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A Masterpiece in Danger: In Defense of The Frick

In the crowded landscape of New York City’s art museums, certain institutions shine brighter than others: internationally-known establishments like the Met, the MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum. These Gotham mainstays are but marquee titles in a historically diverse roster of aesthetic paradises: from the Asian art of the Noguchi and Rubin museums to the unicorn tapestries hanging from the Cloisters, virtually every era and style is on display somewhere in the city. There’s something extra special about how those museums capitalize on the artistry and beauty of nature — and the Russell Page Garden at the Frick Museum offers one of New York City’s best examples.

A former mansion, the Frick has since grown into one of the pre-eminent small art museums in the nation, boasting an extensive collection of old master paintings, fine furniture, enamel and rugs, and a sculpture garden to rival New York’s Finest — but the Russell Page Garden tucked away behind the iron fence on Fifth Avenue (in a courtyard located at the heart of the museum,) may be the museum’s most beloved feature.

The Russell Page Garden is 88 feet long, 50 feet wide, and flanked by neoclassical columns and iron Griffins. It’s a vibrant symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the natural world and the man-made realm of art — a welcome change in pace and medium and a testament to its creator, the famed landscape architect Russell Page. It’s a veritable paradise for anyone with an admiration for beauty – but due to recent policy changes at the Frick, it’s also under attack.

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In June 2014, Frick officials announced their plan to build a six-story addition to the existing building – a renovation to be constructed atop the existing garden. Almost immediately, incensed locals accused the museum of going back on a promise it made in its original landmark review four decades ago, in which the Page garden was designated a permanent fixture. “The Frick Collection has decided to abandon its long-term range plans for a wing covering the three lots,” the pertinent documents read, “thus enabling the proposed garden to become a permanent feature instead of the interim garden.”

 

Ian Wardropper, the museum’s director, insists on a different interpretation: “‘Permanent’ meant a garden that would last for a few years until the museum could build the building that was needed. We’re now 40 years later and at that point.” Wardropper further small size and its lack of public accessibility. For Wardropper, the garden was designed as an aesthetically pleasing placeholder for whatever  “real” art was to arrive in the future. But can’t a garden be a work of art in and of itself, or are landscapes innately inferior because the mediums are not man-made? The Russell Page garden is a work of art, and it deserves to be preserved as such.

A fleeting glance around the Russell Page Garden is sufficient to convey its latent beauty, but it takes a careful eye to pick out the details that make it a work of fine art on par with any of the priceless portraits on the other side of the massive glass windows. The modest lily pond sprawled across the central lawn is a masterwork in perspective, its geometry shifting from a receding line of water to a square pool, depending on where you’re standing. “Water between buildings helps to cheat on distance,” Page wrote in House and Garden, echoing an essential law in Fine Art. Like a painter, he understood the essential role of the canvas in art: that nature’s beauty need only a simple frame, rather than festoons, to resonate with the viewer. No detail went unscrutinized, as the landscaper’s remarks on shadows show:

Page: “I needed to hold the spectator’s attention, to tempt the eye to explore and linger.”[addtoany]

Page viewed his landscape as a simultaneous extension of the museum and a standalone work of landscaping rooted in the geometric paradigms of French gardening. And to New Yorkers, the Page garden isn’t just some picnic – it’s the Upper East Side’s very own living painting. As the years pass, the latent paradox of the Page garden becomes more apparent; the “bones” of the structure are constant, but the subtleties of the horticultural “paint” morph with time and season.

Writing for House and Garden in 1977, Page described his intentions for the garden to be a place of “‘tranquility,’ because that is what I feel inside the Frick Collection, and that is the quality shown by the greatest gardens I have known.”

These emotions underscore why saving the Russell Page Garden is an essential step towards the preservation of New York City culture: Tranquility, calmness, and reflection are all emotions we experience when we look at art, not just nature. As New Yorkers call for museum caretakers to reconsider the proposed expansion, discussions about the importance of this garden will only intensify. With enough local support, we hope the Frick will leave the Russell Page Garden intact as a tribute to the oldest of Old Masters – Mother Earth herself.

 

Click here to sign a change.org petition protesting the proposed demolition of the Frick’s Russell Page Garden.

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