You have to feel for the Frye Art Museum. Like the Barnes outside Philadelphia or the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, the Frye has to keep certain works on view all the time—except the vast majority of the works the Frye has to keep on view all the time are not half as good as the ones at the Barnes or the Gardner.
That's why the Frye can sometimes seem like a woman with too few options in her closet. No matter how you mix them, these are still the same old paintings.
Under the direction of Midge Bowman and the curatorial leadership of Robin Held—a contemporary-art specialist who probably never thought she'd be waking up every morning trying to think of new ways to present the Munich Secession—the Frye has fought like hell to escape this fate over the last few years. The Frye has fought like hell to do for its own art what the best art does for its audience: make it strange again, make you see something new, give you a new start.
At times it's felt like a depressing exercise. But for the most part, ironically, the new Frye is much more respectful, interested in, and engaged with all that old art than the old, sleepy Frye was. Held has hung those paintings crowded, salon-style; she has withheld the favorites and solicited memories of them; she has brought in contemporary artists to respond to them with writing and with new work; she has helped to organize their coming back together with their counterparts still held in Munich; she has put together themed shows as well as small, jewel-like solo shows of artists the Fryes loved and collected in some depth
At the same time, working with the state attorney general, Held, Bowman, and the museum's board have hammered out a Trust Estate Dispute Resolution Agreement (TEDRA)—an agreement to change the terms of the Frye will so that the three central galleries of the museum are not restricted only to paintings from the founding collection. This will keep those paintings from being seen at all times, true; but it will also keep them from becoming stale, and from the Frye having to juggle them into more tricks than they can support. Purists might see this as a betrayal of the will, but the way I see it, Held is the best friend these paintings have had since Charles and Emma Frye. People are actually looking at these paintings again, and in new ways.
The latest example is Over Julia’s Dead Body: Gabriel von Max’s Mystics and Martyrs, which I caught yesterday at the press preview for The Puppet Show, a thoroughly contemporary show that opens tonight and is definitely worth a visit or two (more on that soon).
Over Julia's Dead Body is one of those jewel solo shows. It contains six paintings and takes up only a single gallery, a room off the museum's cafe, enclosed by a sign overhead—tomb-like, a little.
Its centerpiece is The Christian Martyr, a sexually charged portrait of a crucified woman von Max painted in 1867. I've seen this painting no fewer than 10 times at the Frye, and was starting to become blind to it, when I walked up to it today and put on a pair of headphones hanging in front of it. I pressed a red button and through the headphones came the majestically gravelly voice of Seattle writer Lesley Haz
elleton, speaking as the martyr.
In March, when Paul Constant wrote about the Frye-collection-inspired book of writings by Seattle authors, Looking Together, he dissed this particular short story by Haz
elleton's story from the point of view of the crucified woman in Gabriel von Max's 1867 painting The Christian Martyr thuds along like a bad museum brochure that lamely tries to make the facts entertaining ("But then I was no lady. Just a mere slave girl from Carthage, on the northern tip of Africa...").
And he's right. On the page, the words just sit there.
In front of the painting, as Haz
elleton's voice speaks directly into your ear as if she's right behind you, so close you could easily touch, her story is a killer. One minute it's sexy—her voice is sexy the whole time—and the next she's describing exactly what it feels like to be crucified, about how her hair was torn out, about her scalp bleeding, about her lungs collapsing, about her suffocation.
I quickly started to realize: I'll never see this painting again without feeling this salty woman next to me.
I began to wonder whether this was okay, whether I should stop, take off the headphones. Did I want my Christian Martyr to be Haz
elletonned for all time? In part, I decided to stay; in part, Haz elleton talked me into it. She was just so convincing.
Afterward, I thought: since when can't a painting stand up to a story? I'm glad I stayed.
UPDATE: I wrote this yesterday. Then, last night, I had the most amazing dream starring none other than Lesley Haz
elleton. She was gorgeous, and she was 98.