Room for Art to Shine at New Parrish

Where have these paintings and sculptures been all of our lives?
Malcolm Morley is featured in an opening show at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill Christopher French/Parrish Art Museum

   While the new, state-of-the-art Parrish Art Museum building designed by an international architectural powerhouse firm is attracting much of the attention, what really stands out in the Water Mill museum is the art.
    Have we seen it all before? Yes and resoundingly no. Tucked away in themed shows in the charming, but in some ways utterly inappropriate setting on Job’s Lane in Southampton Village, some first-rate examples of 20th and even 19th-century art in the Parrish’s permanent collection have been hiding in plain sight for years. Some are old friends, but it’s like watching the high school wallflower return junior year in full bloom, braces and glasses gone, pigtails exchanged for a shiny long mane. Where have these paintings and sculptures been all of our lives? In addition to our old friends glamorized by their new surroundings, the Parrish has been the recipient of a bounty of new gifts, which it has also put on display.
    The new exhibition space takes up 12,200 of the building’s total 34,000 square feet, with 7,600 square feet dedicated to the permanent collection. The rest is for temporary shows, now occupied by work by Malcolm Morley, a British-born artist who lives in Brookhaven.
    Mr. Morley’s art of action and saturated color fills the new rooms with light and heat. The two show-stopping works are his model of a World War I plane that appears to have flown into a wall and a motocross rider jumping through a ring of fire. That most of the works on view are made largely of paper only heightens their drama. Children will no doubt find a lot to marvel at along with the adults who bring them.
    The show is substantial enough to merit a separate future review. The same can be said for the myriad separate rooms that make up the permanent collection installation. For now, one word will suffice. Wow.
    The larger rooms that make up the bulk of the space near the entrance provide space for B-I-G works. There is enough space to fit them on the wall with plenty of eye wash between them, allowing their mass to exist in proportion and relation to their neighbors in an engaged conversation, overseen by Alicia Longwell, the Parrish’s head curator. Billy Sullivan’s playful beach brightness chats with Eric Fischl’s overly formal dark moodiness. Alan Shields’s scraps and voids provide a foil for Richmond Burton’s dotty horror vaccui. With soaring ceilings and monumentality all around, a more than 10-foot-high John Chamberlain sculpture looks merely large, but no less significant.
    Easel-sized paintings and older works receive more intimate spaces. There are landscape paintings in “American Views” by well-known artists and those less so. Jennifer Barlett, Frederick Childe Hassam, Fairfield Porter, and many others make up the former group. William Stanley Haseltine, Theodore Robinson, and Samuel Colman are examples of the latter. All are in fine company, however, and some of the earlier works look surprisingly modern next to their more contemporary cousins.
    The galleries devoted to individual artists are well-executed showcases, but do point out some weaknesses. Chase’s interior portraits have a claustrophobic, gas-lit darkness to them compared to his light-filled Shinnecock landscapes. Fairfield Porter’s work looks both luminous and muddy depending on where it was painted and the subject matter. Esteban Vicente, also given a solo room, once again looks as worthy of reappraisal as he did in some recent shows at the Parrish and New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, but not all works are created equal.
    Highlighted in this way, the collection, drawn from some 2,600 works in total, looks mostly first-rate, but some important representatives are missing from the East End story the museum is attempting to tell. In some ways the shows can be seen as an advertisement for donations that the Parrish lacks, something the museum acknowledges in its show of recent acquisitions titled “Building a Collection.”
    The essentials of the new space were outlined in The Star in September, days before the staff prepared to move in. Sculptural in nature, it is built of concrete, aluminum, steel, wood, and glass. The exterior walls are molded concrete, which gently undulates outward toward the base to form a human-scaled bench that runs the length of the building on both sides. The aluminum roof gives the design a hard-edged, industrial feeling, and the glass a bit of transparency and evanescence in the midst of all this mass and solidity.
    Inside, visitors see the unfinished plywood ceiling and beams. Walls are white, doors are black.  The poured concrete floors have the color and texture of water-washed sand.
    Herzog and de Meuron, the firm that designed the building, has also designed significant art spaces such as the Tate Modern in London, the Walker Art Center Expansion in Minneapolis, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They are currently working on a restoration and redesign of the Park Avenue Armory into a multifunction arts space. The firm is known for its unique take on museum design and its sensitivity to site and place.
    For this project in particular, it was engaged by the lifestyles and work practices of a vibrant artistic community, which began here as early as the 19th century with artists such as William Merritt Chase and Thomas Moran, up through the heyday of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and today’s diverse mix of old, established, young, and struggling artists and artisans drawn by the light and legends of these storied shores.
    The first design the architects devised was a literal interpretation of these artists’ studios, a series of small, interconnected structures that mimicked the style of those buildings, which the architects saw first-hand through tours provided by the museum. When the 60,000-square-foot original design outstripped the potential of the museum’s capital campaign, the firm reconsidered the project and came up with the present design.
    The current project is the former one’s exact opposite in many ways, linear and structured in the way that the former was rambling and organic. However, the plan’s dedication to incorporating the natural light of this setting remains the same. It is a feature that may work better in theory than practice. Many naysayers have noted that the florescent bulbs the museum is using to buttress the natural light on overcast days and in the evening can make the artwork suffer. Opening in the late fall cannot help matters for those who find this a problem. Having only seen the rooms under sunny conditions around midday, I still think the underlying theory is sound, particularly when most people will likely see the museum in the summer months during the sun’s peak performance.
    Will the new space attract to the museum top-notch examples from this area’s most noteworthy denizens? The lack of a Jackson Pollock or Roy Lichtenstein, and only a late Willem de Kooning, highlight some significant gaps (or omissions if there are some significant examples in the collection). 
    The fact that works by de Kooning, Pollock, Lichtenstein, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky, Robert Motherwell, and Andy Warhol continue to attract huge sums at auctions such as Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale last week, where a 1951 Pollock sold for more than $40 million, make such acquisitions even more challenging.
    Have the architects, in concert with the museum’s administration, produced a space that merits such gifts of the world-class artwork that originated here? Time will tell, but from first glance, I would aver that they are on their way.