First, there was the light.
"William Merritt Chase came out here because of the light," says Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum. Next weekend, the Parrish opens Long Island's first new art museum in 40 years. And certainly the brightest and grandest.
"There's a clarity to the light in the Hamptons," adds deputy director Anke Jackson. The sun conspires with reflective water on both sides of the land to create brilliance.
In 1891, Chase founded the first major plein-air painting school in America at Shinnecock Hills, a long five-iron golf shot from the new Water Mill museum that will permanently display his art and that of others who followed. More than 2,600 artworks comprise the Parrish collection, which mostly languished in vaults at the museum's former Jobs Lane location in Southampton Village.
"Other artists came to the Hamptons because Chase did," Sultan says, proceeding through the South Fork's art lineage. "And it continued with Fairfield Porter and Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock, who also came here because of the light. And their contemporaries followed."
In the planning for more than seven years and under construction since July 2010, the $26.2-million museum in Water Mill -- built with private funds -- triples the gallery space for art over that of Jobs Lane.
"There are skylights in every room except the restrooms," says Sultan. "Just since we've been talking" -- about 10 minutes -- "the light has changed three times," she says while strolling through the Porter gallery.
Early on, natural light became a priority for the architects who designed the 34,400-square-foot museum along the lines of a Long Island potato barn. "We felt it was very important to hear the artist's voice," says Ascan Merganthaler, who headed the Parrish project for Herzog & de Meuron. "We visited many local artists in their studios and discussed their working space, the artists' community and what they liked about working on the East End of Long Island. These dialogues inspired our concept."
Visiting the Parrish just days after the staff moved in and decisions were rendered on which paintings go on which walls was to experience an oddly serene exercise in controlled chaos. Although no lights were turned on inside the galleries, viewing conditions were perfect, thanks to the autumn afternoon sun streaming through the skylights.
"We're able to show art under the conditions in which it was created," Sultan says.
The light again
It's what made the Hamptons an art colony back when Americans had an inferiority complex about their indigenous culture. If it wasn't by a dead European composer, for instance, it wasn't classical music.
The founder and ultimate namesake of the Parrish was a patron of Chase, selling the artist a Shinnecock Hills homestead after the Long Island Rail Road was extended to Southampton. But when Samuel Longstreth Parrish opened the Art Museum of Southampton in 1898, he exhibited copies of Greek, Roman and British sculptures and tapestries.
Following Parrish's death in 1932, Rebecca Bolling Littlejohn took over leadership of the museum, renamed in its founder's honor, and shifted emphasis to East End art. Chase became and remains a major focus of the Parrish collection.
"Chase was a wonderful painter and teacher," says curator Alicia Longwell, "but also a marketer. He wanted to put American painters front and center." For a time, he painted scenes similar to popular works by French artists, she said, pointing to "Park in Brooklyn," which hangs next to a Parrish treasure, "The Bayberry Bush," bathed in Shinnecock Hills sunlight.
What is it about the light? Malcolm Morley, the Bellport artist whose retrospective is the new Parrish's first special exhibit, quotes a master: "Matisse said light should cause an art movement in painting, and in relation to the East End, it happened with Abstract Expressionism" -- a successor to Chase's American Expressionism.
What you'll see
Seven galleries covering 7,600 square feet are devoted to the permanent collection. Three focus on individual artists: "William Merritt Chase: A Life in Art," "Fairfield Porter: Modern American Master" and "Esteban Vicente: Portrait of an Artist." The "Collective Conversations" gallery offers a visual dialogue among artists representing Abstract Expressionist, Figurative and Pop schools of painting, including Willem de Kooning and Dan Flavin.
"Look and Look Again: Contemporary Observation" brings living artists into the conversation, among them Ross Bleckner, Chuck Close, April Gornik and Donald Sultan. "American Views: Artists at Home and Abroad" exhibits works by Childe Hassan, Jane Freilicher and Jane Wilson, while "Selected Recent Acquisitions: Building a Collection" draws attention to newly acquired works by Louise Nevelson, Dorothea Rockburne and Keith Sonnier.
Art will rotate in the permanent galleries every few months. "There'll always be something new to see," Sultan promises.
