In case you haven’t noticed, the Frick Collection has been on something of a bronze statuette kick over the last decade. During that time, it has mounted five monographic or survey shows of these small collectibles, all organized by the estimable curator Denise Allen.
Portable bronze statuettes began to proliferate in mid-15th-century Italy as antique medals, coins and sculptures began to be collected and the musculature of the body was increasingly studied. The pieces quickly became a competitive artistic medium, frequently taken up by goldsmiths and blossoming especially in Florence. With their emphasis on mythological power struggles and sex — Hercules crushing Antaeus was big, as were upright or reclining Venuses and nymphs — the statuettes were also status symbols. They were cherished by rulers all over Europe, who frequently exchanged them as diplomatic gifts, and by succeeding generations of the high and mighty, including the industrialist Henry Clay Frick.
What was good enough for Frick is evidently good enough for us. But if you have thus far been unmoved by his museum’s curatorial exhortations, “Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes From the Hill Collection,” Ms. Allen’s sixth effort since 2003, may win you over.
This is a sensational show. The collectors Janine and J. Tomilson Hill share a taste for perfection, for historically important, big-statement bronzes in exceptional condition. The 33 works they have acquired since the early 1990s — all on view — include nothing in the way of fragments, damaged pieces or the odd amuse-bouche. This can sometimes feel a bit hygienic, but it also gives the show an air of intense concentration. Fine details, emotional expression, tensed or relaxed limbs and the varied tones of patina are offered to the eye.
The presentation is also unusual because the Hills collect more than bronzes. They mix their statuettes with paintings and other works old and new, and Ms. Allen has superbly juxtaposed them here in a wonderfully clean installation, free of both vitrines and the works’ small bases, called socles. But the big news is that this is the first time late-20th-century paintings have hung in the Frick.
Among the show’s high points is an over-the-top sculpture of Prince Ferdinando di Cosimo III, by Giuseppe Piamontini (1664-1742), one of the last great masters of the Florentine Baroque statuette. It’s unmissable and it’s in a room with three other Piamontinis, which is something of a record for New York, where neither the Frick nor the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns his work.
At around two feet high, this dark-patinated piece is among the largest here, and the only equestrian subject. It shows Ferdinando, the Grand Prince of Tuscany, dressed to the nines in French monarch chic: fancy armor, high boots, a fluttering sash and a wig in full cry. His magnificent, well-accoutered horse rears elegantly on its hind legs. Head to foot, bridle to hoof, the bronze is a tour de force of form and realistic detail and several sorts of power. You feel the weight of the steed’s tilted body, the prince’s easy command. Cast by 1717, the piece caused a stir: Statues or statuettes of rulers on rearing horses were all but unprecedented in Florence then.
Another distinguishing aspect: Ferdinando is displayed with “Seventeenth Century,” a large grisaille painting from 1988 by Ed Ruscha that provides a slyly glamorous silent-movie backdrop worthy of a musketeer. Rising above a low, flat band of black that a distant galleon defines as ocean, a big sky is resplendent with clouds, rays of sunlight and words in Olde English-looking font: “War! Taxes! Alchemy! Plague! Damsels! Melancholia!” and, finally, the apparent punch line, “Firewood!,” a relatively mundane tangible that was nonetheless essential to European life.
The sculpture lends historical accuracy to Mr. Ruscha’s light, linguistic touch. The painting invites you to see the Piamontini as alive and contemporary, and dashingly original. On an adjacent wall hangs an untitled work from 1970 by Cy Twombly in which white oil-stick spirals on a blackboard gray add a spare, modern, implicitly playful elegance to the proceedings while paying oblique homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of deluges.
The Twombly also intimates a wordless yet controlled force — like a high C — that counters the literary (mythological) themes enacted by the other five sculptures that share the gallery with the prince. On a third wall there’s one of Twombly’s less measured efforts, an early Rome painting whose episodic, notational, graffiti-like skirmishes of line and color are fraught with pertinent undercurrents of violence, eroticism and revelry.
Nearby, Piamontini’s hefty “Seated Hercules and Cerberus” gives us Hercules resting after defeating the three-headed guard of Hades, a more loosely modeled work in which fur, club, rock and animal skin are nonetheless differentiated. And there’s also the large “Bacchic Man Wearing a Grotesque Mask,” attributed to the Dutch artist Adriaen de Vries (circa 1545-1626), from around 1578, over 100 years before Piamontini. This work was unusual for depicting the god of wine as a rough, workmanlike figure who might stomp the grapes overflowing the wooden cask on which he rests one foot. The mask, with its eyeholes, jagged nose and sinister clown mouth, is not to be missed.
Nor is a smaller Piamontini, “Milo of Croton,” which illustrates a tale by the ancient Roman writer Valerius Maximus about a wrestler who tests his strength against a sundered oak tree (note the large acorns) only to become caught in the fork of a branch and die, his beautifully proportioned body dangling a few inches off the ground.
These works are grouped in the second and most startling of the three galleries into which Ms. Allen has divided the installation. The first presents 20 bronzes on their own. Like the “Milo,” they are fairly small — 8 to 17 inches tall — and can be viewed closely without losing a sense of the whole, although the most brilliantly composed two- and three-figure pieces must be circled to be fully understood. Spanning the late 15th to the early 18th centuries, these works provide a thumbnail history of the statuette form that covers innovations, Florentine flourishing, the spread to Northern Europe and reigning geniuses.
Most important of these geniuses by far were Giambologna (1529-1608), a Flemish artist who settled in Florence, and his premier assistant, Antonio Susini (1558-1624), who had a gift for casting and also inherited his master’s molds. Giambologna, for example, developed a flowing, serpentine pose under the influence of Michelangelo’s “The Genius of Victory” sculpture. Giambologna’s variation is evident in “Astronomy” (early 1570s), whose shoulders twist away from her hips, while her elegantly coifed head turns back again. (It’s like a seated twist in yoga, except standing.)
The repercussions of “Astronomy” spiral through several works by Susini and sometimes his nephew Gianfrancesco Susini. First there is the astounding “Rape of a Sabine,” from around 1585, a rotating column of bent and straight limbs, exclamatory hands (rigid fingers, separated) and emotions. Nearby, three works share a single pedestal, each depicting a Herculean labor (those involving the hydra, a centaur and Antaeus). Their entwined figures form one of the most heated sculptural moments in a New York museum. Note the amazing red-and-black patina and its effect on the straining bodies of “Hercules Slaying a Centaur.”
For a pause in the action, there is Susini’s “Sleeping Venus” (also after Giambologna), notable for her robust, relaxed body, long neck and possible snoring. The extra-large hands and feet, which are not unusual in this company, seem to add power.
The show rounds out with a tiny upstairs gallery in which Ms. Allen has quarantined five religious bronzes, grouped with other works from the Hill collection. Suffice it to say that a graceful gilded bronze of the dead Christ by Susini after Giambologna hangs next to the visibly suffering “Christ as the Man of Sorrows With Two Angels,” by Giovanni di Paolo, in a sheltering gilded frame. Nearby, a semi-abstract Crucifixion in ceramic with dark metallic glazes by the postwar Italian artist Lucio Fontana is not out of place.