The Parrish: Close and Closer

Parrish Art Museum
“People are looking for a beacon, a place to go and be together.” Suddenly Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum, breaks off her train of thought. “You know what’s interesting? There’s the road. But you can’t hear it.”

She’s right. We’re sitting on the museum’s massive back terrace, which faces Montauk Highway, and though the summer Hamptons traffic is visible, the only sounds we hear come from the meadow between us and the road. The Parrish has many such marvels of design thanks to the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the team behind the magical Tate Modern in London. Though thoroughly modern, the barn-like structure sits naturally in the prairie landscape. “It seems very big because it’s 614 feet long, but it’s only 100 feet wide,” Sultan says in regard to the impression the museum gives. “It’s also so flat here and we have 14 acres of property, so the building has quite a commanding presence. People did express a lot of doubts because it looks a bit foreboding, but even those who weren’t sure about the outside fall in love with the building when they come inside because the interior spaces are warm, welcoming, and perfect for art.”

The interior resembles an idealized version of a studio, but with the interactivity of a public gallery. “It’s really intended to give you the feeling that you’re looking at work as it’s being made or just finished,” explains Sultan. “I certainly don’t believe in the supremacy of the art object. I agree that a picture can be transformative or an art experience can be transformative—I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t. But I also feel very strongly that the real transformation is understanding how that comes about. What is creativity? How does somebody go from the idea to the object? Then how is that communicated to the viewer, and how can that story be life changing?”

Those concepts are reflected in the building’s layout: the bones of the structure are left showing to allow visitors to see how the building was put together and get a sense of the minds that designed it and the hands that created it. The rough walls ripple with man-made grooves, electrical wires peek out from corners, and even the sprinkler system is open for display. The rooms are illuminated by natural light, as preferred by artists for their studios (and eschewed by galleries for being too uncontrollable). Thus the artwork, rather than attracting manufactured attention from a spotlight, pulls in the viewer more naturally.

Which, when you have the first-ever survey of Chuck Close’s photographs, is pretty easy. This summer, the Parrish curated a buzzed-about exhibit showing how one of the most important figures in contemporary art stretched the boundaries of photography. But despite Close’s international reputation, Sultan emphasizes that he fits into the Parrish’s collection of local artists. “Chuck is a part of this community. He lived out here; he had a studio in Bridgehampton up until about four years ago. He’s very active in the contemporary community out here, lots of friends, salons, talks.” In fact, the two are good friends—it was Close who recommended Sultan to the Parrish board when they were looking for a new director.

Last year, Sultan realized that though every painting Close does starts with a photograph, no gallery had ever done a survey exclusively of his work in photography. “Chuck Close Photographs” remedies that with 90 images that span from 1964 to the present, ranging from black and white portraits to the composite Polaroid images familiar to fans of his painting. The collection gives depth to our understanding of Close’s view of the world, fulfilling Sultan’s mission to illuminate the creative process. “We like to look into why artists make the decisions that they make and do the things that they do.”

There are no forced façades at the Parrish. “It’s about sharing ideas and scholarship, illuminating the creative process, making that mysterious creativity accessible to people when they walk in,” Sultan declares. She sees the museum as a cultural bastion in the East End. “It’s a place where people can come and share, be inspired by each other, and be a part of the community. It’s really not any more complicated than that. People want to engage.”