Puzzling Over the Parrish's Permanent Collection

Lots to consider, admire, and puzzle over
An installation in the Parrish Art Museum’s central gallery includes work by, from left, Dorothea Rockburne, Friedebald Dzubas, Michael Tetherow, and Donald Sultan.

Don’t you just love permanent-collection shows? Even institutions as large as the Metropolitan Museum of Art never get to show all of their holdings at one time. Sometimes there are good reasons objects are not on display, but many times it just has to do with whether they fit a chosen theme or time period.

When a museum like the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill expands, it has the opportunity to pull out works long in storage and mix and match them with new and possibly desired acquisitions. These installations, set up in the rear or east galleries, have remained up for a year since the new museum opened. It leaves us plenty of time to assess and enjoy them before they are again put away in mothballs.

The current show, up since November, gives us lots to consider, admire, and puzzle over. Let’s start with Albert Pinkham Ryder. His painting of a monastery, included in the American Views themed room, does not look all that American. Even though there are monasteries in the United States, it’s a view much more associated with European landscapes. Then there is the fascinating question of an association here. The museum’s website indicates that its possession of the painting, purchased in 1988, is the only thing connecting Ryder to the East End.

The visionary proto-Modernist painter was born and raised in New Bedford, Mass., and spent most of his adult life in New York City when he wasn’t traveling in Europe. He is known for producing relatively few paintings, as he obsessively reworked his compositions, layering on paint and varnish in ways that made his surfaces unstable and prone to losses. He is also known for being one of the most forged American artists in history, which adds a layer of intrigue to the mix (the Parrish piece has long been authenticated, however, so no specific intrigue there).

The Ryder painting is placed amid works by artists such as Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Edith Prellwitz, and William Merritt Chase, including Chase’s “The Big Bayberry Bush,” arguably the crown jewel of the Parrish collection in terms of artist stature, quality, and local subject mater. In this context, its inclusion can make your head pop, but leaves you happy it is there.

Broken down into various themes, the exhibition is quite captivating. In particular, some unfamiliar names bring about many of its high points. Michael Tetherow’s untitled painting, in a thick impasto of black oil paint layered in some places over red, was surprising with its two eye-like oval cuts in the top third of the canvas. They are not overtly noticeable at first, but once perceived, they become the work’s memorable focal point. What first seems like just another monochrome abstraction grows and builds on itself to give the viewer much to consider.

Another revelation was Friedebald Dzubas, a German immigrant who lived in Amagansett in the 1950s, according to the Parrish website. He shared a Manhattan studio with Helen Frankenthaler, and the two developed the stain-painting technique for which she became famous. A very large undated work takes up valuable real estate in the big center gallery alongside pieces by Frankenthaler, Robert Gober, Donald Sultan, Stephen Antonakos, Dorothea Rockburne, and others. It more than holds its own, offering hints of Arshile Gorky’s style of abstraction while suggesting some bits of landscape or figurative elements. It is a bit surprising, then, that Dzubas enjoyed the blessing of that arch-formalist Clement Greenberg, who was also a friend. Another Dzubas canvas in the installation’s “Inscape” room is just as compelling but more fully non-objective.

James Brooks is given his due with a room devoted to his works and a large painting in the center gallery. Although the Parrish has a number of Brooks works in its collection, those on view in this show are primarily from the James and Charlotte Brooks Foundation. If the museum is compiling a shopping list, it has chosen a good mix of works on paper: drawings, collage, and prints. “Mardon,” a square acrylic painting, is also a worthy candidate. In a section devoted to home, there are new acquisitions, such as worksby Monica Banks and Christa Maiwald, related to cake, and a moody and magnificent Robert Dash, given to the Parrish by the Madoo Conservancy. They join a number of Fairfield Porter interiors and some fun and obsessive sculptural works by Yinka Shonibare and Joe Fig that take dollhouses as their springboard but evolve into so much more. The unusual mediums addressing traditional subject matter reveal an irreverent and subversive aspect to the acquisitions process that should be encouraged.

Not to be strident, but after years of hearing that the new museum would tell the story of East End artists, it is puzzling when wall space that might be taken by them is instead occupied by those “from away.” Jean-Luc Mylayne, whose five large-format photographs occupy a whole wall in the spine gallery, is one such. The French photographer seems to take his images in a western landscape. The only thing tying him to the East End is a show he had in the old museum and the gift of several of his photographs in 2009. And there are others, such as Ellsworth Kelly, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Martin Johnson Heade with either slight (does one visit count?) or nonexistent ties to the area. 

It would be great to have some wall text highlighting why artists like these are included, even if they are a part of the permanent collection, maybe especially so. The Kelly is an extended loan, not even part of the collection. Puzzling.

It’s a good thing the installation is up for so long, as there is so much to see. A current favorite in the spine gallery’s “Picturing Artists” assemblage is Linda McCartney’s picture of Sir Paul and Willem de Kooning in East Hampton in 1982. But it will be worth returning to see which works endure in the mind and which benefit from multiple viewings.

The installation will remain on view through October. “Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson: Seen and Unseen” will close on Monday.

Robert Dash’s “Afternoon #2,” an oil-on-canvas painting from 1965, was a gift from the Madoo Conservancy. Daniel Gonzalez
Childe Hassam’s “Church at Old Lyme” is part of the Parrish’s permanent collection.