Old Masters & New Visions

Although the treasures under his care are old masters, Ian Wardropper, director of The Frick Collection on the Upper East Side, continues to present his audiences with new experiences. This month it’s the El Greco 400th anniversary exhibition. Four of the artist’s paintings are on view (one of which is also shared with Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery, a coinciding Frick exhibit) and another 15 are at the Metropolitan Museum, making a walk up 5th Avenue the best viewing of El Greco’s work outside of Spain.

It’s the perfect time to get to know the Spanish Renaissance master who Wardropper called, “one of the most fascinating artists ever.” In the 1500s, when realism was prized, El Greco broke all the rules by pushing his figures, like those in “Purification of the Temple,” almost to abstraction. Instead of staid, drab likenesses, his were twisting and writhing with tension in full Technicolor—startlingly original. He is one of the few painters to be both hundreds of years ahead of his time and also remain highly influential for hundreds of years afterwards. “He really appeals to a modern sensibility,” Wardropper said.

El Greco was a Greek who traveled and studied in Venice and Rome before arriving in Spain. “Somehow, each of these different cultures had an impression on him. He blossomed in a way no one else has ever seen,” Wardropper said. “He created forms that are just so visionary, and colors that are so striking, that there’s never been anybody quite like him.”

The El Greco exhibition was specifically timed to coincide with the Met’s show. The Frick’s collection doesn’t travel, so Wardropper and his colleagues at the Met designed two installations at two institutions to give New York a spectacular complementary view of one great artist.

This unusual cross-museum pollination is the kind of innovative exhibition Wardropper’s been putting together since he took the helm in 2011. He’s not averse to mixing things up, like this summer, when he exhibited contemporary works by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha alongside Renaissance bronzes. “I arrived saying I wasn’t going to bring any contemporary art and I’ve already broken the rule a couple of times,” he admitted with a smile.

Wardropper became director of the Frick after heading enormous departments of sculpture and decorative arts, first at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Met. But it was here he came to understand that less can be more. “The Frick is a small, intimate place. When I moved, I realized I had to rethink how to approach many things. So instead of doing the largest exhibition in the world, what’s a really good, focused exhibition? This is what the Frick is about…You can just stop and fall in love with one painting or one work of art.”

Wardropper grew up in Baltimore where his father was a professor of romance languages. Every summer they traveled to Scotland to visit family where he “spent a lot of time being led through the cathedrals of Europe and museums. One of my very first memories is of looking at Velázquez’s ‘Las Meninas’ at the Prado…For a seven-year-old it made a big impression.”

It was an impression that stayed with him. While studying at Brown, Wardropper took his first art history course and never looked back. After completing his Ph.D. at NYU in the 70s, he headed to Chicago for 20 years and then chaired the sculpture department at the Met for another 10.

Since arriving at the Frick, Wardropper has presented some of the most critically acclaimed, yet intimate, exhibitions in New York. Last winter’s Masterpieces of Dutch Painting brought exquisite paintings like Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (dubbed the Mona Lisa of the North) and Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch” to eager audiences. But, it also brought lines stretching around the block. The more than 235,000 visitors were eager to catch a glimpse of these world-famous Dutch works that only visit the US about every 20 years.

That’s why Wardropper and the museum recently announced plans for an expansion that includes classrooms, conservation studios and larger galleries. For many special exhibits, the permanent collection has to be taken down to make room for the loans. The new design will allow both to stay up. The 2020 completion date is a long way off, but will provide the public easier access to the institute’s many treasures.

It will also make possible something Wardropper’s particularly pleased with—the opportunity to open the upstairs to visitors. “Trying to get more people to spend time looking at a single work and sharing it with others—for me, that’s what it all comes down to.” The Frick family’s living quarters, along with many more works of art, will be displayed for the first time.

See it: Four El Greco paintings, including one Wardropper described as a “spooky picture of two men and a monkey in candlelight” and Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery will be on view Nov 5—Feb 1.