A Review of Elective Affinities: Edmund de Waal at The Frick Collection, New York
"I hear objects. With objects it is possible not only to sound them, make them and make sense of them through language, but hear their kinship with words themselves. Some things feel like nouns, words with physicality, shape and weight. They have a self-contained quality, a sense that you could put them down and they would displace the same amount of the world around them. Other objects are verbs and are in flux. But when I see them I hear them. A stack of bowls is a chord."
- Edmund de Waal
Elective Affinities: Edmund de Waal at The Frick Collection sings beautifully. If you look closely enough you can feel the presence of both melody and counterpoint. In this exhibition, Edmund de Waal, a ceramist known for his porcelain vessels and the clean, minimalist structures in which he has arranged his pieces since 2005; engages in dialogue with the permanent holdings of The Frick Collection, addressing the weight of history, of art, of porcelain, and is ever attentive to the cadences of life. There is a lyrical musicality to his pieces. These nine site-specific works, commissioned by The Frick with assistance from Charlotte Vignon, Curator of Decorative Arts, explore themes of space, light, power, repetition, rhythm, and caesurae. The compositions provoke conversations between the historic and contemporary; they encourage a discourse between viewer and object. They are poetry captured in visual form.
One cannot examine Edmund de Waal's exquisite installations without first understanding the context in which they were so thoughtfully placed. So we begin with steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), a Pennsylvania-born ‘robber-baron’ of the American Gilded Age, an erstwhile business associate of Scottish-born steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and later, American financier and United States Steel executive J.P. Morgan. What followed: the New York City mansion Frick constructed in 1913, and the collection he bequeathed to the public upon his death in 1919. Frick's bequest became The Frick Collection, a jewel-box of a museum situated on Fifth Avenue within New York's Upper East Side, most renowned for the Old Master paintings, furniture, and decorative arts encased within. As de Waal elucidates, "vitrines are a way of framing the world. They borrow space, they borrow light, and they borrow air." The Frick Collection is an ideal vitrine.
When thinking of Frick, it’s easy to imagine uncompromising business dealings, wealth, and labor; expertly contrasted with the defiant breathlessness and airiness in de Waal's creations. They are delicate objects ˗ vessels, really. A delight juxtaposed against both a steel magnate's looming history and in one instance, Francisco Goya's painting, The Forge. It is in the West Gallery near The Forge where one can begin to envision rugged men, hammers clanking rhythmically, sinewy muscles straining under the force of impact, again, and again, and again, and again. One imagines a smoggy odour of bituminous coal, molten ore, flaming coke, and ultimately, the hard surface of steel, and the countless vessels which embody Capitalism and Industry in its current iteration and as it was in generations past. Thanks to de Waal, one thinks of the transformation of raw materials to ships, railroads, and skyscrapers. Additionally, one experiences the metamorphosis of milled and brushed steel, porcelain made from steel grounds, stained, patinated, and aged, into noontime and dawntime and from darkness to darkness.
It is intellectual labor, as well; the business acumen of Frick, the aesthetic considerations of de Waal. In Frick's Library, we encounter a hidden surprise, an alchemy, nestled in the bookcase among volumes of leather bound books, perhaps containing records detailing how steel transformed into fortune. In place of a ten volume set of tomes, The Book of Wealth by Hubert Howe Bancroft, de Waal inserts his puckish commentary. Here, de Waal creates an alchemy, too; his vessels porcelain, crisp and perfect in form. Black porcelain and gold encased within darkened, brushed steel. It is in these moments of whispered dialogue when de Waal is at his best. For a fleeting instant, the ruthlessness of Frick, Carnegie, Rockefeller, all shrewd captains of industry who built their empires upon the back of others' toil, becomes disturbingly beautiful.
Winding through each of The Frick Collection galleries, we encounter on living in an old country I & II occupying the Dining Room, distinctly British with furnishings acquired from the Dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth. The room has respectable grandeur, controlled in its luxury. Contained within, defined pairs: two paintings of society women, Mrs. Peter William Baker and The Hon. Frances Duncombe, both by Thomas Gainsborough, both glancing over her shoulder at something or someone off in the distance. Beneath each portrait, heavy steel boxes containing preternaturally thin sheets of white and gold. It is within these constrained boundaries de Waal rebels, placing delicate, pristine shards within a smaller, weighty steel box. Inscribed on these ethereal shards, the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
In the North Hall, we encounter another aristocratic lady, Comtesse d'Haussonville by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Here, we are offered a respite from stultifying tradition. A fiercely independent woman, the Comtesse was successful in her own right, having published biographies on Lord Byron and Robert Emmet, and not wholly defined by her husband's title. Edmund de Waal's aptly titled work, a pause of space, is the counterpoint to generations of social customs. The piece is unglazed. It is a breath of air, a caesura.
The Fragonard Room also stands in direct opposition to the more subdued ethos of Frick's Dining Room. It is a room so distinctly French in late Rococo styling; a nod toward excess, hedonism, and So. Much. Gold. Within this gilt confection sits de Waal's bonbon, an archaic torso of Apollo. Within its golden frame, porcelain so delicate. It floats on a plinth of Plexiglas and gleams, inviting us, the viewer, to contemplate.
"Porcelain warrants a journey, I think," writes de Waal. "Porcelain starts elsewhere, takes you elsewhere. Who could not be obsessed?" And so, we are. As we wander the galleries, we breathe a sigh of reverence for the Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, I as it converses with Duccio di Buoninsegna's The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, and an annunciation as it replies to the Boucher. And thanks to Edmund de Waal, we think of porcelain's historic journey beginning in Jingdezhen, China, journeying to Saint-Cloud, then on to the Meissen manufactory in Germany, Sèvres in France, and eventually, to Edmund de Waal's studio in London. Those works now on display in New York City, where we can experience them in situ at The Frick Collection.
This past Spring, Edmund de Waal gave a lecture at The Frick, Steel Light: Materials and Memories, on occasion of his site-specific exhibition, "Elective Affinities." He spoke of his first encounter with Chardin's Still Life with Plums, the only still life painting contained within The Frick Collection. "It was an epiphany. Epiphany: when something irrevocable happens and the world goes on." Like de Waal almost forty years ago, I too, experienced an epiphany at The Frick.
Written by Robyn Tisman, a Contributor to Arteviste