Morley's "Painting, Paper, Process" brings the two-gallery special exhibition space into eye-popping focus with watercolors as well as free-standing and three-dimensional works you'd never guess were paper-constructed.
A new feature, the "Platform Series" organized by special projects curator Andrea Grover makes use of the museum's other spaces, including the glass-framed lobby and the Lichtenstein Theatre -- Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's widow Dorothy is its benefactor -- where you can see performances, lectures or films. The inaugural "Platform" artist, Hope Sandrow, is creating temporary installations under the theme "Genius Loci (the prevailing spirit of a place)."
"We're thinking of the whole space with this series," says Grover, particularly next spring and summer when outdoor amenities, including a large deck adjoining the cafe, beckon with fresh air and a view of the undulating, breeze-blown grasses.
"It will be a meadow, not a lawn," says Jackson.
The Parrish's indoor/outdoor cafe will serve light fare and beverages, including beer and wine. The museum shop, no longer in two separate rooms as at Jobs Lane, will carry Fair Trade crafts, including jewelry and toys, permanent-collection prints and art books.
"We expect people to come and stay and not want to leave," says Sultan, noting that her staff already tends to linger. "And it's not just that we have a lot of work before the opening."
Looking around, an observer can only conclude that the work, the challenge, must have something to do with it.
But then there's that light. There's something airy and wake-up-sleepy-head about walking through this museum.
You can almost see William Merritt Chase conducting a plein-air class in the meadow. Surely, someone will lead such an outing. All they need to do is step outside from the art classroom. With its own skylight, of course.
Parrish spotlights 3 locals artists
Three locals have works that will be featured in the new Parrish Art Museum's opening festivities:
MALCOLM MORLEY, Bellport
"Painting, Paper, Process," is the inaugural special exhibit at the new museum. Morley, 81, is a native of Britain who moved to New York in the 1960s and has lived and worked in Bellport since 1983. "I work in two and three dimensions. When one of my watercolors inspires an oil painting, it is not only the image but also the transparent nature of the watercolor medium I bring to the oil painting," he says. "My paper models are both sculpture in themselves and inspiration for image-making."
HOPE SANDROW, Shinnecock Hills
Sandrow's "Genius Loci (the prevailing spirit of a place)" inaugurates the new Parrish's "Platform" series by creating a multimedia experience that traces the history of the land on which the museum was built. By examining land records, Sandrow, who lives on a Shinnecock Hills property neighboring the former William Merritt Chase homestead, learned that the 14-acre museum property has been farmed ever since it was taken from the Shinnecocks by English settlers in 1660. The performance, video, sculpture, photography and mixed-media presentations can be seen through Jan. 13, plus there will be sunscope and nightscope sky viewing during the opening weekend.
NELL SHAW COHEN, Sag Harbor
Cohen was inspired to create "Watercolors," a chamber music piece, by four Charles Burchfield paintings, one of which is in the Parrish collection: "Glory of Spring (Radiant Spring)." The Chelsea Quintet -- flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn -- will perform the four-movement piece (one for each painting) as images of the art are projected on a 15-foot-wide screen. "Paintings create an atmosphere -- some call it a transporting experience -- that suggests music," she says. Cohen, 24, viewed each watercolor in a recent Whitney Museum exhibition. "Watercolors" will be performed in two opening day matinee concerts.
Admission to the Parrish Art Museum is free throughout the open-house weekend, Nov. 10-12. Among the events planned:
* JOSHUA LIGHT SHOW Nick Hallett on vocals and Zach Layton on guitar present an original light show created for the opening; 6 p.m. Friday, Lichtenstein Theatre. Admission is $15.
* WATERCOLORS The Chelsea Quintet plays a chamber music piece written by Sag Harbor native Nell Shaw Cohen, inspired by four Charles Burchfield paintings; 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lichtenstein Theatre. Admission is free.
* A FALSE SENSE OF DARKNESS Reunited in 2010, Gray plays surrealist music; 6 p.m. Saturday. Licthenstein Theatre. $15.
* FAMILY FALL FESTIVAL A “BubbleMania!” show and art-related activities; 1-5 p.m. next Sunday, Lichtenstein and other locations (including outdoors, if weather allows). Free.