Given that some might say the outside of the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill exudes all the charm of an East German tractor factory, it’s remarkably easy to forget the extraordinary permanent collection that lies within its concrete walls.Now comprising more than 2,600 works, ranging from early 19th century landscape paintings to American Impressionism and into the 20th and 21st centuries, a relative trifle of this profusion of aesthetic riches is currently on display in an exhibit titled “The Permanent Collection: Connections and Context.” More than 70 works are thematically arranged in seven of the museum’s galleries, with a focus on recent acquisitions, as well as works by those artists new to the permanent collection.
While the stated 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, the two works in the first area of the exhibit bear immediate connections in, at least, their titles—both signify Biblical references—and 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 shapes. Using layered canvases 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’s “Marden” (acrylic on canvas, 1975). 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 is a nod to 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 conjures a dramatic sense of perspectival depth within the work itself. Interestingly, this mix of colors and abstract calligraphic imagery reflects a return to motifs and approaches that were hallmarks of the artist’s earlier works from the 1940s.
Nearby, also of interest is Donald Sultan’s “The Cantaloupe Pickers” (tar and plaster on vinyl composite tile on Masonite, 1983), which has an 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 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, “Plan for the White City” (oil and sand on canvas, 1950), that illustrates the artist’s abilities in merging the expressive energy of abstract expressionism with an authoritative 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 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 swirls that spin and eddy around the playfully stolid geometric shapes 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.
Works by Keith Sonnier and Dan Flavin express their particular use of light as a medium in and of itself. A series of works on paper by James Brooks 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 are nothing short of remarkable in their attention to minute detail.
The exhibition “The Permanent Collection: Connections and Context” will remain on view through November 2016 at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill. For more information, visit parrishart.org.