Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters

The Frick Collection’s temporary residence at Frick Madison has prompted new and stimulating ways of looking at the museum’s collection of Old Master paintings. Part of a broad program of publications, digital productions, and collaborations inspired by these new perspectives, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters is an exciting year-long project featuring the work of four New York–based artists: Doron Langberg, Salman Toor, Jenna Gribbon, and Toyin Ojih Odutola. Each presents a single new work in conversation with iconic paintings in the Frick’s collection, with particular emphasis on issues of gender and queer identity typically excluded from narratives of early modern European art.

Installations are located on the second floor of Frick Madison

The series of installations runs from September 2021 through September 11, 2022.


On View | Room 4

charcoal pastel and chalk depiction of seated woman with staff at elbowToyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985)
The Listener, 2021
Charcoal, pastel, and chalk on linen over Dibond panel
84 x 50 x 1 3/8 inches
© Toyin Ojih Odutola
Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

Ojih Odutola’s The Listener is part of a series of drawings that chronicle a prehistoric civilization envisioned by the artist. Here, the ruling class of queer female warriors, the Eshu, dominate the Koba, a serving class of male laborers. The drawings are presented as remains of this imagined civilization, as printed scans of fragile rock tablets unearthed in an archaeological dig in central Nigeria. In this fictive realm, the traditional relationships codified in historic European art are inverted. Heterosexuality is aberrant, homosexuality is compulsory, and women rule men.

Ojih Odutola’s mythical subject draws attention to Old Master fictions. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, for example, is the largest and most magisterial of the artist’s many self-portraits. He appears as if he is enthroned with a scepter-like staff, yet the artist was destitute when he painted it. Seated informally but without conceding authority, her own staff at the crook of her elbow, Ojih Odutola’s subject is from an imagined past. In both works, hands figure prominently—evoking the hands of the artists who applied their media, nearly four centuries apart. The comparison emphasizes the differences of their materials—Rembrandt’s thickly painted oils on canvas versus Ojih Odutola’s drawn charcoal, pastel, and chalk, each leaving their distinctive traces in laboriously applied marks. Through medium and technique, the artists offer disparate approaches to skin, color, form, and shadow. On the black ground of the drawing’s support, the figure in The Listener peers out at the viewer, the force of her sparkling eyes prompting reflection on myth and history, selfhood and identity, and the power and privilege to create one’s own story.

The Listener temporarily takes the place of Rembrandt’s Polish Rider which is currently on loan to the exhibition The King’s Rembrandt: The Polish Rider from The Frick Collection in New York at the Royal Łazienki Museum, Warsaw.

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On View | Room 2

painting of seated woman in purple velvet and red coatJenna Gribbon (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1978)
What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same, 2022
Oil on linen
48 x 36 inches
Courtesy of the artist; Fredericks & Freiser, NY; and MASSIMODECARLO
Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.

Jenna Gribbon questions conventions of portraiture, exploring gendered gazes, presentations of power, and ideas of viewership. Inspired by Hans Holbein’s acute attention to detail, Gribbon creates illusions of tactility in the painting of flesh, hair, fabric, and much else—testaments to the physical presence of the subjects and the painter’s acts of looking at them. Here, Gribbon intervenes in the traditional pairing of two historical men: for about a century, Holbein’s portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell—mortal enemies in the English king Henry VIII’s quest for absolute power—have faced each other in the Frick’s galleries.

Gribbon’s What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same joins Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell in the galleries. Standing in for Thomas More, the painting breaks the historical dynamic of two men in profile, her subject facing frontally, with legs splayed. Gribbon supplants the traditional male gaze with that of a queer woman artist, her subject of ambiguous gender. Her sitter wears six rings—to Cromwell’s one—and an intensely violet velvet suit and a red coat, the color and heightened textural effects verging on camp. Set under glaring light and in the home she shares with the artist, Gribbon’s subject is imbued with a theatrical quality, her torso and breast uncovered, bare-faced and unabashed in confronting the viewer. Gribbon’s painting is an homage to Holbein’s art and an exploration of histories and legacies, initiating conversation between portraits then and now, and viewers past and present.

