of the four artists are originally from New York, but all chose this city as a home for their careers and relationships.”
Adds Ng, “Over the course of this year-long project, these four artists have brought us on an extraordinary journey through time and place, with their own backgrounds and histories drawing out new themes and surprising elements in the Frick’s paintings. Toyin’s masterful and monumental The Listener transforms the Rembrandt room of Frick Madison, where, among other things, its complex layers of myth and invention underscore the fictions of Rembrandt’s most famous self-portrait.”
About Toyin Ojih Odutola and her work ~ Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985) is known for works on paper that explore the malleability of identity and possibilities in visual storytelling. She has a distinctive style of mark making using basic drawing materials, such as pens, pencils, pastels, and charcoal. This technique involves the building up of layers through blending and shading, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture. Ojih Odutola credits the development of her style from using pen, which, as a writing tool, links her work to fiction in crafted narratives that unfold through series of artworks like the chapters of a book. Her work is inspired by both art history and popular culture, as well as her own personal history—from her birth in Nigeria to her childhood move to America, where she was raised in conservative Alabama. In more recent series, she has explored the depictions of landscapes, architecture, and domestic interiors. Ojih Odutola’s work has been presented in several shows at Jack Shainman Gallery; her first solo museum exhibition in New York, To Wander Determined, was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017–18. In late 2020, London’s Barbican Centre presented A Countervailing Theory, an installation of forty drawings that traveled in the spring of 2021 to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark, and to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2021 into spring 2022 (closing April 3).
Ojih Odutola’s chalk, pastel, and charcoal drawing, The Listener, shown this spring and summer at Frick Madison, is part of the series of life-size works conceived for A Countervailing Theory. They take visual inspiration from, among other sources, distinctive rock formations found in her native Nigeria. The cycle chronicles an elaborate narrative of a prehistoric civilization of the artist’s creation, one ruled by queer female warriors, the Eshu, who dominate a serving class of male laborers, the Koba. These works are presented as societal relics, as printed scans of fragile rock tablets unearthed during a fictional archaeological dig. Ojih Odutola’s narrative, which centers on a forbidden union between a ruling Eshu warrior and a Koba slave, proposes an imagined world in which traditional relationships codified in historic European art are inverted: heterosexuality is aberrant, homosexuality is compulsory, and women rule men. Not surprisingly, the artist sees structures of power in this fictive world that bear resemblance to those of our own.
Ojih Odutola’s mythical subject draws attention to the many fictions present in Old Master works. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait is the largest and most magisterial of the artist’s many such works. The aging artist depicts himself holding a scepter-like staff and enthroned as if he were a king, yet Rembrandt was destitute when he painted it. The lone figure Ojih Odutola depicts in The Listener—derived from a past as invented as Rembrandt’s self-presentation and, more broadly, canonical histories of art—sits informally, her own staff resting in the crook of her arm. The similarities between the patterns on the figure’s flesh and the surrounding landscape evoke the artist’s long-standing interest in the “topography of skin,” a luminous, sculptural depiction of Black skin employed as a narrative device of its own. The juxtaposition of the works also emphasizes the difference of the materials used by the two artists: Rembrandt’s thickly painted oils versus Ojih Odutola’s charcoal, pastel, and chalk, laboriously applied on a black ground. Through medium and technique, they offer disparate approaches to skin, color, form, and shadow. Ojih Odutola’s drawing immerses the viewer in a world apart though not without parallels to our own. The Listener peers out, the force of her sparkling eyes prompting reflection on myth and history; selfhood and identity; and the power and privilege to create one’s own story.
The rest of the third- and fourth-floor Frick Madison installations, showing highlights from the Frick’s holdings, will remain largely unchanged during this project, offering further context and depth to these confrontations between past and present on the second floor. This year-long project will be accompanied by ongoing programming, and a publication will present reflections on the experiences of the artists and curatorial team. Living Histories has been jointly organized by Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Curator, and Aimee Ng, Curator.
Comments Ian Wardropper, Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Director, “We are thrilled and rewarded by the opportunities presented by our residency at the Breuer building. The positive responses to the reframing of our collection have encouraged us to continue to expand the range of conversations we have around our objects and the breadth of ideas we explore. With this project, involving artists who have been inspired by works at the Frick in their own practice, we invite a rich array of contemporary voices, as we have done more frequently over the past decade. Living Histories builds on our seven-year academic partnership with the Ghetto Film School, installations by artists Arlene Shechet (2016–17) and Edmund de Waal (2019), as well as the acclaimed anthology The Sleeve Should Be Illegal & Other Reflections on Art at the Frick (2021), which features meditations on our collection by sixty-two artists, writers, and other cultural figures.”
Adds Xavier F. Salomon, Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator, “As curators charged with the care and interpretation of our great collection, we want to explore and challenge our audiences—living artists among them—to reflect on how Old Masters retain their relevance today. With this groundbreaking project, we pair European works from centuries past with ones newly commissioned for a fresh dialogue that looks at broad issues around human relationships as represented in paintings. As a queer professional in the arts, I find this exploration significant and at the same time personally familiar. We welcome our audiences to consider alongside us what they see in Old Master as well as contemporary works, from the ambiguity of painted narratives to the assumptions that are part of our viewing experience of portraiture.”
Comments Aimee Ng, Curator, “Another dimension to the selection of artists, each critically acclaimed and creating in distinct figurative modes, is that they represent the diversity and complexity of our city, one rich with queer life and history intersected with many other identities. Among Doron, Salman, Jenna, and Toyin—like so many of the Frick’s staff and the museum’s founder, Henry Clay Frick—none are originally from New York but all chose this city as a home for their careers and relationships. To bring together in this project their contemporary perspectives and our beloved Frick works is an exciting celebration of the past and present, and of the power of building conversations across histories, geographies, and cultures.”