With a year or so left until it decamps to new digs, the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton appears in no danger of biding its time with tame filler shows. The latest exhibit, “American Portraits: Treasures From the Parrish Art Museum,” may overstate its contents, but the show is assertive, challenging, and downright fun to see.
Spanning three centuries, the exhibit works best when it is flouting custom, placing this staid 19th-century dowager next to that contemporary photograph or modernist squiggle. Rather than make excuses for holes in its collection, the installation celebrates the eclectic mix of holdings and plays it up for fun and adventure, allowing for all kinds of interpretations of what a portrait is and what are, and were, its conventions.
All kinds of surprises await, including working photographs of William Merritt Chase along with a few of his portraits. William Sidney Mount, who was an artist farther west on Long Island, is a welcome addition. His folksy but accomplished work broadens the Parrish’s geographical sphere of artistic endeavor past Southampton Town’s western boundary. Placing a portrait by Mount from 1833 next to Chase’s “The Golden Lady” from 1896 may have been the most predictable pairing, but much changed in those 60-some years. It is the difference between Piero della Francesca’s “Duke and Duchess of Urbino” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the stiffness of the former melting into ease and luxurious atmosphere of the latter.
Another obvious yet unexpected pairing is a traditional portrait by Walter Stuempfig of a boy assuming the role of a bullfighter with a very contemporary photographic portrait by Tina Barney of a bullfighter dressing or undressing. The images have a sense of modern nostalgia, heightening the strangeness of a traditional costume in a modern era, and they are moody and mysterious in different ways.
The show greets the viewer with the newest work, a 2011 painting Billy Sullivan made from a photograph taken in 1978 of his sons with his friend Edo. Mr. Sullivan went back into his photo files after his oldest son, Max, died in 2005 and found new inspiration both in reprinting the photographs digitally and in making new paintings from them. The artist captures the Technicolor magic of a South Fork afternoon and the wonder of a mirror in bright and colorful surroundings from the perspective of completely engaged boys.
It might seem that Mr. Sullivan’s candid snapshot is hardly a portrait per se, yet this casual, from-the-hip imagery is an example of the artist’s work: from behind, awkwardly cropped, unposed, and unabashed. It is the essence of a contemporary aesthetic, and although he has been doing this for quite some time, the unconventionality always looks fresh.
Other revelations come from the dissonance of various works’ placement. One wall, for example, has portraits by artists separated by styles and decades, such as George Bellows, Robert De Niro Sr., James Carroll Beckwith, David Burliuk, Richard Estes, and Frederick Kiesler. They can be classically inspired or more eccentric takes on portraiture.
The exhibit often stretches the limits of the definition of portraiture, too, to include things like a Jim Dine robe from 1977 that he calls a “Self-Portrait,” Ray Johnson’s “Marianne Moore’s Hat,” from 1973, and a work by Larry Rivers that has figures but is not necessarily about portraiture.
Rivers has a good amount of real estate in the show, maybe not as much as Fairfield Porter, but a respectable showing, nonetheless. It is a testament to Rivers’s increasing importance within the modern art canon and to the space now being made to include him after years of ostracism for his defiance of the strictures of nonrepresentational art imposed midcentury. This collection also recognizes his importance and longevity as a Southampton-based artist.
Chuck Close has a good amount of work on view as well, with three of his “heads” represented. Although the artist does not consider himself a portraitist, his efforts to disembody his subjects and his referring to the works as heads does little to dissociate the faces from those portrayed.
Two works by William King remind us that this artist can and should be taken more seriously than his charming and often cheerful work usually is by museums. A portrait bust, “Shirley,” from 1953 and in bronze, reveals a refined and minimal approach to a fine-featured, cat-like face. In another vitrine, Joe Fig recreates in sculpture famous Hans Namuth stills and film of Jackson Pollock in action — an original take on hijacking an iconic series.
A Jean-Luc Mylayne photograph is a puzzle. The only figurative elements in the shot are two legs, presumably male, in jeans tucked into cowboy boots. They stand off to the side in a barren Western landscape, with a building keeping the background close and even claustrophobic, given the notion we have of the open landscape of the West. Rather than something human, the legs look more like disembodied abstractions. Everything in the image seems robbed of its meaning and all associations, a most abstract product of a realistic medium.
Its presence in the show seems unrelated to even the most subversive approaches taken here. Perhaps that is why it is tucked in toward the back, easily missed as an afterthought.
The show is up through Nov. 27.