What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same temporarily takes the place of Sir Thomas More, which is currently on loan to the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York (February 11–May 15, 2022).

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On View | Room 2

A painting with loose brushwork depicting a young man sitting on a couch, reading a piece of paperDoron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985)
Lover, 2021
Oil on linen
30 x 24 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro
Photo by Joseph Coscia Jr.

Langberg’s paintings celebrate the physicality of touch—in subject matter and process. His intimate yet expansive take on relationships, sexuality, nature, family, and the self proposes how painting can both portray and create queer subjectivity. Lover captures a domestic moment: the subject at home and undressed, nestled in a sofa reading a paper.

Like Holbein’s portrait of Thomas More, Lover is based on direct observation and a close study of the sitter. The artists share a desire for their paintings to feel as alive as their subjects—as Holbein himself stated—and both use surface treatment and paint handling to animate their respective figures, albeit in much different ways. With expressive gestures, abstracted depictions, and broad swaths of intense color, Langberg combines the evidence of his painting process with naturalistic portrayals of the human form, carefully noting its contours, textures, and details like body hair and the fall of light on flesh. Where, for Holbein, the illusion of tactility—a stubbled chin, a velvet sleeve—conveys his own mastery as a painter and the material wealth and power of his sitters, for Langberg, physical and illusory tactility eroticize his subject and his viewers’ acts of looking. By engaging the viewer in this desirous relationship with the paint and subject, Langberg brings us into his queer world.

Lover temporarily takes the place of Holbein’s Thomas Cromwell, which is currently on loan to the exhibition Holbein: Capturing Character in the Renaissance at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (October 19, 2021–January 9, 2022).

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Audio Transcripts

Toyin Ojih Odutola's Commentary

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

Toyin Ojih Odutola's monumental drawing, The Listener, engages with the works by Rembrandt in this room. Here is the artist.

[Toyin Ojih Odutola, Artist]

In this room at Frick Madison, two pictures bookend the career of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. From the 1631 commission of Nicolaes Ruts, a merchant of Russian fur trade, to the 1658 fantastical self portrait by which time he was fiscally, legally and personally troubled. They're a true testament to his artistic skill and labor. My contribution, The Listener, a seven foot high, lone androgynous figure, temporarily sits in the place of The Polish Rider amongst them.

The global expansion of Northern Europe contextualizes Rembrandt's works. This perspectival transition literally altered cartographic and ecological landscapes. Ideas around sovereignty of the self shifted cultures towards singular manifestations, further affirmed by the fraternizing of faith with trade. Rembrandt's self-portrait drawings are where I find connection and focus. His manner of rendering, careful in parts, then cavalier. His paintings, however, deal in psychological play, no more evidenced by the one centered here. When exhibited at The Met in 1909, it was described as "the head of an old lion at bay, worn and melancholy, yet conscious of his strength, determined and a little defiant."

Together our juxtaposition might seem odd: there are stark distinctions in the colors of Rembrandt's thick paint to the drawn inverted, chalky economy of mine. Also, the men are occupied: either engaged in sales ledgers, or with the self-possession creative lineage affords. Despite their assertive stances, these pictures force you to reckon with a lonesome power. The staff at the inner elbow leaves the hands of my picture empty. This doesn't imply ceding to or a deference for the other actors present. Power is collaborative.

It's apt Rembrandt's most audacious self portrait would be in the collection of an industrialist. A definition of power for another man to express ownership. Self-image documentation being the immediate marker of time can be an expensive means of taking stock. Rembrandt had a way of capturing himself which allured people who wanted what he saw. Art dealer Charles Carstairs, who aided in Frick's acquisition of the work had this to say in 1906: "It is most powerful, grand, monumental. If only you could see the picture over your mantel, dominating the entire gallery, just as you dominate those you come into contact with...." You could easily believe the confidence of Carstairs's convictions were it not for the look an Rembrandt's face.

