The freight train of art history is long and winding. Its many powerful locomotives are somewhere far away, over the hills, obscured by the ridges of time and place. Yet the smoke from these engines is palpably in the air we breathe. Some of these engines are cave painting, tribal art, cuneiform writing, Persian miniatures, Neolithic stone carving, Egyptian art, ancient figurines, and Greek sculpture. Much closer in time—only a little over 800 years from here—are three gigantic pictorial engines that changed everything and threw the train of art history onto the track it’s still on. These big three are Duccio, Giotto, and Cimabue.
The three Italian artists were all born within 27 years of one another, starting with Cimabue in 1240. At the moment, New York has the exquisite treat of having two Cimabues displayed side by side in a tiny room off the main entrance of the magnificent Frick Collection. In these two works you can behold the beginning of the end of the Byzantine way of seeing everything at once in different scales and various cosmic dimensions and the rudimentary start of perspectival space. One is a flagellation of Christ with the Messiah tied to a gorgeous salmon-colored marble column; the other is a portrait of Mary flanked by angels and holding her tiny beatific child. It is said that when people first saw these paintings they thought the figures in them were almost real.
Also in this walk-in wonder cabinet are eight devotional pictures, so called because of their small scale. I fell for four tempera-and-gold-leaf-on-parchment illuminations by Pacino di Bonaguida. The opaque colors and simple forms of these gorgeous scenes from the life of Christ fast-forwarded me right back on the train of art history, where I’m sure I saw Donald Judd.