Given that some might say that the outside of the Parrish Museum in Water Mill exudes all the charm of an East German tractor factory, its remarkably easy to forget the extraordinary permanent collection that lies within its concrete walls.
Now consisting of over 2,600 works ranging from early nineteenth-century landscape paintings through American Impressionism and into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, a relative trifle of this profusion of aesthetic riches is currently on display in an exhibit titled The Permanent Collection: Connections and Context. Consisting of over 70 works arranged thematically in 7 of the museum’s galleries, the exhibition focus’ on recent acquisitions as well as works by those artists that are new to the permanent collection.
While the stated curatorial curatorial intent is to emphasize relationships between particular works on display, I confess that at times I found some of the associations somewhat indistinct and difficult to immediately discern. Having said that, however, the two works in the first area of the exhibit that bear immediate connections in at least their titles (both apparently signify biblical references) are also two of the standout works in the exhibition as a whole.
Dorothea Rockburne’s Capernaum Gate (oil and gold leaf on gessoed linen, 1984), which I assume refers to the town in Galilee that was the home to St. Peter and not the apartment complex in San Antonio, Texas with the same name, succinctly reflects this artist’s use of mathematical relationships between colors and and shapes. Using layered canvas’ to conjure an abstract sensation of depth and distance, this effect is accentuated by the echoes that resonate from Ms. Rockburne’s confident juxtaposition of both symmetrical geometric configurations and their colors.
The use of geometric imagery also plays a significant role in James Brooks’ Marden (acrylic on canvas, 1975), in which the artist’s signature use of staining the canvas with colors resembling amorphic organic shapes float weightlessly over a delicate yet powerfully assertive white triangle. While the title apparently references the son of a Mesopotamian king mentioned in the Book of Genesis (Mesopotamia being what the painting’s pyramidal image may allude to), the introduction of the linear shape also serves to conjure a dramatic sense of perspectival depth within the work itself. Interestingly, this mix of colors and abstract calligraphical imagery reflects an interesting return to motifs and approaches that were hallmarks of the artist’s earlier works from the 1940’s.
Nearby, also of interest is Donald Sultan’s The Cantaloupe Pickers (tar and plaster on vinyl composite tile on Masonite, 1983) which has an interesting agrarian sensibility that’s gently reminiscent of both Robert Gwathmey and Ben Shahn while Dan Christensen’s Moondowner (enamel and acrylic on canvas, 1970) is emblematic of this artist’s deft understanding of the powers of lyrical abstract impulses.
Non-objectivity in painting is also the theme of another area of the exhibit titled Inscape-The Inner Nature of Things in which viewers are asked to ponder the question of whether “meaning can reside in abstraction” (viewers for whom the answer is ‘no’ should skip this section entirely and just move on to the gallery featuring 19th and 20th century landscapes). They would, however, miss a wonderful Perle Fine painting entitled Plan for the White City (oil and and on canvas, 1950) that illustrates the artist’s abilities in merging the expressive energy of abstract expressionism with an authoritative a sense of orchestrated harmony.
John Ferren’s New York Summer Landscape (oil on orlon, 1953) is also of note for the manner he uses gestural elements balanced with an assertive use of negative space to create a persistent sense of rhythmic movement within the composition. A similar feeling of motion is also apparent in Louisa Chase’s Untitled (oil on canvas, 1988), the sensation accentuated by the contrasts generated by Ms. Chase’s use of wildly expressive calligraphic swirls that spin and eddy around the playfully stolid geometric shapes that are placed within the picture plane.
By contrast, Mary Heilman’s Narrow Lane #3 (oil on canvas, 2001) and Raymond Parker’s Untitled (oil on canvas, 1962) use a more rigid compositional framework to institute a measure of control while still allowing the vagaries of chance and accident to impact the works’ direction. This introduces the physicality of structure itself as a dominant component, yet doesn’t undercut the atmosphere of meditative spontaneity that resonates throughout each work.
Also of particular note on display are works by Keith Sonnier and Dan Flavin that express their particular use of light as a medium in and of itself, a series of works on paper by James Brooks that illustrates the artist’s use of impulse and improvisation in the process of creativity, and scale models of April Gornik and Eric Fischl’s studios by Joe Fig that are nothing short of remarkable in their attention to minute detail.
The exhibition The Permanent Collection: Connections and Context is on display at the Parrish Museum in Southampton through November 2016.