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Elective Affinities: Edmund de Waal at The Frick Collection is a contemporary installation in an historic collection by an artist particularly suited to this challenge. De Waal, a British sculptor and writer, often works in porcelain. He creates objects of intended contradictions: sleek and imperfect, refined and whimsical. While his art thrives on a certain restraint, his writing reveals his passion for the histories of art and material culture. In The Hare with Amber Eyes he traces the story of his family’s collection of Japanese netsuke. These small porcelain objects become portals to the multigenerational history of de Waal’s lineage in the Euphressi family, extremely wealthy Jewish bankers whose assimilated and cultured lives in Odessa, Vienna, and Paris were brought to an abrupt end by the Holocaust. In The White Road de Waal traces the origins of porcelain throughout China, Germany, and England, exploring the material’s complicated sociopolitical histories. In de Waal’s writing, objects are never self-contained, but rather open onto expansive stories. As might be expected, the nine works the artist has created for Elective Affinities similarly suggest conversations: between a collector and an artist, America and Europe, materials and their histories.
Henry Clay Frick, a steel magnate and union buster of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, collected masterpieces — everything from Qing Dynasty porcelain to 14th-century, European religious painting to 19th-century Whistler portraits. For his intervention into the museum’s permanent collection, De Waal has created starkly outlined, clear, glass vitrines that hold bowls, vessels, slabs, and shards of porcelain, steel, and gold. The vitrines are abstract contemporary objects — glass containers filled with simple shapes. Their conversations with Frick’s much older collection are complicated and — for the viewers not steeped in how abstract art might relate to art and objects from different eras — the exhibition experience is greatly enhanced by an audio guide written and read by de Waal.
In the guide, De Waal describes the Frick Collection’s dining room as “a fantasy of the English country house.” His two works for this room, “on living in an old country I–II” (both 2019) are placed in conversation with a pair of late-18th-century Thomas Gainsborough portraits that depict two British noblewomen against countryside backdrops. In glass vitrines de Waal has placed steel receptacles and fragments of poetry etched on broken porcelain. De Waal muses that these pieces are about, “My response to Englishness … when I think about being English I want to break things.” While porcelain shards might suggest anarchy to the artist, to a viewer they are actually quite pleasing to the eye — delicate pieces encased on three sides by a clean steel box. This attempted subversion of English propriety, class, and nobility is a gesture too small to hold its own in the room.
Fortunately many of de Waal’s other interventions come off much more successfully. In the Fragonard Room “on an archaic torso of Apollo” (2019) contains two sets of small, stacked porcelain bowls; their nesting evokes love and passion. This piece is difficult to find, its golden frame blending into the backdrop of gilded furniture. De Waal notes that, “it should be here and yet completely fugitive.” The viewer’s act of seeking fits perfectly with Fragonard’s scenes of courtship.
Elective Affinities particularly succeeds when materials in de Waal’s works resonate with the permanent collection. In the North Hall, under one of the most striking works in the collection, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s “Portrait of Comtesse d’Haussonville” (1845), de Waal has created “that pause of space,” (2019) which he describes as riffing on a “formal arrangement of porcelain.” The Comtesse, a French aristocrat recognized in her time as particularly erudite, has a beguiling stare, and a look of poised intelligence. De Waal’s gold-edged vitrine with eight porcelain vessels (six unglazed) shimmers from the light of golden slabs that rest between the vessels. The mixture of delicate white, gilded metal, and subtle light from the lustrous slabs plays beautifully with the enigmatic gaze of the Comtesse.
In the Library, de Waal has removed a dozen volumes from a low bookshelf and replaced them with three glass vitrines containing strong looking, black vessels and pieces of steel. The choice of materials speaks directly to Frick’s personage and fortune, and the substitution of “an alchemy” (2019) for books reminds the viewer that steel money formed the foundation of everything in the house. De Waal describes this relationship as “steel into wealth, and of course wealth into art.”
In addition to narration, the audio guide and website contain music that inspired the artist. He notes that in the West Gallery, music was essential to the forms of “noontime and dawntime” and “from darkness to darkness,” (both 2019) his two vitrines for the space. Including so much information about the artist’s thoughts and inspirations make Elective Affinities as much about the process of creating art as the final result. The exhibition principally explores the act of looking, drawing viewers into the stories of the permanent collection and into a contemporary artist’s intellectual and aesthetic reckonings and inventions.
Elective Affinities: Edmund de Waal at The Frick Collection continues through November 17 at the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan). The exhibition is organized by Charlotte Vignon, the curator of decorative arts for the Frick.