Perhaps I should find solace in how Rembrandt and I imagine a past to escape and cloak ourselves into our personal truths? I'd like to believe The Listener holds the same if not more contradictory ideas, pushing farther than comforting tales of lore to another, inclusive plane. Acknowledging we are here, in this costume, is not enough. During my sojourn, I'm thinking about the ways in which we can directly engage in purposeful confrontation and building; how to hold space for multiple perspectives within our vast, evolving world. Choosing to be quiet is its own defiant power, and to let others speak isn't a small courtesy, it's an act of sovereignty.

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

The Listener is part of the year-long project, Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, and is on view through September 11th, 2022.

Jenna Gribbon's Commentary

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

Jenna Gribbon’s What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same engages with the 16th-century portrait by Hans Holbein in this room. Here is the artist describing how Holbein’s art inspires her, and the themes she explores in her painting.

[Jenna Gribbon, Artist]

When we encounter a portrait in a museum, our thoughts often turn immediately to who the subject is, and what made them special enough to be enshrined in that rarified space. My work tends to be about positioning the viewer into a place of self-consciousness of their consumption of an image of another person’s body or intimate moment. I wanted my painting entitled What Am I Doing Here? I Should Ask You the Same to empower my subject, who is my partner Mackenzie, and put her in a position to question your questioning of her. Unlike Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, who turned toward each other in the Frick’s hanging, offering us their profiles, Mackenzie greets us head on, her expression indicating that we’re intruding. The title is also a reference to my own feelings about being “allowed” to show at the Frick. Growing up in East Tennessee, I didn’t have access to museums, and I fantasized about being able to see paintings in real life. I couldn’t imagine seeing one painting of the caliber of anything in the Frick’s collection, and I never imagined a place where there would be so many. For me, museums are still aspirational places where I feel lucky to visit, much less exhibit, and that’s without even considering that the Frick houses so few women artists. This reality moves the aspirational to the realm of completely unattainable, and my subject’s face reflects my own skepticism. Holbein’s subjects are depicted with legible status symbols that signal power and social status—essentially their right to be featured in the painting. One thing I love about Holbein is the way he paints each object and surface so separately and with such potency that they are like talismans each holding their own discreet powers. I decided to play up these seductive features to the level of camp—camp being a cornerstone of the queer aesthetic historically. There’s not just one or two kinds of velvet, but three, and not just one opulent ring, but six, and all of this humorously contrasts with the subdued domestic setting of the home I share with my partner, the only details of which you’re privy to are our uncovered radiator and the door from which she bars your entry. And knowing that Sir Thomas More and his beautifully velvet sleeves so deftly highlighted would be greatly missed by Frick visitors, I wanted to reference that uncanny tactility, though my highlights emphasize a very different part of my subject’s anatomy. 

[Aimee Ng, Curator]

The installation is part of the series Living Histories: Queer Views and Old Masters, and will be on view until May 2022.

About the Artists

  • photo of Toyin Ojih Odutola

    Toyin Ojih Odutola (b. Ile-Ife, Nigeria, 1985) is known for works on paper that explore the malleability of identity and possibilities in visual storytelling. Interested in “the topography of skin,” she has a distinctive style of mark making using basic drawing materials, such as pens, pencils, pastels, and charcoal. This technique involves the building up of layers through blending and shading, creating compositions that reinvent and reinterpret the traditions of portraiture. Ojih Odutola credits the development of her style to using pen, which, as a writing tool, links her work to fiction in crafted narratives that unfold through series of artworks like the chapters of a book. Her work is inspired by both art history and popular culture, as well as her own personal history—from her birth in Nigeria to her childhood move to America, where she was raised in conservative Alabama. In more recent series, she has explored depictions of landscapes, architecture, and domestic interiors. Ojih Odutola’s work has been presented in several shows at Jack Shainman Gallery; her first solo museum exhibition in New York, To Wander Determined, was held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2017–18. In late 2020, London’s Barbican Centre presented A Countervailing Theory, which traveled in the spring of 2021 to the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art in Aalborg, Denmark. The installation is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., through April 3, 2022.

    Photo: Beth Wilkinson


  • photo of Jenna Gribbon

    Jenna Gribbon (b. Knoxville, Tennessee, 1978) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her syncretic canvases draw on several centuries of painting: figures disporting themselves in a sylvan setting recall Fragonard’s fêtes galantes; interiors with swiftly articulated walls evoke the cursory backgrounds of Mary Cassatt; gently distorted architectural features summon the laissez-faire depictions of Karen Kilimnik. Sampling freely from various representational techniques and movements, Gribbon’s paint handling ranges from the virtuosic to the intentionally slapdash; fast, impressionistic strokes often abut minutely illustrated details, highlighting the artist’s interest in collapsing numerous pictorial strategies into a single canvas. Her work has been exhibited widely in the United States and abroad. She has been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw; the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville; and the Kurpfälzisches Museum, Heidelberg (upcoming). Gribbon is represented by Fredericks & Freiser, NY and MASSIMODECARLO. This past Fall Gribbon's work was the subject of a solo exhibition, Uscapes, at Fredericks & Freiser, New York and MASSIMODECARLO presented a solo show, Light Holding, in London in early 2022. A monograph of Gribbon's work was published by GNYP GmbH in September 2021.

    Photo: Nir Arieli


  • photo of Doron Langberg

    Doron Langberg (b. Yokneam Moshava, Israel, 1985) lives and works in New York City. He received his M.F.A. from the Yale University School of Art, holds a B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and attended the Yale Summer School of Music and Art, Norfolk. Langberg has attended the EFA Studio Program, Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, Yaddo artist residency, and the Queer Art Mentorship Program. He is the recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters’s John Koch Award in Art, an Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Grant, and the Yale Schoelkopf Travel Prize. Langberg’s first solo exhibition in London, Give Me Love, is at Victoria Miro until November 6, 2021. Langberg’s work will be included in a major group exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in 2022. Previously, his work has been shown at institutional venues including the LSU Museum of Art, American Academy of Arts and Letters, Leslie-Lohman Museum, and the PAFA Museum. His work is in the collections of the ICA Miami, PAFA Museum, and RISD Museum. This summer Langberg’s work was featured in the show Intimacy: New Queer Art from Berlin and Beyond at the Schwules Museum, Berlin.

    Photo: Rafael Martinez


    Previously on View »
  • photo of Salman Toor

    Salman Toor (b. Lahore, Pakistan, 1983) was the subject of a critically acclaimed solo exhibition, How Will I Know, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2020–21. Other recent solo shows include The Pleasure Pavilion: A series of installations | Salman Toor (Luhring Augustine, Brooklyn, New York) and I Know a Place (Nature Morte Gallery, New Delhi, India). Toor’s work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions and projects, including Any distance between us (RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island); and I will wear you in my heart of heart (FLAG Art Foundation, New York); Art on the Grid: 50 Artists’ Reflections on the Pandemic (Public Art Fund, New York); Relations: Diaspora and Painting (PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montreal); Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago); You Here? (Lahore Biennale 2018, Pakistan); and the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India. His work is in the permanent collections of the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College, New York; M Woods Museum, Beijing, China; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Tate, London; RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island; the Wake Forest University Art Collection, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Toor is the recipient of a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant. An image of his painting Music Room (2021) is featured on the Hayward Gallery Billboard, London, through spring 2022. Toor earned his M.F.A. at Pratt Institute in 2009.

    Photo: Salman Toor


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